Cheesesteak Chowdown (Philadelphia)
May 10, 2010 by Feisty Foodie
Filed under American, Americas, Articles, Baseball, Cheap Eats, Cheese, Citizens Bank Park, Cuisine, Feisty Fun, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Restaurants, Stadium Eats, Travels, Travels, United States
I appear to have an intensely masochistic side, don’t I? Unfortunately, as I am the bearer of the brunt of all the pain I create, I believe that makes me a bit of a sado-masochist.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I love the Mets. I’m a baseball fan, but my allegiance lays firmly with the Mets. (I did root for the Yankees in the last World Series, and don’t see this as a conflict; New York is my home, and my team didn’t make it. Period.) I have this intense desire to visit every MLB stadium there exists, and eat my way through their offerings (and blog about it!)… and recently, a quick glance at the schedule revealed that I would be able to visit the Phillies’ stadium while the Mets were visiting. Wearing Mets gear.
To those unfamiliar with the baseball world, this is what most people would call “asking for it” – Phillies fans can be incredibly aggressive and very scary. Case in point: Phillies fan beaten to death in CBP parking lot; Phillies fan intentionally vomits on a little girl (this was just two weeks before the game I wanted to attend); there’s more out there. I’m not saying ALL Phillies fans are like this; but many people warned me repeatedly that to wear my teams’ colors to Citizens Bank Park – especially bearing in mind that I’m a Mets fan - I should expect, at the very least, some taunts. At most, I hoped it would only escalate to a beer thrown; I’d already decided that if someone vomited on me intentionally, I was going to break a personal rule and throw the first punch. And if someone hit me, forget it; I would not pass up the opportunity to hit someone back, I fully expected to get arrested because I would be aiming to put that person in the hospital. Don’t touch me, and I won’t touch you. It’s very simple; I can respect others as long as they respect me.
In any case, I just couldn’t not go; I don’t have classes on Fridays, Philly is a short drive from New York City, and WHY NOT?
Of course, I decided to make things interesting, not having learned my lesson from Nationals Park) to not eat too soon before the game, or I won’t eat much of anything AT THE PARK): I would sample no less than 6 cheesesteak places around the city, to decide once and for all if the place I’d chosen years ago as my favorite was actually that amazing, or not even a contender.
You read that right: six cheesesteaks, one girl (and a friend to split them with).
So I grabbed Beer Boor, who kindly took the day off of work… and away we went!
We actually stopped for breakfast just outside Philly, not realizing how close we were to the city… so Steve’s Prince of Steaks was first on the list, as it was farthest from every other place I’d picked. I first heard of this place from StB, whose opinion I value greatly since we have similar taste in many foods. Pulling up outside, I was struck by just how residential the area was; next door and across the street were houses. The smell of grease wafted out and made me feel a bit nauseous – I’d eaten way too much at Cracker Barrel (post to come), but I soldiered on. After a brief nap in my car, 20 minutes.
The menu in all its glory. The price for a cheesesteak was about the same as most other places, and I was very curious what was in a ‘regular’ hoagie, but I was here for one thing and one thing alone: CHEESESTEAK. With onions and Cheez Whiz (in my opinion, the only true cheesesteak). NOM on!
A “brief” explanation of how to order, but nothing too crazy. I don’t think I exactly followed the protocol – I thought I could just say “Whiz wit” and be done with it, but he asked me if I wanted onions anyway (yes). He wasn’t rude about it, which certain other places … well, we’ll get to that.
The really long toppings bar. I wanted to sample some of the items – pickles, cucumber slices (pickled?), banana peppers, hot sauce, and – dried chiles, of which the very sight made me cringe! – but I needed to do this the right way and eat the very same thing at each place in order to properly compare. So pretty, right?
Pretty big sandwich, right? But a little flat looking.
Sliced, flat pieces of steak, trimmed of most fat. Ah. Onions, cooked nicely. The bread was griddled (I watched them do this, though I can’t say it changed much about the sandwich) and actually, intensely soft with a slight crust. Decent amount of cheese (present but not overwhelming). The meat was pretty tender (I bit through the slices easily), but dry and a bit bland; there was a good meat-to-bread-to-cheese ratio though, with everything balancing nicely, so the cheese and onions covered for the meat’s flavorlessness. I tried a piece of meat by itself, which is when it revealed to me that it was naked beneath the sauce.
