Is the Philly Cheesesteak as good as “they” say? Well, a lot of that would depend on who “they” are and just how good they are saying it is. As someone who will periodically be a part of the weirdly amorphous “they” I will say YES Philly cheesesteaks are as good as we say. Bare in mind, that any talk of a true Philly Cheesesteak is going to be rife with context for a great Philly cheesesteak is not just a foodstuff. It is an experience.
For the purpose of this article, I will limit myself to sandwiches made in Philadelphia. There are a number of variations within the city itself and if you were to look to the country in general and the existence of “Philly” Cheesesteaks in diner and fastfood joints from Maine to Alaska, then you would soon be overwhelmed by a sea of mediocrity and misnomers.
In Philadelphia, many people have loyalties to local steak shops you have never heard of like Mark’s or Jim’s or Tony Luke’s or a dozen other neighborhood joints scattered throughout the city. Most people, however, think of the corner of 9th and Passyunk where stand the giants of Philadelphia Cheesesteaks: Pat’s and Geno’s. These two rivals have been staring each other down in a Sharks -vs- Jets like rivalry for decades and this is probably ground zero for the question being asked.
Let’s ignore the rivalry. I am a Pat’s guy. Have been ever since I did a side by side comparison and found Geno’s meat to be too chewy and their bread too soggy. So I will be talking about how good Pat’s steaks are. The standard at Pat’s is a “wiz wit” cheesesteak topped with cheese whiz and fried onions. I often opt for a “provolone wit,” but both are delicious.
There is just something about the melding of the four ingredients: bread (their rolls always have a great chew to them), meat (thinly sliced then chopped on the grill swimming in juices and grease), onions (grilled to a piquant sweetness) and the cheese (gooey, salty and inherently unhealthy) that is considerably more than the sum of its parts.
But ultimately, it is not just the food that makes the Philly Cheesesteak the legendary food item that it is. The experience is a big part of my own enjoyment. Approximately 90% of my own Pat’s consumption has taken place between the hours of 2 and 5 AM after concerts or other late night carousing. Even during these wee hours of the morning, the line at Pat’s goes around the building and it is an absolute melting pot. Third shifters grabbing “lunch”, goth kids heading home from the clubs, frat boys, sports fans, elderly insomniacs, night club girls and wide-eyed loners stand shoulder to shoulder waiting to place their orders.
Indeed, Philly Cheesesteaks are amazing “drunk food” but more then that they are weird sort of communal experience. In those wee hours of the morning there is a recognized kinship, subtle and unspoken amongst the people on line at Pat’s. Jeers are occasionally exchanged with the people on line at Geno’s and everyone waiting for their wiz wit is in their happy place. Those who are not eating them in the dead of night are often eating them in the hours immediately following a sporting event, either celebrating a great victory or taking collective solace in the greasy goodness of a hometown comfort food, both with the requisite comaraderie.
So when people tell you how good a Philly Cheesesteak is, remember that there is a strong possibility that they are talking not just of the food but of the experience, and yes it is that good so long as you give yourself over to the entire experience.