Let’s start with this premise: most of you have eaten something called an authentic Philly cheesesteak, and most of you have been vaguely unsatisfied, thinking, “Is that all there is?”
In a way, yes, that’s pretty much all there is. Few of the famous steakeries will admit it, but cheesesteaks are pretty much all the same: a long roll, low-grade beef, and some cheese. It’s not a delicacy, and there’s nothing Philly-centric about the ingredients (unlike, say, Maine lobster.) Anyone, anywhere, can make a passable cheesesteak. What distinguishes the great from the mediocre is context. There’s a reason we’ve adopted the cheesesteak as the official sandwich in Philly, and it’s not because it’s the best we’ve got to offer—not anymore—but because to eat a true Philly cheesesteak is to understand Philadelphia itself.
“On my first day working at the steak shop, a coworker taught me to chop the meat so finely I could snort it.”
I’m going to walk you through the five most important factors in an ideal cheesesteak experience. But first, I should establish my credentials: except for two years, I’ve lived in or near Philadelphia my whole life; my dad made cheesesteaks for a decade, and I made them for a half-decade; and for much of my life, I was fat.
Even with a simple recipe, there is a fair amount of debate re: the right way to make a steak. The most frequently debated point: Cheez Whiz vs. actual cheese. The primary issue with Whiz is that the whole concept of the orangey, laboratory-created cheese-like gooiness is objectively revolting, particularly when you see it applied to the sandwich via the culinary version of a putty knife. To view the months-old fortress of Whiz cans in the back of a steak shop and still order it is to consciously choose non-food over food, a difficult decision to justify in any situation. When it comes to cheese, the only acceptable options are American and provolone.
Second point of debate: how well-chopped should the meat be? On my first day working at the steak shop, a coworker taught me to chop the meat so finely I could snort it. He arranged the beef in lines on the griddle and pretended to snort.
The other option is to throw pre-sliced and frozen chunks on the griddle and then slap them in the roll so that when the customer bites into the sandwich, stringy bits of meat pull out like a magician’s handkerchief. The benefit of this approach? Like Cheez Whiz, it’s cheaper and faster. This is why the two biggest tourist traps in the city insist upon both: they can make greater profits by overcharging for a lesser food, which is why so many tourists leave South Philly wondering, as always, what the big deal is.
The word “charm” isn’t often used in conjunction with “Philly” or “cheesesteak,” but there’s a certain charm involved with a cheesesteak, the level of which is inversely proportional to the size of the steak shop.
Those cavernous corporate joints are no better than any cavernous corporate restaurant. What you want is a place that used to be a townhouse and has enough room for five seats, so everyone eats while leaning on the windowsill or sitting outside on the sidewalk. Just walking to the counter to order is a complex dance with strangers, everyone contorting to avoid eye contact and the accidental brushing of bellies. To properly understand what it means to eat a Philly cheesesteak, in short, you need to shoulder with the people of Philly, staring into the open kitchen, in which is piled a mound of cooked meat the size of a Shar-pei. The open kitchen offers a glimpse into the process of making the steak, and it also grants you permission to gorge yourself. Few aromas are as appetizing as the commingling of sautéing onions and grilling beef. The clanging of spatula on griddle as a greasy teenager hammers grimly at thirty-five pounds of beef—a steadily ringing dinner bell. The hissing of the onions—five gallon buckets tossed in oil—caramelizing while you watch… it’s the anticipation that makes this whole meal worthwhile.
I’m not saying all tourists are bad, but if you find yourself somewhere where more than ten percent of the customers at any given time are tourists, you’re in the wrong place. You want to be where the locals are, because there you’ll find an essential sense of community. You’ll sit down next to a mustached guy with calloused hands who says things like, “It don’t get no better than this,” and, “It’s an honest living,” and, “What we need is we need Frank Rizzo back,” and he will simultaneously defy and reinforce all of your expectations of Philadelphians.
Regulars will wear the shop’s official shirts when eating, like fans wearing jerseys to games. They’ll tell inside jokes and forge relationships over a decade without ever seeing each other elsewhere. They’ll spread local gossip and greet the cooks like family members. The importance of that sense of belonging is not to be understated; sometimes these little communities of shared interest are all we’ve got to keep us sane.
There are some places that, upon entering, you feel like a bandit who’s just sauntered into the wrong saloon. Even the employees will eye you crooked. These places aren’t worth the trouble; no food tastes good if the person serving you holds you in contempt.
The cheesesteak is a populist food, not fit for gourmet. Still, some steak jockeys have deluded themselves into thinking they’re actual chefs, which leads to abominations like the cheesesteak cordon bleu hoagie. Toppings are fine, but stick to the standard options: sauce, onions, mushrooms, peppers. Anything else is extravagant, maybe too decadent.
You should be able to order without looking at the menu—you’ll have what he’s having, and what she’s having, because everyone’s having the same basic thing, and everyone likes it. You’ll drink a black cherry soda with that, or a can of Miller High Life; if they try to serve you a craft beer or sparkling water, then you’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up in a place that probably calls itself The Philly Cheese Steak Factory and plasters pictures of Guy Fieri on the menu. Go to places that stick with what they know—the classic, simple cheesesteak.
The true virtue of this kind of place is that they’re comfortable with who they are. Self-awareness versus self-importance—that is the primary divide between a real steak shop and a tourist trap.
The lack of self-awareness also manifests itself in the legendary surly attitudes you’ll find in the South Philly landmarks. Somehow, people have been tricked into thinking meanness is a prerequisite to the steak experience, but the reason the most famous steak places in the city are so rude to customers is because they think they themselves are more important than the food, as if their ability to slather cheese-like substance on unchopped grade-D meats has elevated them above the hoi polloi. You’re an inconvenience to them.
Not to say Philadelphians are all approachable or huggable. But the workers in self-aware shops aren’t smug; they may be salty, but they won’t insult you for ordering slowly or incorrectly. They’ll treat you like an adult, which doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
Although I understand the ostensible appeal of the drunken cheesesteak run at midnight, I can assure you that in the morning, you will have the junkie’s remorse. It’s a short-term minor benefit with long-term consequences, especially since all the late-night ingredients are stale and dry.
No, the best time to eat a cheesesteak is at lunch time on a day when you’ve been doing serious hard labor—ripping up concrete, digging ditches, the kind of work that demands excessive caloric compensation. You want to go with your buddies who are helping you clear out your deceased grandmother’s house, and the three of you are going to eat your steaks while sitting on the back of your friend’s truck. It’s early-spring, the city completely thawed and actually looking kind of pretty. Your back is starting to ache, fingers locking up from overuse, and right now you truly appreciate the cheesesteak.
As you’re sitting on the back of the truck with your friends, thinking about your remaining hard labor, you’ll relish every moment of that sandwich, and you’ll look at the leaves returning to the trees, and you’ll feel the general excitement in a city that so rarely allows itself to be optimistic, and, momentarily, you’ll know what they mean by brotherly love. You’ll understand what you’ve been missing.
Honorable mention: Tony Luke's (although their roast pork sandwich is even better!)
Tom McAllister is the author of Bury Me in My Jersey: A Memoir of My Father, Football, And Philly, which was released by Villard this month. A 2006 graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he is currently a lecturer in the English department at Temple University. For more information on his memoir, check out his website