Among the scores of Best of Philly winners, perhaps the most coveted title is “Best Cheesesteak.” For better or worse, the cheesesteak is inexorably linked to the identity of this city. Like Rocky, it's a source of civic pride (though it would make for a lousy statue in front of the Spectrum). Like Billy Penn atop City Hall, it looms large above our lives, regardless of one's religion, ethnicity, or body-fat percentage. And like Tastykakes and soft pretzels, once you've had the real thing, you pity the rest of the nation for what it's missing. This year, for the first time in this magazine's history, it was decided that we would send some poor slob on the ultimate cheesesteak safari. One man, 34 days, 50 cheesesteaks.
The poor slob? Me, of course.
The rules are simple: Over the next several weeks, I'll visit 50 cheesesteak places in Philly and the suburbs — spots recommended by friends, relatives and co-workers, and random choices inspired by the phone book. At each joint, I'll order a cheesesteak with American cheese and nothing else. This leaves only the three essential elements to any good steak — meat (judged on taste and quality), cheese (judged on amount and thorough distribution throughout the sandwich), and the roll (freshness, consistency, proper meat-to-bread ratio). A great steak shouldn't have to hide behind onions or condiments. Think Heidi Klum without the lacy bra and thong would look like Joan Rivers? So goes the cheesesteak.
What follows are some high (and low) points from my cheesesteak diary. For my complete rankings, along with this year's Best of Philly winner, see below. If you don't agree with my opinions, well, go out and knock back 50 yourself, and we'll talk while we're prepping for our triple bypasses.
Tony Jr.'s, 118 South 18th Street. It all starts with the roll, which shouldn't be so thick that it overwhelms the meat, and should be soft, yet firm enough to withstand sogginess. The bread at Tony Jr.'s is on the thin side, but works fine. There's an ample amount of cheese. (Should be enough that you don't need to order extra unless you have some kind of dairy fetish.) The meat, however — cut up in large chunks — is the real problem here, since it tastes like corrugated cardboard. Curious, I open up the sandwich for a visual inspection. Fatty. Gray. Not so appetizing. Day one, and already I've learned a valuable lesson: Never, ever look at the inside of a cheesesteak.
Rating (out of five clogged arteries, with five being a steak worth a heart attack): 2
Lazaro's, 1743 South Street. According to its ads, Lazaro's cheesesteaks are not only the biggest (18 inches long), but “famous.” I appreciate a little celebrity with my sustenance, so I call and order a half, which is still a solid nine inches of sweet, sweet pain. Soft roll, maybe a bit too much so — halfway through, it's flattened out. The steak is diced nicely, but I detect a subtle, unidentifiable spice that I don't enjoy. Skip the onion rings here, which are saltier than a boatload of longshoremen. Note to self — from now on, no sides. Stay on message.
Jim & Tim's, the lunch truck at 19th and Market. It's been less than a week, and sloth is already setting in — this cart is across the street from the office. Neither of the two gentlemen who prepare my lunch looks like a Jim or a Tim, but ethnicity is no issue here: Cheesesteaks know no prejudice. (Perhaps that's a lesson for us all.) A little light on meat, and the roll deflates like the Eagles' Super Bowl hopes each January. For three bucks, it ain't half bad. But this is the big leagues, fellas, and you're like the Riversharks playing the Yankees. Beef up in the off-season.
Geno's Steaks, 1219 South 9th Street. Joined by my cousin, who was born and raised in the Northeast and is a seasoned cheesesteak enthusiast, I head for Mecca — the corner of 9th and Passyunk. We step up to the legendary Geno's and order two American wit'out. Decent amount of cheese. Good roll — a little on the thin side, but good. The meat is another story. Sliced into long, thick strips, it's riddled with pockets and veins of fat. Upon closer inspection, it also contains a rainbow of colors from brown to gray. Oddly enough, the taste isn't bad, proving that this is not a beauty contest (and that the only proper way to eat any cheesesteak is with your eyes closed).
Pat's King of Steaks, 1237 East Passyunk Avenue. We head across the street with contraband in hand (sodas from Geno's, a faux pas punishable by death). Perhaps that's why the cheese distribution on my sandwich makes me think Stevie Wonder is working dairy duty on the grill line. It's spotty, leaving some regions bare. Like Geno's, a good roll. Also like the competition, a frightening amount of fat lurking in the meat.
