30 Cheesesteaks to Eat Before You Die
In a city that distinguishes itself by its ’steaks, which sandwiches truly tower over the rest? From the South Philly classics to some creative modern updates (including, yes, a vegan cheesesteak), food critic Jason Sheehan presents his definitive list.
A classic long before Hollywood came calling
There are two ways to start at Max’s, and one way to finish. Going cheesesteak? They do a nice job: chopped steak, lots of cheese, a long line (a scene in Creed was filmed here) that moves quickly unless you get stuck behind tourists. But they also do a plain steak sandwich the neighborhood loves with mayo and occasionally ketchup. Either way, you’ll be walking out with an enormous sandwich. Seriously, go for a half unless you’ve brought backup. And if you’re one of those people who put mayo on a regular cheesesteak? Just … I don’t even know what to say to you right now. 3653 Germantown Avenue, North Philly.
John’s Roast Pork
Don’t let the name fool you
There are a thousand places claiming to be Philly’s best. Many of them are lying. But John’s? Man, they might be lying less than the rest. This place — with its seeded rolls, muffuletta-style hollowing, sweet onions, Whiz-shunning, and almost architectural construction — has brought a scientific rigor to the cheesesteak that shows in every sandwich that comes off the line. Go with the sharp provolone, and if you like a little kick, ask for long hots. 14 East Snyder Avenue, Pennsport.
The cheesesteak for New Philadelphia
The artisanal mind-set has chefs thinking everything is better if you make it yourself. Much of the time, this leads to disaster. But at Woodrow’s, the kitchen set about building the cheese-steak back up again from scratch, shaving their own rib eye, gimmicking up truffled Whiz, even making cherry pepper mayo. And it works, because they’re not reinventing a classic, just adding a little polish to a tried-and-true combination. 630 South Street, Bella Vista.
Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop
A modern shop with historic roots
This place started as a hole-in-the-wall called Chink’s that did only one thing: steak sandwiches, with or without onions. Today, the menu is longer (15 sandwiches, including a vegan cheesesteak), the name has changed, and the inside looks like a quilted-aluminum neighborhood luncheonette. But owner Joe Groh is still using the same recipe from 60-some years ago and knocking out sliced-steak sandwiches on soft rolls, with or without onions, slorked with a generous shot of Whiz. 1 West Girard Avenue, Fishtown, and 6030 Torresdale Avenue, Northeast Philly.
Suburban retro, in all the right ways
It’s got a huge dining room, a long counter, a vintage Pac-Man arcade cabinet in the corner, and signed pictures on the wall from Paul Anka, the Supersuckers, Kenny Rogers and Mr. Tony Danza. Know what they call that ’round these parts? Bona fides, man. This place has been around the block and back again, looks like it hasn’t redecorated since 1981, and turns out a solid roster of ’steaks on crispy bread. The only option here is with onions or without, but if you need anything more than that, you’re too bougie for John’s anyway. 630 Lancaster Avenue, Frazer.
A fan fave, without any flash
When faced with the classic Pat’s-vs.-Geno’s question, most Philadelphians will answer with “Dalessandro’s.” Why? Because it’s the rarest of things: a cheesesteak joint worth leaving your neighborhood for. The basic model here is a work of art — the benchmark against which all other cheesesteaks in Philly (and the world) ought to be judged. But this is also a place to come if your tastes (mushrooms, peppers, pizza steaks) run to the more eclectic. 600 Wendover Street, Roxborough.
One Pound Cheesesteaks
Late-night steaks — the size of your leg
It’s 3 a.m. Do you know where to score a two-foot cheesesteak for $11? Now you do. Just walk up to the window and ask. What you’ll walk away with is a marvel of late-night eating — a massive roll stuffed with meat, cheese, chopped onions, and ketchup on demand. 2661 Kensington Avenue, Kensington.
Gooey Looie’s Deli
An off-the-beaten-path hero
It’s a small place that’s super simple — just a lunch counter inside a grocery store. But it’s worth seeking out, because the ’steaks are made to order and somehow, impossibly, come on bread that’s both crispy and soft. Really, it’s a magic trick that sets this sandwich apart. Plus, the meat has an excellent flavor, as though haunted by generations of onions passing across the grill. 231 McClellan Street, Pennsport.
Hog Island Steaks
A damn good-looking specimen
The menu offers a thousand sandwiches, banking on the history of Hog Island and its tie to the “hoggie.” But the cheesesteak? It gets its own special section, with more than a dozen varieties centered on fresh beef, chopped, thrown on the grill, and turned into a hot-sandwich beauty mixed up with American cheese. There’s also a loaded option with mushrooms, peppers and onions, which tastes like a good version of all the completely wrong “Philly-style” cheesesteaks done everywhere else. 785 Starr Street, Phoenixville.
Spot Gourmet Burgers
The new kid on the block
Want to try something wild? Order the Jawn, a dream-team combo of Philly’s, Camden’s and Pittsburgh’s best ideas, with a little Schmitter thrown in. It’s sliced rib eye and Whiz on a round roll with two kinds of onion (raw red and grilled white), french fries and burger sauce. 2821 West Girard Avenue, Brewerytown.