The sandwich alone came out to $7.52 (there were separate ordering windows for drinks). I ordered a root beer and discovered crushed ice in my drink, which is different from what I’m used to. Also, though I ate the sandwich immediately (after taking the above pictures), and I’d watched them make it fresh, it wasn’t that hot, which suited me just fine so I could eat more quickly. I had to ask them to cut it in half, too; I’m not sure if they forgot with mine or if they routinely don’t cut the sandwiches. Just little things to note.
NOMming into the first sandwich. See the enthusiasm, the light still in my eyes? I’m still happy and excited. Well, just wait.
After I’d finished my half of the sandwich and was digesting, taking notes, I realized that this is what I expect from a cheesesteak. I was a little disappointed, if only because I thought, “Well, this is what I expect from all cheesesteaks, pretty standard: do all of them just taste this way?” Bear in mind, it’d been a few years since I’d eaten a cheesesteak; I don’t generally eat them in NYC, but this is how a cheesesteak should taste – soft bread giving way to oozy Cheez Whiz, tender meat that doesn’t overwhelm the other ingredients, but simply plays its part in an awesome, balanced sandwich. Though it’s true, it was a bit dry – there was no grease leftover on the paper when I was done – I felt the Whiz had covered this up nicely, and I didn’t take points off for that.
Our next stop was also a bit away from everywhere else; the Dark Horse contender, if you will. During my initial research (I tried to complete this quest last year, but without a car, I couldn’t reasonably expect myself to embark on the journey), I’d found a few mentions of this pizzeria making amazing cheesesteaks. So I added Zio’s to the list.
The place wasn’t awfully busy - the lunch rush hadn’t started yet, I suppose – but the griddle was on, and they quickly put together a sandwich for me. This sandwich, if you can’t tell, is HUGE – I think this was the largest sandwich out of all the places I went to. It was one of the more inexpensive ones – the menu listed it at $5.95+tx, though with a soda I paid $9.
I tried to eat it immediately, and burned myself. I waited a few minutes, and I burned myself again. This confused me; I’d watched both places make the sandwiches fresh. I still don’t understand how this one was so much hotter, though I will note that there was a ton of fat oozing out of the sandwich onto the tray in front of me. Clearly, this place had no issue with dry meat!
The meat here was chopped, not sliced, which I believe will fall into a matter of personal preference. However, the meat here was also clearly marinated or seasoned somehow because it was insanely flavorful (read: salty), and delicious. Hands down, this place had the most flavorful meat innards of all the cheesesteak places. Juicy, bursting with flavor, really good. However… I don’t see too many onions, and the Cheez Whiz was a bit uneven, but the biggest offense?
The bread was chewy, with a ‘skin’ that needed to be chomped through for each bite to come clean from the sandwich. It was just flat out awful; I can’t even - I just wanted bread that I could bite through easily, softly encompassing each biteful of delicious juicy fatty meat and Whiz… but t’was not to be. Boo.
On our way walking from our parking spot to Zio’s, I’d walked by Capogiro and recognized the name from reading Serious Eats. Robyn had recommended it long ago, and we walked in after my second cheesesteak so we could cleanse our palates of savory foods and reset it, so to speak, much like I’d had a burger and frites when I did the Cupcake Crawl.
There was no salted caramel flavor, so instead, we got a small with dulce de leche and salt gelato. Nice. The salt was muted in flavor; not actually salty, but creamy, a slight sweetness from the sweet milk used for the gelato, and balanced the sweetness of the dulce de leche very nicely. I was very happy walking back to the car, taking dainty licks of my gelato. Perfect on the somewhat hot day!
Third on the list was Jim’s, my previous ranking champion (before this trip, I’d only had Jim’s, Pat’s and Geno’s). The South Street location places it smack dab in the middle of what appears to me (an outsider) to be where all the college kids hang out; there are a ton of bars and goofy stores to wander in and out of as you trail down the street, looking for your cheesesteak fix. I’ve visited when the line literally wrapped around the block (and I’ve refused to wait; there are few things in the world I will wait on line for, and the only way to justify this would be if I had driven to Philly just for cheesesteak – which I’ve done - but in general, nothing is worth waiting for 90 minutes!), but this time, luckily, it was an off-hour (the worst time to want a cheesesteak is apparently late night), so the line was really short… but at the more popular places, this can be a disadvantage, as they tend to keep big piles of meat on the griddle, cooking, waiting for people to order them. Usually there’s enough movement that this isn’t a big deal – the meat just keeps coming off the griddle and into sandwiches – but even so…
Cheesesteak Whiz wit, two sodas, came to $10.75.