Pie In The Sky, 102 East Lancaster Ave-nue, Wayne. Like they know from cheese-steaks in Wayne, right? News flash — they make a good one out in these parts. The roll is an oddly pleasing thing, thin but not flat, soft but not limp. Tasty meat. Artfully blended cheese that doesn't drip, but shrouds the chopped steak like a warm, gooey blanket. Paranoia sets in when I realize I've trashed two South Philly icons and am admiring some uppity Main Line joint. As I drive away, I suspect I'm being tailed by a guy in a Lincoln with an Italian horn hanging from his rearview mirror.
Wurst House, 4301 Baltimore Avenue. If this were chopped up any finer, it would be a steak shake. Yet still, somehow, there are gristly veins floating around in the mix. Maybe it's this subpar entry, maybe it's the formidable bowel movements, but suddenly I'm dreading tomorrow's lunchtime. Like a rock star whose passion for music is crushed by life on the road, I've begun to hate the thing I love. If only I had a tour bus. Or groupies.
Jim's Steaks, 400 South Street. The roll looks like it just wandered in off the set of a Sally Struthers infomercial, the meat is only moderately chopped, and the cheese is barely melted. Yet the damn thing is inexplicably good. It's a mystery. Perhaps they spiked my birch beer. How could such primitive construction produce such a marvel? The Stonehenge of cheesesteaks.
Cobblestone Grill of Elfreth's Alley, main concourse behind section 309, Citizens Bank Park. One wonders if Phils general manager Ed Wade sat in a luxury box, looked down upon the working stiffs in cheap seats below, and declared, “Let them eat shit.” Crusty, impenetrable roll. Meat that tastes like it's from the flanks of a rat who escaped the Vet implosion.
Smith & Wollensky, 210 West Rittenhouse Square. Before I bit into this steak fit for a king — chopped filet mignon and a $15 price tag — I never thought you could pack too much gooey dairy goodness into one sandwich. I'm wrong. The tasty beef and healthy roll are no match for an ocean of yellow American.
Steve's Prince of Steaks, 7200 Bustleton Avenue. Quite an unusual presentation — long slabs of meat laid out on top of each other on a particularly lengthy roll. But it has an odd aftertaste, like some sort of cleaning agent has crossed its path. The cheese is melted to liquid form, and shoots off the roll onto my hands. And my face. And my lap. Bib required.
Max's Steaks, 3653 Germantown Avenue. I've started to notice that fewer and fewer cooks take a split second to slice their sandwiches in half. A request: If it's too small to be cut into halves, start making them bigger. And if it's already big, do a guy a solid and take a knife to it. Props to Max's for splitting up this bear. The steak's a little dry, and the cheese isn't thoroughly integrated. But it's got a certain tang that's either unique to Max's meat or just left over from whatever got grilled up beforehand. Enjoyable, but after three steaks in one day, I can feel my reflexes slowing down. Thankfully, in the state of Pennsylvania there's no cholesterol limit for operating a motor vehicle.
Cosmi's Deli, 1501 South 8th Street. Just around the corner from Pat's and Geno's sits the real king of steaks. These guys do it right. Fresh roll with a choice of plain or seeded (I opt for the former), meat chopped with a samurai's precision, melted cheese embracing each piece like Mama giving Raj a bear hug on What's Happening? A piece of beef gets lodged between my molars, and I don't want it to leave. That's a damn good sandwich.
Fresh Works, 407 Baltimore Pike, Morton. Sure, it's a chain, but they've got this cheesesteak thing down pat. The bread has a personality and taste all its own — baked fresh each day, with a hint of sourdough or something fancy-schmancy like that. My only critique is that it's a little flat — could use some more meat in there to fill out the roll. Like a power-lifter benching 600 pounds when you know he's got 700 in him. Max it out, baby.
LaSpada's, 1002 MacDade Boulevard, Milmont Park. A strange bird, this one. Inside, the meat is soaked with cheese. Outside, a little dry. The roll is mushy along the spine, devastated by a combo of gooey American and good ol' grill grease. Not in good shape, but still likable. The John Goodman of cheesesteaks.