Rounded, poppy-seeded — but still revered
Bourdain declared it the best cheesesteak around, and if you’ve made the trek across the bridge, you know that this thing is a contender. It has most of the expected elements — sliced beef, onions off the flat grill, American cheese — but the big difference is that Donkey’s serves its ’steaks on a round, seeded kaiser roll. So you gotta ask yourself: What makes a cheesesteak a cheesesteak? Is it the ingredients? The bread? The shape? Or, really, is it something more ineffable — a sense of working-class, eat-it-standing convenience and no-bullshit simplicity? If it’s that, then Donkey’s absolutely serves one of the best cheesesteaks out there. 1223 Haddon Avenue, Camden.
A for-locals joint that goes the extra mile
A neighborhood grocery store opened in 1932 by an Italian stonemason that became one of the best spots in town for cheesesteaks and hoagies? That’s the kind of story Philadelphia loves. And seriously, this place (which caught fire almost 20 years ago and was rebuilt as a bigger, better sandwich shop) knocks out some shockingly good options, mounted on the house’s own rolls, made from the best ingredients they can get their hands on. Better still, they offer two kinds of rolls (seeded and plain) and eight kinds of cheese, including Cooper sharp, which is a little fancy but makes for a fine sandwich. 1501 South 8th Street, East Passyunk.
Overrun with students … for good reason
That an all-halal Middle Eastern restaurant — one crawling with Penn kids — slings one of the best ’steaks around proves there are many sides to our city. The cooks here bang out a big, dumb, satisfying cheesesteak like nobody’s business, but they really shine on the poultry side of things, doing a chicken cheesesteak that can make even purists reconsider their position. 4500 Walnut Street, University City.
Extra love for the extra cheese
Massive, gut-busting sandwiches that run heavy on the cheese (a specialty combo they blend in-house) — that’s the draw. The obvious one, anyway. Because really, it’s the care that goes into the ’steaks that makes the difference. Not pulled from a mountain of chopped meat, these individually made gooey monsters are mounted on squishy rolls. Bring an appetite — or a friend. 426 Belmont Avenue, Bala Cynwyd.
Steve’s Prince of Steaks
A blissfully unchanged OG
Forget the other locations. The original Steve’s has been providing the Northeast with quality ’steaks (and Texas Tommies and chocolate soda) for decades. The sandwiches are big and delicious, and there’s a line of toppings to grab along the stainless by the order windows. There’s not much in the way of seating, and the place remains cash-only, but we wouldn’t want anything to change here anyway. 7200 Bustleton Avenue, Northeast Philly.
A loud, bright, there-when-you-need-it institution
A theory: Geno’s has all that neon so that no matter how rough a night you’ve had, you can still find it at last call. Like, even if you’ve had the kind of night where you’ve stolen a helicopter and are just looking for a place to land it. The inside is filled with headshots and memorabilia, the grills run 24 hours a day, the steaks are sliced not chopped (the big difference between Geno’s and Pat’s across the street), and the crowds are enough to teach you everything you need to know about Philly (and its tourists) in one night. 1219 South 9th Street, East Passyunk.
Pat’s King of Steaks
A not-as-loud, not-as-bright, there-when-you-need-it institution
Pat’s is fast. Pat’s is famous. Pat’s is open every day, all of the time, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas. It slops on the Whiz (when you ask for it) and has been making cheesesteaks since 1930. Plus, this is the cheesesteak Rocky ate. What, you think you’re better than Rocky? 1237 East Passyunk Avenue, East Passyunk.
Overstuffed, fork required
Easy on the Whiz, heavy on the meat, on a soft roll that sponges up the grease from the grill. Chubby’s is a busy joint, full of friends and neighbors — and even though the crowds can stack up deep near the register, it’s all cool, because Chubby’s has a bar right there with a TV that’s always tuned to whatever game is on. 5826 Henry Avenue, Roxborough.
Little Sicily II
A spicy Indian cheesesteak? (It’s even better than it sounds.)
Yes, it’s a neighborhood Italian restaurant run by an Indian family. But they’ve got this extra menu — their “Spicy Food Menu” — and on it lives the spicy chicken cheesesteak, which is a unique thing in this ’steak-obsessed town. It’s chopped chicken, hit with Indian spices and packed into an Amoroso’s roll. It’s a fantastic sandwich that’s unique in a city where so many sandwiches are pretty much indistinguishable. Order the masala cheese fries, too. 1600 South Columbus Avenue, Pennsport.
The Gordon Gekko of cheesesteaks
It’s a stunt sandwich — a $120 wagyu rib-eye, foie gras and truffled Whiz concoction that comes with a half bottle of champagne — but since someone has to set the top bar for this kind of thing, better Barclay than some lesser contender. The sandwich is good but ridiculously rich. And not for nothing: Rendered foie fat just isn’t as good for soaking down a roll as old-fashioned beef grease. If someone else is picking up the bill, you should absolutely try it. But bear in mind that you could get something like 13 Dalessandro’s cheese-steaks (plus a small soda) for the same price. 237 South 18th Street, Rittenhouse.
