The Amazing Story of How Philly Cheesesteaks Became Huge in Lahore, Pakistan
Our correspondent tracked down the ways immigration patterns and global politics — plus a bit of serendipity — intertwined to make our iconic sandwich a hit in the 13-million-resident megalopolis.
Sometime in the fall of 2021, a man from Philadelphia came to meet Mazhar Hussain, a chef based in Lahore, Pakistan. Hussain was shown a video of a dish he hadn’t seen before: a hearty sandwich, with generous fillings of meat and cheese. The chef was asked if he could replicate it.
“Re-creating anything is never an issue, but I wanted to check if it was going to be popular,” says Hussain, standing in front of Philly’s Steak Sandwich, a small cafe in Lahore’s Johar Town, an area packed with schools, universities and hospitals. “I saw the amount of meat and cheese being put in it and knew instantaneously that it is going to be a hit.”
Hussain has worked at some of the most high-profile restaurants in Lahore — Monal, Tuscany Courtyard, Chaayé Khana and Café Aylanto, among others — covering a wide range of cuisines. His experience at Philly’s Steak Sandwich, though, has been unique. It’s a smaller restaurant than those, he says, and the guests come from all walks of life. The one thing that connects them: “The steak sandwich is extremely popular with everyone.”
Philly’s Steak Sandwich sits on a small highway apart from Johar Town’s main food centers, atop a hair salon. The shop fights for customers with a biryani restaurant across the street and buzzes all evening with motorbikes and cars jammed into the cramped parking spaces. The cheesesteak is especially popular among nearby students, who can enjoy it for PKR 579, or a little over two bucks.
While Philly’s Steak Sandwich offers a range of fast-food options, its specialty, the cheesesteak, comes in three flavors: pepper, jalapeño and fajita. Chef Hussain customized an eight-inch roll for the sandwich, which arrives on a paper plate. Early in the morning, the meat is marinated with local red chili powder and tikka masala spice to prepare for 4 p.m., when the restaurant takes its first orders.
A lot of the cafe’s customers are drive-in families and couples who just order their cheesesteaks from their cars. On a cold Saturday evening in January, Sana Batool, a schoolteacher, sat in her small Suzuki Alto as two chicken and two beef cheesesteaks perfumed the air. Her children love the sandwiches, she said: “This is their weekend treat.”
In the past year, Philly’s Steak Sandwich has been covered widely in both English and Urdu media. The shop’s general manager, Adil Mehmood — it was his relative from Philly who shared the video of the cheesesteak with the shop’s chef — has appeared on television, highlighting plans to expand the franchise to other parts of the 13-million-resident city.
“In my first meeting with the GM, it was decided that we’re going to add our unique spices to the steak sandwich. I believe a major factor behind its growing popularity is this merger of the flavors of Philadelphia and Lahore,” says Hussain.
Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city and the capital of the historic Punjab region, is considered the country’s food hub (although citizens of Karachi loudly dispute that claim). Its location at the crossroads of the many empires to have ruled over the Indian subcontinent, from the Mughals to the British, has added multicultural layers to Lahori heritage and culture. This is reflected in the city’s food, which blends Persian and Afghan flavors, a combination we now deem synonymous with the cuisine of North India — which Lahore was an integral part of before the 1947 partition created what is today called Pakistan, in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent.
That Indic syncretism, which Lahore has oozed with for centuries, is today introducing a new cuisine to the city’s taste buds: Philadelphian. But while Philly’s Steak Sandwich might be the first to put our city’s renowned sandwich on local billboards, Lahore’s love-in with the cheesesteak is, in fact, decades old.
Wishal Raheel, a digital marketing professional who used to serve as a food critic for two of the country’s largest media houses, Waqt and Dunya, remembers eating her first cheesesteak. It was at Lahore’s Coffee, Tea, & Company (CTC) in the 2000s, and in her words, it was “absolute heaven.” The combination of the melted cheese along with the soft meat, she recalls years later, was “wonderful.”