Decently sized sandwich with plenty of onions, sure looks tasty doesn’t it? That’s probably why I took so many pictures. I think.
By this point, we’d eaten quite a bit of cheesesteak, and began taking notes very comparatively.
The meat here was chopped, pretty juicy despite an extended stay on the griddle while we ordered. Plenty of Whiz, and overall, a solid contender. Relative to the two sandwiches we’d already eaten, I’d have to say it was solidly in the middle. The meat was good, better than Steve’s – I hadn’t much liked the meat at Steve’s, but had really liked the bread; however, the meat here wasn’t quite as flavorful as Zio’s, though still juicy. The bread here, however, wasn’t quite as good as Steve’s. so we decided that thusfar, this was the essence of mediocrity – both #2 in terms of bread AND innards out of the three places we’d tried. Which isn’t to say it was bad – not at all! – just that its components alone were both in the middle, but honestly, given the choice of the three, at this point? I’d still choose ‘medium and medium’ over ‘awesome and terrible’ – because you want something that overall tastes good, right?
Next on the list were the two classics, which are right next to each other. Pat’s and Geno’s, long lauded as the best – you can always find someone to tell you that Pat’s or Geno’s is THE place in town to get a cheesesteak – well, I was getting pretty full, but onwards we trooped. Can you see both places in the above picture? On the left in the foreground, Pat’s, and on the right in the background, Geno’s.
Pat’s first since we parked closer to that one.
The sign indicating how to order; they were pretty gruff when I ordered (the proper way). I had to ask them to cut it for us (why don’t these places cut the sandwich for you?!) and this was met with a silent glare before the request was honored. It’s not like they were busy (there was no line), so I wasn’t sure why they’d feel the need to be surly.
This picture was actually taken before I asked for it to be cut. That’s the whole sandwich, no, half is not missing. The most expensive sandwich thusfar, I couldn’t believe how small it was. Also, a bit interesting that it looks like the Whiz was added – or added to – after the meat, since every other place so far had put the Whiz on the bread itself.
Here’s another photo, to make it look bigger.
You can kind of see here that the meat was partially chopped, but not very evenly, since large chunks remained unchopped. This made it difficult to eat, as the meat was very fatty and gristle-y, not in the good way – the pieces stuck together and weren’t easy to bite right through. I don’t see too many onions, either…
It was a little juicy, but honestly, as I mentioned earlier, with some of these bigger name places, the meat tends to sit on the griddle ‘pre’-cooking and just coming off as people order them, instead of being completely made to order. I’m sure it shortens the wait time, but during downtimes – as it was when we were there – the meat definitely loses something because of it.
Considering this was the most expensive AND the smallest sandwich so far, I was incredibly disappointed with it. I had a lot of trouble eating it initially – this is something I found super weird – because it, too, remained very hot far longer than the other sandwiches (aside from Zio’s, which did the same thing), despite all of them being freshly made. At $8.50, a good dollar more than the other sandwiches, along with so much hype, I really wanted to like Pat’s, but I just couldn’t. It appeared to be all hype.
Geno’s next, which I sincerely hoped to be less hype and more real-deal yumz. I note here that they were markedly less gruff than Pat’s, though they had tons of signs up that seemed to express clearly their thoughts on foreigners (while no, I am not foreign-born, I don’t deny that to most of the central portion of the US, I sure LOOK like I am, and therefore am subjected to a lot of the same racism and discrimination): if you want to stay here, learn to speak English. I actually wasn’t sure if I’d encounter a problem, but my English being what it is (to say: flawless, really, with traces of my regional Queens accent peeking through every once in a while), they were perfectly polite to me as I ordered our sandwich.
I admit it. I sat there staring at our sandwich for a while. I wasn’t sure I could keep eating. But a deep breath later, and…
Plenty of onions; sliced, but not chopped meat. How do I put this? Our notes state very succintly: gristly meat. About equal to Pat’s: both suck, too much hype. A little too sweet from the onions. Bread at Pat’s was better but the meat here is marginally better.