Leo's, 1403 Chester Pike, Folcroft. On looks alone, this steak should kick ass — well packed, fresh roll. But the cheese isn't properly integrated. Meat, not so delicious. Great to stare at, but once you get to know it, it's kinda strange. A lot like Angelina Jolie.
Meglio, 25 Swamp Road, Newtown. I'm well past the halfway point of my 50-steak quest, and while regular trips to the gym have kept my love handles under control, I fear my organs are conspiring against me. Yet, strangely, as sick as I am of cheese-
steaks, after about 24 hours of rest, I'm ready for more greasy punishment. Like many of its brethren, Meglio's version suffers from Spinal American Abnormality Disease (or SAAD) — a paralyzing affliction identified by plenty of cheese along the spine of the sandwich, with outside edges as barren as Sea Isle City in February.
Swann Lounge at Four Seasons, 1 Logan Place. Let me preface this by saying that my lunch at the elegant Four Seasons today is not the jacket-and-tie affair you'd imagine Philly Mag would arrange, but rather a khakis-and-polo-tee affront to everything the swanky Four Seasons stands for. I figure this is appropriate, since the menu item in question — a cheesesteak spring roll — is the culinary equivalent of flipping me and cheesesteak purists everywhere the bird. It arrives on a porcelain boat with a pool of ketchup and fries: four dainty little spring rolls (costing $16), each the size of one bite's worth of a regular steak sandwich, each wrapped in paper-thin fried crust. There's no way to eat these things without your pinky finger popping out like you're sipping a cosmo. No grease. And it's made by a friggin' four-star hotel. But you know, this is good. Meat, cheese distribution — perfect. Still — no roll! How can this compete? Why must the cheesesteak gods make such demands of me, after all I've sacrificed thus far (most notably, free-flowing arteries)? Salvation be damned — I may fry forever on Satan's grill for this, but it's a burden I must bear. I've snuck into the kitchen of the Man, and the Man makes a great cheesesteak spring roll.
Big John's, 1800 Route 70 East, Cherry Hill. New rule — steak should not be so stringy that after consumption, one spends an entire car ride unsuccessfully tongue-wrestling with a piece of meat lodged in one's jaw.
The Originals Italian Pizzeria, 833 West Trenton Avenue, Morrisville. The thin roll hurts what could otherwise be a great sandwich. With some more support, this could win the title. The Allen Iverson of cheesesteaks.
Tony Luke's, 39 East Oregon Avenue. This puppy's got some weight behind it — strips of meat stuffed into a hearty, rugged roll that was built for handling a serious payload. Not overstuffed, yet not overwhelmed by the roll. My only complaint is that for all its mass, it's a little light on cheese. Slap another slice or two on here and you'd achieve South Philly nirvana, but it's still the best of the flat-style sandwiches. A man's meal, worthy of Steve McQueen.
Philly Steak and Hoagie Co., Philadelphia Marketplace, Philadelphia International Airport between B and C terminals. Pity the traveler on a layover at PHL whose only exposure to a Philly cheesesteak is this limp impostor, a completely anonymous roll with about two naked inches on either end. My order — “American, without” — somehow resulted in confusion. “You want a cheese-steak?” replied the counter jockey. Half a point off for cultural ignorance.
Italian Village, 821 West Lancaster Avenue, Downingtown. Something in the particular flavor of this steak just isn't doing it for me. Have I become jaded? Perhaps it's the recent screening of Super Size Me that's fresh in my mind, and the filmmaker's weight gain, jellied liver and stunted sex drive. Maybe it's the stench of meat lingering in my car. Or perhaps it's just the bloating.
Giordanos, 633 East Cypress Street, Kennett Square. Points off for adding a pinch of some bitey steaking spice to the meat — it should stand on its own, folks. If your bare steak doesn't make like a Fourth of July fireworks finale, no amount of bells and whistles will save that charlatan sandwich.
Lee's Hoagie House, 230 North Maple Avenue, Marlton. My only criticism is the roll. It's a little undernourished, but it's fresh, and it gets the job done. The rest is pure cheese-soaked perfection. Great cheese-to-meat-to-bread ratio, not greasy or gristly. South Jersey showing South Philly how it's done.