Raheel has turned vegetarian since then and hence no longer eats cheesesteaks, but she still has fond memories. She’s hoping one of the Lahore outlets will introduce a version with plant-based meat so she can experience it again. She has her first trip to the United States planned for later this year and hopes to try a veggie rendition while in the birthplace of the cheesesteak.
Pakistan’s fast-food boom of the 1990s and 2000s overlapped with a rise in Pakistanis traveling to the U.S. for study, work, business and immigration. As a result, many of the food establishments launched in Pakistan at the turn of the millennium were brimming with ideas that those visiting the U.S. brought back with them. The cheesesteak was one of these.
All three of Lahore’s oldest continental cafes — Café Zouk, Freddy’s and CTC — have cheesesteaks on their menus. (And, just like in Philly, each claims to have been the driving force behind the growing popularity of the sandwich.) The cheesesteak at CTC, which opened as a bakery-deli in 2003, was especially popular in the 2000s. Freddy’s, opened two years earlier, in 2001, has featured its Philly steak sandwich from the onset. But Café Zouk, launched in 1995, says it introduced the cheesesteak to Lahore.
“We have offered the steak sandwich since the first day, and it remains the hottest item on our menu,” says Faisal Ilyas, the cafe’s general manager. “We have had the same chef since our opening 28 years ago. We have had numerous cooks, but the same head chef. That’s why our Philly steak sandwich remains the most authentic in Lahore.”
The Philly’s Steak Sandwich outlet in Johar Town adds a desi twist to the sandwich, incorporating masalas and spices usually affiliated with Indo-Pak cuisine, and in turn has introduced the cheese-steak to a wider population. But the more high-end cafes, like Zouk, have looked to maintain a flavor as close as possible to the original, more in line with their exclusively upper-class customers. The difference is reflected in the pricing, with the cheese-steaks in these restaurants costing almost three times as much as the Philly’s Steak Sandwich version. Zouk, Freddy’s and CTC are situated on and around Lahore’s M.M. Alam Road, which has been the food hub for the city’s urban elite for the past couple of decades, showcasing some of the most famous cuisines from around the world and dominated by American-style cafes.
The growing popularity of American fast food across Pakistan in the 2000s came during a critical phase in Washington’s relations with Islamabad. After Pakistan officially allied with the U.S. in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, increased American interest in the region brought an influx of dollars. As a result, the 2000s saw economic prosperity, especially for that urban elite, under the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf.
The Musharraf years witnessed Pakistan’s simultaneous Americanization and Talibanization, and by the end of his tenure in 2008, Lahore was seeing terror attacks — and new American fast-food franchises — in pretty much every conceivable spot in the city. A few Lahoris would have watched the footage of the World Trade Center attacks while headed to Café Zouk on September 11, 2001; some would have read about the U.S. killing Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011, at CTC. In the decade separating the two events, anti-America protests and outlets selling cheesesteaks multiplied, and they continue to do so. But just as the tumultuous, security-centered U.S.-Pakistan ties can be traced back to the ’70s and ’80s, for some, so can cheesesteaks in Lahore.
Khurram Chaudhry, an IT professional, reveals that his family-owned restaurant, Sizzler, used to sell similar sandwiches in Lahore’s Iqbal Town area in the 1980s. “It wasn’t called a cheesesteak, but for me, it was a Philly cheesesteak that was being offered at the restaurant,” he recalls.
Chaudhry went to high school in New York City in the late 1980s; he lived with an aunt while his family remained in Lahore. It was in New York that he had his first cheesesteak, which was already being replicated back home when he visited during vacations. “Since my father owned Sizzler, a lot of [the restaurant’s] food was cooked at home, including a sandwich with peppers, steak slices and cheese. Gymkhana used to serve a similar sandwich as well,” he says, leading us to our next clue.
The Lahore Gymkhana Club was founded in 1878, when Lahore was under British rule. For the past century and a half, menus at the club reserved for the city’s top tier have offered dishes catering to those with Westernized palates, from senior British officers to Punjab’s richest families. A popular military legend in Pakistan is that in the 1965 war, the army thwarted Indian army officers’ plans to have drinks at Lahore Gymkhana. The occasion — and location — is so mythical that the country celebrates it with an annual Defense Day.