So, the two champs? All hype. What a waste of time and money – they were both the most expensive sandwiches and neither were great shakes. In fact, at this point, they were both easily the worst two sandwiches of the day!
Normally I don’t like to post pictures of myself here, and definitely not horrible ones where I look pregnant, but I can’t stop laughing when I look at this picture. After Pat’s & Geno’s, we drove to Tony Luke’s and sat in my car, in the parking lot, staring down at my grumbling tummy. No, it wasn’t hungry; it was ANGRY. “STOP IT!” 5 cheesesteaks along and I look pregnant, so I asked Beer Boor to take a photo. Well, first I Tweeted a pic where I really look pregnant, then decided to take one for the amusement of my friends & family. And for all those commenters who swear I have a hollow leg, no, I just wear sweatpants a lot (and in fact, am wearing some in this pic). I mean, really! Look at that food baby!!! Totes preggo.
After a few minutes of talking myself through the wall, including mentally yelling “You’re at the last one! You punk! Just do it!” and chanting, “Here we go Yvo, here we go! *clap clap* Here we go Yvo, here we go!” – yes, I was totally delirious, to Beer Boor’s amusement – we headed into Tony Luke’s.
We were greeted with this sign, and I desperately wished we could order this as well, but I think my food baby did a back flip at that moment and I chose to obey its warning. No need to hurl on anyone… especially not Beer Boor… I think.
Here’s yet another cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz and onions.
As you might notice, the onions were all to one side, a fact I didn’t notice until after I’d already begun eating the side with less. Unfortunately, the sandwich really needed it – these were the least cooked onions of any place I’d been to that day, and that added a nice bite to the sandwich… a bite that my half was missing, boo. However, the chopped meat here was definitely the most tender meat of the day – though still not quite as flavorful as Zio’s – and the bread was hands down the best bread (yes, better than Steve’s). I did feel this bread, while delicious, was not quite suited to this style of sandwich, being a touch harder than I’d like, but still overall very good. It was priced closer to the other places, $7.50ish.
When we got outside, I changed quietly into my Mets gear (hides food baby nicely, eh?) and looked around carefully. You see, all day, I’d seen random people just walking around sporting Phillies gear. It isn’t like in NYC, where some people might wear a Yankees or Mets hat, but mostly t-shirts and jerseys – especially jerseys – appear to be reserved for actually going to the games. No, in Philly, everyone was wearing hats, t-shirts, jerseys, and I’m talking everyone. I was a little nervous to change into my Mets gear, and then… I asked Beer Boor to take this picture. Well, I initially just stood next to the sign and smiled politely – there were Phillies paraphernalia hanging everywhere, this is just outside Tony Luke’s parking lot where a newstand resides – and when he went to press the button, I lifted my finger. (I’m classy like that, eh?) Oops, teehee
Citizens Bank Park. we arrived at the game a little early and parked pretty easily in the lot; I was surprised that the lots were so empty. True, it was a Friday night, but it was also a Mets/Phillies game! And the game was sold out, according to the announcers. Well, either case, we weren’t too upset at my parking spot. we walked away from the car, with me singing to myself, “Meet the Mets, meet the Mets, step right up and greet the Mets! Bring your kiddies, bring your wife, guaranteed to have the time of your life! The Mets are really sockin’ the ball, hittin’ those home runs right over the wall!” I saw a Phillies fan and his son hanging out at their car two spots down glaring at me, but I wasn’t doing anything quite disrespectful…
But Mr. Met was! Here he is, peeing on the Phillies sign in the parking lot! (My car is parked beyond the orange cones a few rows.) Bad Mr. Met!!!
Here he is enjoying the view from our seats – similar to my Mets seats, actually, behind home plate but high up. Not too shabby!
And my standard photo of David Wright’s first pitch during his first at bat – the next pitch produced a two run home run. Love my man Mr. Wright And so began an excellent game!