Nardi's Deli, 201 Haddonfield-Berlin Road, West Berlin. Absolutely crammed with meat. Tons of it. Do not lift without the aid of a spotter.
White House Sub Shop, 2301 Arctic Avenue, Atlantic City. Nothing wrong with this sandwich, but nothing spectacular. The real draw here is eating beneath photos of the Cos, Jerry Lewis and Sinatra (along with sweaty towels from the Chairman of the Board's last A.C. gig, baby). I leave the diner and, as if waking from a dream, realize I'm done. I promptly vow to take a Gandhi-esque two-month cheesesteak sabbatical in hopes of achieving peace in my digestive tract. Unless you're buying. In which case, I'll take one wit'out.
Rating: 2.5 b
5 Clogged Arteries
Cosmi's Deli, 1501 South 8th Street. This year's Best Cheesesteak winner. Spit out whatever you're chewing and grab one of these, pronto.
4.5 Clogged Arteries
Dakota Pizza Co., 333 East Lancaster Avenue, Wynnewood.
Lee's Hoagie House, 230 North Maple Avenue, Marlton.
Swann Lounge at Four Seasons, 1 Logan Place.
Tony Luke's, 39 East Oregon Avenue.
4 Clogged Arteries
Chick's, 906 Township Lane, Cherry Hill.
Chubby's, 5826 Henry Avenue.
Nardi's Deli, 201 Haddonfield-Berlin Road, West Berlin.
Pie in the Sky, 102 East Lancaster Avenue, Wayne.
3.5 Clogged Arteries
Dolce Carini, 1929 Chestnut Street.
Dalessandro's, 600 Wendover Avenue.
Fresh Works, 407 Baltimore Pike, Morton.
Giordanos, 633 East Cypress Street, Kennett Square.
Jim's Steaks, 400 South Street.
John's Roast Pork, Weccacoe and Snyder avenues.
The Peppermill, 813 North Chester Road, West Chester.
3 Clogged Arteries
Chink's Steaks, 6030 Torresdale Avenue.
Italian Kitchen, 521 East Baltimore Pike, Lansdowne.
Italian Village, 821 West Lancaster Avenue, Downingtown.
Lazaro's, 1743 South Street.
Max's Steaks, 3653 Germantown Avenue.
Meglio, 25 Swamp Road, Newtown.
Mama's, 426 Belmont Avenue, Bala Cynwyd.
The Originals Italian Pizzeria, 833 West Trenton Avenue, Morrisville.
Rick's Philly Steaks, Reading Terminal Market, 12th and Arch streets.
Sonny's, 228 Market Street.
2.5 Clogged Arteries
Columbia Park Cafe, Citizens Bank Park.
Garrett Hill, 910 Conestoga Road, Rosemont.
Geno's Steaks, 1219 South 9th Street.
Jim & Tim's, lunch truck at 19th and Market streets.
LaSpada's, 1002 MacDade Boulevard, Milmont Park.
Lou's, 414 East Main Street, Norristown.
Old Towne, 2301 Grays Ferry Avenue.
Slack's Hoagie Shack, 41 Snyder Avenue.
White House Sub Shop, 2301 Arctic Avenue, Atlantic City.
2 Clogged Arteries
Big John's, 1800 Route 70 East, Cherry Hill.
Leo's, 1403 Chester Pike, Folcroft.
Pat's King of Steaks, 1237 East Passyunk Avenue.
Sack O' Subs, 926 Asbury Avenue, Ocean City.
Smith & Wollensky, 210 West Rittenhouse Square
Steve's Prince of Steaks, 7200 Bustleton Avenue
Tony Jr.'s, 118 South 18th Street.
Wurst House, 4301 Baltimore Avenue
1.5 Clogged Arteries
Abner's, 3813 Chestnut Street.
Gianna's Grille, 507 South 6th Street.
Real Pizza, 18 West Avenue, Wayne.
Wachovia Center, lower concourse.
1 Clogged Artery
Crossroads, 1443 Main Street, Hellertown.
.5 Clogged Artery
Philly Steak and Hoagie Co., Philadelphia International Airport.
0 Clogged Arteries
Cobblestone Grill of Elfreth's Alley, Citizens Bank Park.