It’s everything — and everywhere
At this point, Tony Luke Jr. is Philly’s cheese-steak ambassador. Like Johnny Appleseed, he walks the land, planting shops in the strangest of places and bringing cheese-steaks to the far corners. He’s got operators in malls, at a bowling alley, even one at the Pentagon. But Tony Luke’s original location is still slinging the best ’steaks on its home turf, with chopped onions, sliced rib eye and lots of cheese (Whiz or otherwise), until midnight. 39 East Oregon Avenue, South Philly.
Your first stop post-last-call
The pizza fries look good at 2 a.m., but stay strong. The cheesesteak — all grease and salt and spongy bread — was designed by the sandwich gods to rebalance the body’s humors after a night of beers and shots. It’s a summation of poor life choices in sandwich form, and Oregon Steaks knows that. That’s why they’re there. And that’s why you are, too. 2654 South 10th Street, South Philly.
Pastrami & Things
A sweet and spicy Korean take on a ’steak
It ain’t the pastrami we’re concerned with here, but rather the things — in this case, a Korean bulgogi cheesesteak. It’s crazy-cheap (like, under seven bucks), quick, and perfect for those days when you want something different. It’s a fusion sandwich that actually works: The bulgogi beef stands up to the bread, the juice soaks into the slightly crusty roll, and the whole thing kind of melts together in a drippy mess. 24 South 18th Street, Center City.
A South Philly pit stop for those in the know
The red-and-white-checkerboard design makes it look old-timey. The slightly run-down, boxy building makes it seem a bit forlorn. And the location — far from 9th and Passyunk — would make you think you’d be lonely here on a late-night run. But you’d be wrong, because this place always has a crowd. The standard-issue option is good (though light on the cheese, no matter your preferred variety), but the real draw here is the Old Fashioned — a sliced-steak sandwich with provolone, grilled tomatoes, peppers, and a shake of oregano. 2234 West Passyunk Avenue, South Philly.
The sleeper hit
Honestly speaking, the Battle of Roxborough (Dalessandro’s, Chubby’s and Barry’s) is way more interesting than the Pat’s-vs.-Geno’s rivalry. And Barry’s is a shop with a few surprises of its own. They do some solid ’steaks — juicy, greasy and made to order. They’ve got about 30 years’ experience. They bottle their own sodas. (The root beer is excellent.) And when you walk in and the conversation across the counter is an argument over Eagles ticket prices between a guy in a Vets Stadium t-shirt and another whose legs are covered in Liberty Bell and Spirit of ’76 tattoos, you know you’ve found a place that’s gonna respect the Philly history that the humble cheesesteak represents. 471 Leverington Avenue, Roxborough.
A West Philly remix
Want to know something that every other ’steak shop in town could learn from the Ethiopian cheesesteak at Gojjo? That neither chopped nor sliced steak is best. What’s best (texture-wise and in terms of maximizing beef-to-cheese cohesion) is to cut the beef into tiny strips that curl and cup when cooked on the grill. That’s what Gojjo does. That’s why these ’steaks are so good. Well, that and the Ethiopian spice that’s all sharp, smoky heat and makes the onion seem almost sweet in comparison. 4540 Baltimore Avenue, University City.
The cheesesteak’s delicious first cousin
Like the Trainwreck (below), the Schmitter is a kind of deviant — a round, stacked and juicy mutant that takes the beef/onion/cheese formula and mad-sciences in some wild hoagie DNA with the addition of sliced tomato and grilled salami. The result is a killer sandwich that is both descended from Philly’s most famous sandwich and wholly its own delicious creature. 8634 Germantown Avenue, Chestnut Hill.
Beck’s Cajun Cafe
The cheesesteak’s delicious first cousin twice removed
Look, it would take a lot to improve on a cheesesteak. But if you were going to try, you’d be wise to first check out Beck’s, where they’ve been serving an upgraded model for years now. The Trainwreck is a standard cheesesteak mounted on a French baguette, smeared with Creole mayo, then jumped up with chopped salami and Andouille sausage, onions and cheese. It’s a killer sandwich, made even better with a couple tots of hot sauce. Reading Terminal Market, Market East.
One of the originals … that got better with age
Black-and-white tile, polished stainless, beef steaming on the grill: There are some things about the Springfield location that make it feel a lot like the others — those that are still around, anyhow. (A note about that: The West Philly Jim’s is currently closed for renovations; the South Street one has a different owner entirely.) But this youngest family member has a parking lot and shorter lines while still serving a classic ’steak any way you want it. 469 Baltimore Pike, Springfield.
Hold the steak
You didn’t think we were going to get through this whole list without including one vegan option, did you? In this case, it’s Rich Landau’s version, made of grilled seitan and mushrooms (which, together, almost taste like steak when seasoned with garlic and steak spices), sweet onions, and a vegan “whiz” made from rutabaga, miso and, I dunno, magic? It’s a surprisingly good cheesesteak for having neither cheese nor steak, and the fact that they grill the bread helps a lot when it comes to texture — something some of the other, lesser shops out there should pay attention to. 124 South 19th Street, Rittenhouse.
Published as a part of “The Cheesesteak, Reconsidered” in the October 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.