Best of Philly 2005: Cheesesteak Nation

Who makes the best Philly cheesesteak outside Philly? After seven days and 8,000 miles, our man returns with an answer

It wasn’t a very tough job, and nobody had to do it.

It’s the evening of Thursday, June 16th, and I’m sitting in the last row of a hang-from-the-rafters-full US Air flight from Tampa home to Philly, trying to sort out the weirdnesses I’ve seen and read and tasted and been bombarded with as part of my task, the latest addition to Philadelphia magazine’s history of stunt journalism. In the past six days, I have gotten into a footrace with a feral seagull. I have been mistaken for an industrial spy. I have learned that Maxim magazine—when not expounding on the cultural contributions of Jessica Alba—doesn’t know what the hell it’s talking about. (I have not exactly been shocked by this realization.) I have taken the world’s most expensive cab ride. I have consumed more fried meat than anybody outside the PR department of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association could possibly think is good for you, and I have compiled an expense report that would make Tyco board members think twice about the status of my employment.

My assignment was as follows: From June 10th through June 16th, I crisscrossed the country, visiting more than 10 metropolises and eating damn near two dozen sandwiches at joints known for their steaks, to determine the city that can claim to be home to the best Philly cheesesteak outside of Philadelphia.
No, this job doesn’t suck.

A bit of an explanation is perhaps in order. Last year, a writer at this magazine who shall remain nameless (Richard Rys) was sent to scour the Delaware Valley in search of the area’s best cheesesteak. To make the task more interesting, the brain trust that runs this publication decided he should taste-test all the vying sandwiches in 30 days. Rys did so, wrote the story, and even got his mug in the mag. That’s when the trouble began. According to the brain trust, the story generated a lot of “buzz,” which is editor-speak for “My barber liked it.” So this year, in order to expand Philly Mag’s dominance of the cheesesteak beat, the editors came up with an even more trivial idea: A writer should fly around the country to find the best cheese-steaks away from home.
Ottumwa, here we come!

The obvious choice for this assignment was the writer who started the whole thing. But that nameless coward (e-mail: rrys@phillymag.com) claimed he had a “real” story to work on. Apparently, so did every other writer on the Eastern Seaboard with any knowledge of food, travel or Philly iconography, which is how the following travelog/diary/barely coherent rant came to be. Enjoy.

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