2 Southerners Walk into a Cheese Steak Joint…

IMG_4075My middle son and namesake has recently taken a liking to cheese steaks.  We have a couple of reasonably good places in Raleigh, but we’re only a half-day drive from the home of the cheese steak.  And since I used to work in Philadelphia we decided to make a road trip of it.  While it’s not exactly cocktail related, I thought I’d post our findings here.

Paul Jr. has an impressive palate for a picky-eating 14 year old, which made for some fun dialog at and between stops.  And being almost as analytic as me, he suggested an overall 1-10 scale for each sandwich and that we use Anvil’s (his favorite Raleigh spot) as a benchmark, giving it an arbitrary ‘7’ as a starting point.

We were in Philly for a total of 29 hours, and we ate 11 sandwiches at 10 places.  These 10 places were chosen by asking knowledgeable friends, referring to various “top 10” lists, and my prior experience.  So by no means is this comprehensive of the 100’s of cheese steak places operating in the Philadelphia area.  But I’m confident it’s a helpful Rankingsreview…

Mama’s: Paul gave this sandwich an unqualified 2 thumbs up.  I also believe it was the best sandwich I had, but I gave it a small demerit for being non-traditional.  For starters, it was much bigger – almost twice the size of a std cheese steak.  Secondly, it was stuffed full of meat – much higher meat-to-bun ratio than traditional.  And third, they used their own 3-cheese blend, which included mozzarella.  It unquestionably made a great sandwich, but I’m not 100% convinced it qualifies as a cheese steak.  This place is also outside of town, up the Conshohoken River by St. Joseph’s.

Abner’s: In University City and just across the river from downtown, Abner’s gets my vote for the best steak in town.  As an indicator of how good it was – this was stop #9 and the 4th sandwich I’d tried on day 2.  I walked in thinking that I would eat a bite or two and I ate the whole thing.  And they serve beer.  Paul also liked this one a lot, but doesn’t have the same bent-to-tradition that I do, so he rated it #2.

Carmen’s:  This one is in the Reading Terminal Market, so the crowd can either give you energy or be a nuisance depending on your mood.  The bun here was quite good and even slightly salted which gave the sandwich flavor a great roundness.  The one shortcoming I had with this was that the meat was cooked-to-order.  I notice don the tour that this reduced the natural flavor build-up in the meat.  Carmen’s compensated for this with a seasoning that really tasted good, but I thought made the sandwich a little salty by the end.

Tony Luke’s: This was our first stop and it was a great place to start.  The location is gritty but safe/clean which definitely adds to the enjoyment.  The service was great without being ‘too friendly’.  And the establishment reveled in the history without being too garish about it.  Perfect place to start our quest.  And the sandwich was quite good.  The bun was the right combination of chewy and crispy (without being flaky).  The cheese/meat/bun ratio was just right, and the meat was well cooked, if lacking just a slight bit of seasoning.  Minor complaint though.  I heard later that we should have tried the sharp provolone instead of the mild.  Definitely on my list for next time, and from what I’m told will move tony Luke’s up in my next ranking.

Dalessandro’s: This place requires a drive but is worth it.  It was the best bun in the tasting – perfect body, flavor, size, structure.  Magnificent.  And I loved that they left the cheese on the meat on the grill (rather than just lining the bun with it) for a second before loading the bun.  I think that adds a great layer of flavor to cheese steaks.  The onions are where Paul and I differed.  I liked the places (including this one) where the onions were cooked for a while, sweeter, and cut into bigger chunks.  Paul preferred the onions to be less intrusive.  Thus our difference in ratings.

Steve’s: We went to the Center City location. And we went at 7pm on the first day.  So I’ll admit to a bit of sandwich fatigue by the time we got here.  But it was still a good steak.  Just not (in my mind) as good as some others.  Steve’s slices the meat rather than chopping it – and the reviews I read were right.  This isn’t a problem as the meat is tender enough to come apart when you eat it anyway.  I had 2 complaints about this sandwich: too much cheese and the bun was dry.  But Paul liked it better than I, didn’t see the cheese as a problem, and liked the innocuous onions.

Jim’s: Going into this tasting, Jim’s was my favorite (of the places I’d tried).  Trying them all back-to-back was really enlightening.  I’ll tell you what I still like about Jim’s:  it is close to Center City so I can walk there from my hotel.  They serve beer, so I can have a Yuengling with my steak.  And the onions are cooked and big and sweet.  I still like those things but I realized the overall better sandwiches were elsewhere.  And since Paul doesn’t care about any of those things, he ranked it much lower.

Pat’s:  By some accounts, Pat’s is the oldest cheese steak place in town.  And it is still (by most) the standard by which ‘steaks are measured.  And our tasting supported that motion.  It is an incredibly traditional ‘steak where they do everything they’re supposed to (cook the meat ahead of time, keeping it warm on side of griddle, melt cheese with griddle before loading sandwich, typical proportions, etc.) and give a solid, no frills experience.  I found it to be on par with my local joint and a great starting point to measure other sandwiches by.  Just not one I’m going to go out of my way to eat if I have the options above available to me.

Geno’s:  Like Steve’s, Geno’s slices (rather than chops) their steak.  Unlike Steve’s, the meat doesn’t melt as you bite it.  So it was a messy sandwich.  They didn’t melt the provolone well, and the meat is a little dry (as I had seen before) so the provolone probably isn’t the best cheese to order at Geno’s anyway.  Now everyone here has seen the hype on TV.  And it is an experience that you should try.  Just don’t go there expecting the best steak in town.

Geno’s (Wiz): I’m not a fan of the Cheese Wiz version of the cheese steak.  And Paul wasn’t too enthused about eating a bunch of those.  But I wanted to try at least one on the trip and figured Geno’s was the best place for that.  It was as expected – it tastes like a burger with American cheese instead of cheddar.  Not bad, but gives it a taste like it came from a factory.  I prefer for things to taste like they came from a farm.  Nuff said.

John’s Roast Pork: I’ll preface this by saying it was one sandwich on one day, so it may not be representative.  But we went to John’s with high hopes and slew of great reviews.  And we were sorely disappointed.  The bun was dry and flaky and fell apart when we ate it.  There wasn’t enough cheese and it wasn’t ‘grilled’ with the meat so it didn’t get a good melt.  And the meat was chopped, but not very well.  So you’d take a bite, the meat would cling and pull out, making a mess, and the bun would crumble.  Neither of us finished our sandwich.IMG_4048

Thanks son for one of the best trips I’ve ever taken.  And to the rest of you, hopefully this inspires you to check out a neon-free cheese steak if you ever find yourself in Philadelphia.

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About Paul

Having been passionate about cocktail craft for many years, I've recently been coerced into sharing my insights and experiences. This blog is my first attempt at that goal.
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