Though I was way too full from eating um, from 6 different cheesesteak places, I had to take a picture of this menu. Not only for its prices – less than $4 for a hot dog! – but look!!! They also offer a vegan hot dog and a black bean burger (which I presume is vegetarian). That’s really progressive and forward thinking; though I don’t imagine I’d often order a vegan hot dog or a black bean burger (read: never), I’m sure there are vegetarian/vegan Mets fans who might like such a thing. Someone: get on that!!!
When the game was 8-1, Mets, I finally decided maybe I could nibble on something. Part of the reason I was there, afterall, was to eat the stadium’s offerings! Unfortunately, we were already on our level, and didn’t realize that the more interesting items were close to the entrance, so after wandering around my level for a few minutes, I settled on nachos.
$5.75 got me this. I could have opted out of the jalapenos, which wound up making my mouth tingle and burn, or asked for two cheese (or two salsa) cups, but I just had it their normal way (and made Beer Boor eat all the jalapenos). Pretty tasty – standard cheese, spicy jalapenos, and a decent salsa, but not anything mind boggling. Still cheaper than my stadium, though.
After the game, I took a quick picture of my section number because I’d really liked my seats, and I plan on returning for more Phillies/Mets matchups (and pray that they win 9-1, or similarly, when I return, and not so much like the next two games, along the lines of 10-0…).
As they cleaned up the stadium… one final picture. Just the sight of a baseball diamond makes me happy, y’know?
One last stop before we began the long trip home- I thought the sign was adorable, not only is it in the shape of home plate, but the woman pictured is wearing a red hat (much like a standard Phillies hat). We need stuff like that – show our pride!!!
Overall, I had a fabulous time in Philly, despite my initial fears of being beaten because I wore my team colors (sort of) in enemy territory. The ‘worst’ thing that happened was when we got back to my car, some Phillies fans (presumably the ones who’d heard me singing my team’s song) had put orange cones on top of and around my car ‘blocking’ me in, but those were easily removed and had not scratched my car, so it was all harmless, if a bit dorky, fun.
But back to the cheesesteaks. Who reigns supreme? Please bear in mind that I did not grow up eating cheesesteaks; over 90% of the cheesesteaks that I’ve consumed have in fact been from/in Philadelphia, though (I’ve only ever eaten Carl’s Cheesesteaks in NYC), but I still claim no expertise when it comes to cheesesteaks. However, speaking strictly comparatively, I do believe that eating from 6 different places in quick succession lends me the opportunity to be very specific in comparison rankings. So, take that as you will.
Tied for last place: Pat’s & Geno’s. I don’t know what they have going for them, if anything. So the real test? If a friend made me go here, I would opt for the one with the shorter line. If they both have no line, I would probably go to Pat’s, even though they’re gruffer, just because the meat is marginally better (I discovered, on this trip, that I like chopped meat better than sliced; the mouth-feel is just rounder and fuller).
Next to last place: Zio’s, and I hesitate over this one greatly. The meat was super flavorful; in fact, the only place that either marinated or salted the meat itself, which may disqualify it from being a ‘real’ cheesesteak (I’m not sure what the exact requirements are). But the bread was just too bad to overlook its awfulness; if I were in the area, I probably wouldn’t hate getting another one, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to get one…
Second place: Steve’s had really good bread with sufficient innards (though as a place with sliced, not chopped, meat, I wouldn’t say this is my preference). Honestly, I’m sure there are a lot of people who like this sandwich more – but personally, though the bread was really good and the meat was tasty enough, I just don’t prefer sliced, so that bumps it down to second.
Tied for first (sort of): Here’s where things get really tricky. Tony Luke’s had great bread with good innards (provided the onions are evenly distributed), but is also in the middle of nowhere. Jim’s has decent bread with decent innards, and is on a street filled with bars, pubs, a concert hall, and stores… an area you can basically walk around and hang out and whatnot. Given the choice, if I had no time constraints and just really wanted a cheesesteak? I’d probably hit up Tony Luke’s (and they have a location in the ballpark, so I’ll be checking that out on my return visit). Actually, I’d go to Tony Luke’s and try this roast pork sandwich I hear so much about, too. But if I’m hanging out, and I want to walk around and do other things? I’m going to Jim’s on South Street. No question – though it wasn’t the best in any category (but location, perhaps), it was certainly the most consistently good; the bread was above average, the innards were above average, and put those together, it makes for a happy cheesesteak nomming fatty (me).
(Beer Boor mostly felt the same as me.)