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For years nearly every article about food in Philadelphia proudly proclaimed that the city "wasnt just about cheesesteaks any more!" as if the thriving new restaurant scene meant the city had to reject its lowbrow, neon orange cheese covered past.
Cheesesteak shame aside, some prefer the more authentic Italian roast pork as the signature sandwich of Philadelphia, which definitely deserves its moment in the spotlight along with all manner of veal and chicken cutlets, meatball sandwiches, and roast beef (which well be covering in the next couple of weeks). But really, theres no reason all of these awesome sandwiches cant co-exist in delicious harmony.
Legend has it that the cheesesteak was invented at 9th and Passyunk, when hot dog stand owner Pat Olivieri decided to throw some sliced steak from a nearby butcher on the grill with onions for his lunch. Whiz didnt come into play until the 1950s, enabling a faster sandwich-making process as well as that delicious Whiz-meat-grease-onion-hot pepper juice slurry that tastes like magic. Like the hoagie, another crucial element of the cheesesteak was is the bread, where the best places have rolls delivered daily from local Italian bakeries.
The grill at Pats Steaks. [Photographs: Hawk Krall and Caroline Russock]
The best steaks are made with sirloin, ribeye, or top round, cooked to order. The meat is cooked on a flat top grill (technically a griddle but no self-respecting short order cook or Philadelphia cheesesteak eater uses that term) alongside big piles of onions that end up on top or mixed in with the meat. Sub-prime cheesesteak spots often use processed and frozen pre-sliced steak or even "emulsified steak product" (think Steak-umm) of varying quality levels that range from "pretty good" to "tastes like cardboard."
Eating cheesesteaks across the Philadelphia area, a few distinct styles begin to emerge. Your standard cheesesteak served at Pats and Genos usually consists of slightly chopped ribeye served on soft, medium sized long rolls with Whiz as the cheese of choice. Then there are the more "authentic" cheesesteaks from Johns Roast Pork or Cosmis served on crusty half loaves of seeded Italian bread, with almost twice as much meat, and a funny look if you ask for Cheez Whiz. Then you have your "sloppy pizzeria" style, usually a massive amount of meat chopped to oblivion and served on a squishy roll.
Our favorites tend to be in the middle ground between "standard" and "authentic," places like Chinks, Johnnys Hots, and Carmens that serve bread thats a bit bigger and sturdier than a standard Amoroso roll, but not chewy and crusty like seeded Italian, all using a good (but not over the top) amount of high quality meat.
Last but not least are the ethnic cheesesteaks, a non-traditional and relatively new phenomenon with endless amazing possibilities. Korean "koagies" or bulgogi cheesesteaks are becoming fairly common, but weve also seen jalepeño steaks at Mexican pizzerias, teriyaki cheesesteaks from Asian lunch trucks, and a few others that are hopefully just the tip of the iceberg.
And while there seem to be a lot of rules for these things, most places will put whatever you want on your sandwich. Thousands of cheesesteaks are consumed in Philadelphia every day slathered in ketchup, pickles, mayo, and even Ranch dressing. Meat, cheese, and onions make up the holy trinity of traditional Philly steaks, but this city is certainly not opposed to mixing it up as far as toppings are concerned.
Then of course there are the toppings that happen behind the counter. Were talking about the pizza steaks doused in tomato sauce and covered with melty mozzarella, the ones with mushrooms and sweet green peppers tucked alongside the meat, and the shredded lettuce and tomato slices that transform the cheesesteak into a cheesesteak hoagie.
Many places offer up everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style steaks stuffed with pepperoni, bacon, and pretty much every other steak topping option imaginable, just look for over the top names like Animal Farm or Jacked Up Cheesesteak. And while beef is the standard, Philadelphia has adapted other steak fillers over the years including chicken and lamb, as well as vegetarian and vegan variations.
We decided to stick to beef for this particular round up, focusing on a survey of the citys most exciting steaks.
We opted to forgo the South Philly intersection of Passyunk and Wharton a.k.a. Cheesesteak Vegas, home to the famous and ever feuding Pats and Genos, more interested in seeking out the lesser known places serving up both standard and reimagined takes on the sandwich that is synonymous with Philadelphia.
Give these awesome steaks a try next time you find yourself in Philly and please feel free to share your picks, pans, and thoughts about Whiz in the comments section below.
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