But even an establishment with a legacy such as Lahore Gymkhana’s needed to continue revamping itself and serve exclusive dishes for its high-end clientele. And the club, along with restaurants aspiring to serve continental food, was bolstered by a growing taste for a new ingredient in town: processed cheese. “Sandwiches gradually started becoming popular in the 1980s because of the [wider] availability of cheese and mushrooms,” says Chaudhry.
Until the 1980s, processed cheese was largely imported, and its use was limited to the rich, who would frequent establishments such as the Gymkhana. As Lahori taste buds adapted to and appreciated cheese, production was initiated locally. Demand for cheeseburgers and sandwiches skyrocketed in the 1990s, with a growing number of Pakistanis who’d traveled to the U.S. aspiring to re-create offerings from various popular American chains. One of these is exceptionally familiar. Even today, online food groups in Pakistan are peppered with people asking the community where they can find a cheesesteak in Lahore “like the one at Pat’s.” Many of them post images of the cheesesteaks from the original shop at 9th and Passyunk. There’s a big difference, though, in how these posts are received in Pakistan compared to in, say, South Philly. Many responses target those making the inquiries for eating food that isn’t halal.
The Islamic radicalization of the past two decades has significantly increased overt exhibits of religiosity in Pakistan. Many Pakistani Muslims traveling overseas aren’t as particular about looking for chicken or beef with halal labels (a significant percentage consume alcohol as well), but pork is still often a no-go for even non-devout, non-practicing Muslims. Admitting to defiance of Islamic codes can be perilous in Pakistan, and any perceived offense to Islam could prove fatal. This is a lesson embraced by, among others, Lahore’s cheese-steak aficionados.
When Mehmood, the Philly’s Steak Sandwich general manager, speaks of his inspiration for the sandwich in TV interviews, he cites Charleys Philly Steaks, which is extremely popular in Dubai. (We’ll forgive him for citing an Ohio-based company.) The United Arab Emirates, which remains one of the most frequently visited countries for Pakistanis due to its relatively relaxed visa policies, is often the first introduction to many Western franchises for Pakistani foodies. The fact that the UAE offers halal renditions of many dishes makes American brands such as Charleys even more accessible. And where the chain’s popularity made more Pakistanis want to eat cheesesteaks, it spurred many to learn how to cook them, too.
In 2016, Sidra Shahid, co-founder of the culinary academy Cooking 101 in Lahore’s Defence Housing Authority area — the most widespread of the numerous military-owned neighborhoods in Pakistan — was approached by a group that had just returned from Dubai. They wanted to learn how to make the cheesesteak they had had at Charleys.
“I initially told them I cannot copy someone’s dish, but I can give you my own interpretation. But they were like, ‘No, we want that similar taste; we were so in love with that dish,’” recalls Shahid, who along with her partner spent months researching and practicing the sandwich. “We got it tasted by people who had had the original cheese-steak to ensure that our recipe is up to the mark and does justice to the original Philly cheesesteak. Once we finalized it, there was no turning back.” The cheesesteak is now one of the most popular dishes in the academy’s Classics From Around the World course.
Ayesha Sarwar, co-founder of Cooking 101 and a member of Pakistan’s National Culinary Team, believes the cheesesteak has been in the subconscious of people in Pakistani cities due to the widespread consumption of American pop culture. “It popped up in movies, TV shows, and discussions with Americans,” she says. “People in Lahore are increasingly interested in trying new things.”
Some of Sarwar’s extended family members are based in the U.S., and she relies on them to help improve her cooking of American dishes, including the cheese-steak. “I have relatives in Florida, New Jersey and Maryland,” she says. “The wife of my maamu” — her maternal uncle — “is American and follows our Facebook page. After we introduced the cheesesteak course, she asked me: ‘Are you guys really making the cheesesteak in Lahore?’”
Then she adds, “They haven’t tasted our cheesesteak yet, but one day … ”
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Lahore-based correspondent for The Diplomat and a contributor to Foreign Policy, The Spectator and Haaretz.
Published as “Philly’s Greatest Export” in the April 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.