The Ultimate Philly Cheesesteak
The Cheesesteak, Philly’s iconic sandwich, has a long history of creating debates: who has the best cheesesteak? Whiz or American cheese? Chopped or sliced? Ultimately, the answers to those questions are as subjective as the individual's taste buds and what their idea of what a “true” Philly cheesesteak is.
As a born and raised Philadelphian who has lived in various neighborhoods in this great city, I have eaten quite a few cheesesteaks in my lifetime. To me, a “true” Philly cheesesteak consists of chopped steak, and melted American cheese (I’ll explain my opinion of Cheese Whiz soon) on a long Amoroso roll. The balance of flavors and textures matter. In terms of toppings, fried onions are key, but other toppings like mushrooms, and peppers are acceptable too. Ketchup is tasty on it, but it isn’t always needed. Mustard is a no-no.
Death to Cheese Whiz
The most common cheeses used in the cheesesteak are American, Provolone and unfortunately, Cheese Whiz. Now I know some of the readers will be up in arms at my objection to Cheese Whiz, but sorry, not sorry. Cheese Whiz is not real. Some might argue “But have you even tried a cheesesteak with cheese whiz?” Yes I have, and I hated it. The overly processed, plastic liquid mess is awful and should never be included on an cheesesteak. Cheese Whiz, you are unwelcome.
History of the cheesesteak
The creation of the iconic sandwich is credited to Philadelphians Pat and Harry Olivieri in the 1930s. According to the story, Pat and Harry were South Philly hot dog vendors. One day, they decided to make a steak sandwich, which a taxi driver noticed and asked for his own. The sandwich became such a hit that they opened their own restaurant, Pat’s King of Steaks, which is still open today and is extremely popular with tourists and locals. The story also claims that the original sandwich was not prepared with cheese and that was not added until the 1940s when then manager Joe "Cocky Joe" Lorenza added provolone to it at the Ridge Avenue location.
The ultimate cheesesteak
Although I have tried countless cheesesteaks from different businesses, I still hadn’t found “the one.” So I set out in hopes of finding the best cheesesteak Philly has to offer and here are six possibilities from best to worst:
1. Max’s Steaks
This cash-only North Philly steak shop is what cheesesteak dreams are made of. The chopped steak was flavorful, but simply seasoned, well cooked and not overly greasy. Signs in the shop claim “100 percent sirloin steak,” but who knows? The American cheese was placed on the bread at the bottom of the sandwich. While not melted, the hot meat melted it enough as I ate to find it enjoyable. The bread was a bit soft, but it didn’t get soggy. The onions were chopped small and cooked nicely, but caused a mess while eating so grab a fork if you don’t want to pick up the fallen pieces with your hands. A range of other toppings were also offered. If you want to eat there, there is a bar in the back with booths. You can also buy beer to go. One thing to note: it gets very crowded, so try to go at a less popular time, or be prepared to wait. Despite the non-melted cheese, Max’s Steaks was absolutely delicious, and the best.
This Roxborough steak shop was a very close second to Max’s Steaks. The cheesesteak offered a hefty amount of tender, finely chopped, semi-flavorful steak that had perfectly melted cheese. The roll didn’t get soggy at all. The chopped onions were too big for my liking and on the sweeter side than others I tried, but still good. Even though it was busy, the service was good and quick. The cash-only restaurant offers a countertop and outdoor seating for those who want to dine-in. Another treat for people dining-in: Dalessandro’s offers a special that includes a Stella Artois beer & cheesesteak for $9.95.
3. Sonny's Famous Steaks
The Old City spot, just blocks from the Liberty Bell, is a spot for locals and tourists alike. The cheesesteak offered sliced ribeye, melted American cheese, and tasty onions on the best roll: Amoroso. The cheese options were more extensive than other places I tried. It included the usuals of cheese whiz, American, and provolone, but also an uncommon selection of others like mozzarella and blue. The toppings selection also included options I’ve never seen offered before such as marinara sauce, pepperoni, ranch dressing, BBQ sauce, honey mustard and jalapenos. For the late night Old City bar hoppers, Sonny’s is open until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and serves their entire menu until they close.
4. Joe’s Steaks & Soda Shop
This Northeast shop formerly known as “Chink’s,” is a quaint retro diner style neighborhood shop with table jukeboxes and all! The cheesesteak offered chopped, somewhat bland meat, melted American cheese and fried onions on a soft, but sturdy roll to hold it together. The amount of meat of the sandwich was not enough considering it was priced similarly to other cheesesteaks. To get extra meat, it was an additional cost (like others). The sandwich was not messy at all and wasn’t as greasy as the others. The service was good, but takes a bit longer when it gets crowded around lunchtime. In addition to steaks, they offer sodas and milkshakes along with other food. The milkshake selection was simple, but they also offer specials like a Orange Creamsicle milkshake and a Cinnamon Toast Crunch milkshake.
5. Steve’s Prince of Steaks
Steve’s Prince of Steaks in Center City (with locations in the Northeast and the suburbs), was good, but not mindblowing. The sliced meat was tender with a good flavor. I was not a fan of the cheese. While I ordered American, it was way too melted and liquified, similar to cheese whiz. It oozed and dripped out of my sandwich the entire time, making it less enjoyable to eat. I prefer my cheese gooey, not in liquid form. The bread was great and didn’t get soggy considering the overly melted cheese. The onions were good. Steve’s also offered a sidebar of other toppings for the taking like pickles and peppers. Service was good and quick, especially considering the lunchtime crowd.
6. Jim’s Steaks on South
Jim’s gets a large tourist crowd and, boy, do I feel sorry for them. If I was a tourist and ate this cheesesteak as the first one I ever had, I may never eat another one again in my life. This cheesesteak was hands down one of the worst ones I’ve ever eaten. First and foremost, the smell of the place is disgusting. It smells of old grease inside and outside of the place. Second and most importantly, the meat was awful. How was one of the most important components of the sandwich the worst part? The finely chopped steak was mushy and any flavor that may have been in it was masked by an overwhelming taste of grease. It even left a horrible aftertaste. The cheese was not melted and placed at the bottom of the sandwich. The roll got soggy fast because of the greasy meat. The onions were delicious and the best part of the sandwich, which is extremely sad. It was overpriced for the lack of quality food you got. I wouldn’t eat this again, even if someone paid me to.
Not your regular cheesesteak
If you aren’t interested in regular old cheesesteak, Philadelphia offers various out of the ordinary cheesesteaks.
Gojjo Bar & Restaurant in the Cedar Park section of West Philly offers an Ethiopian cheesesteak and Ethiopian chicken cheesesteak in addition to the regular cheesesteak.
Pastrami and Things in Center City offers a bulgogi cheesesteak as well as a regular cheesesteak. Bulgogi is Korean dish of grilled marinated beef. The Bulgogi cheesesteak offers grilled onions, a special house sauce and sesame seeds. Kimchi (a traditional Korean side dish of fermented vegetables) can be added to the cheesesteak for a an additional 75 cents.
Cafe Con Chocolate in South Philly sells a Mexican cheesesteak, which includes steak with onions, serrano pepper, melted cheese and chipotle mayo.
For vegans, many places in Philly offer vegan cheesesteaks including Hip City Veg, Royal Tavern, Govinda's to Go, El Camino Real and more.