Monday, April 8, 2013

Pizza Guy Talks About Philly Cheesesteaks


A Pizza Guy Talks About Philly Cheesesteaks

A Tribute to Pete

What does a pizza guy know, or care, about cheesesteak sandwiches? Well, most importantly, the aspect that makes a great pizza is the same as that which enables a world class Philly steak sandwich: the bread.  If it is soft, wet, factory-made, flavorless, or otherwise unable to support the other richly endowed components, the entire enterprise fails. And I HAVE done considerable research!

The first time I went to spring training in Clearwater, 2008, I went alone. The Phillies won the World Series that year, and the following three years I returned with my friend Pete. I knew Pete mostly as the father of one of my daughter’s close friends, but I got to see what a great guy he is in all aspects; traveling together offers that opportunity.
Grouper sandwich. Photo from www.frenchysonline.com

In Clearwater, we pursued a passion for the Phillies and a near-equal fervor for grouper sandwiches, platters of fresh raw oysters, and pitchers of beer. It was only natural to make some weekend trips from Bucks County (where I lived then, near Pete and his family) into Philly to explore the sandwiches that are famous in their Philly renditions.

We took our inspiration from sports-talk host Glen Macnow of AM radio station 610 - WIP. Glen conducted the “Great Cheesesteak Challenge” by which he ate 45 (or more) cheesesteaks in 40 days. Here is his ranking:


1. John`s Roast Pork, South Philadelphia, PA
2. Steve’s Prince of Steaks- Philadelphia, PA
3. Chink’s Steaks (now "Joe's Steak & Soda Shop") - N.E. Philadelphia, PA
4. Talk of the Town, South Philadelphia, PA
5. Grey Lodge Pub, Northeast Philadelphia, PA
6. Slack’s Hoagie Shack, N.E. Philadelphia
7. Sonny’s Famous Steaks- Old City, Philadelphia 
8. Tony Luke’s- South Philadelphia, PA 
9. White House Sub Shop, Atlantic City, NJ
10. Dalessandro`s- Roxborough, PA
11. Donkey’s II, Medford, N.J., 
12. Jim`s Steaks- West Philadelphia, PA
13. Oregon Beef, South Philadelphia
14. Frusco Steaks, N.E. Philadelphia, PA
15. Chubby`s- Roxborough, PA
16. Pepper Mill, West Chester, PA
17. Cosmi’s Deli, South Philadelphia, PA
18. Pudge’s, Blue Bel, PA
19. Fresh Works, Springfield, PA
20. Campo’s, Old City, Philadelphia
21. Mr. V’s Steaks,, Northeast Philadelphia
22. John’s Pizza, Frazer,PA
23. Leo’s, Folcroft, PA
24. Gaetano’s, Brooklawn, N.J
25. Little Beef’s, Mount Laurel, N.J
26. Grilladelphia, Philadelphia (Fishtown)
27. Lou’s,  Norristown, PA 
28. Dimitri’s Steak and Hoagies, Philadelphia 
29. Mama’s Pizzeria, Bala Cynwyd, PA 
30. Rick’s in the Reading Terminal Market
31. La Sicilia, Oxford, PA
32. The Phil’s Tavern, Ambler, PA
33. Station Pizza, Philadelphia, PA 
34. Larry’s, Philadelphia, PA 
35. Geno’s Steaks, South Philadelphia
36. Steak ‘Em-Up, South Philadelphia
37. Anthony's Cafe and Bar, Fishtown, Phila 
38. Real Pizza, Narberth, PA
39. Abner’s, Philadelphia, PA 
40. City Line Pizza, Philadelphia, PA 
41. Max's Steaks, Philadelphia, PA 
42. Pat’s King of Steaks, South Phila 
43. Bill Pagano’s, Philadelphia (Mount Airy)
44. Sub Shoppe, Maple Shade, N.J
45. Sun Valley Pizzeria and Catering, Narberth, PA


Pete and I typically covered two cheesesteak joints on each journey into Philly. Now, the smart thing to do would have been to visit Stop #1, order a cheesesteak, split it, then move on to Stop #2, split another sandwich.  But we never did it that way. At Stop #1, we’d each order a full steak sandwich, customized to our liking (if there was a choice of small or large, I did select “small”). Then, we’d drive 20 minutes and do it all over!  Another sandwich, another Coke, and sometimes fries!

Neither Pete nor I were small guys at the time – both about 6 feet tall and 210 pounds – but that still is a boatload of food. Recently, I had a steak from Steve’s (number Two on Glen’s list) and felt fully bloated after just one sandwich. How did I ever eat two in less than an hour? But I did. And now the story can be told.
Half-decent steak sub from "Charley's Grilled Subs" chain

I can no longer recall all the places we visited, nor the order in which we proceeded. What I can say is, of the 10-12 places we tried (most all based on Glen’s recommendations), I’ve only gone back to three of them. Steve’s is truly fine, a steak without fault, but I had it a second time mostly because Steve’s added a satellite location in Langhorne (Bucks County) PA.

Philly is home to a lot of great sandwiches, for certain. The city’s best hoagie is at Sarcone's, and nearby some other epicurean delights between bread are found at Paesano’s.

I have decided, finally, that whole slices of beef are superior to the chopped up style for inclusion in cheesesteak sandwiches. I surely enjoy sandwiches both ways, but there is a better “al dente” experience to whole slices, and you know that the vendor is not hiding gristle by chopping the meat finely.

The two cheesesteaks that call me back are John’s Roast Pork in South Philly, and Chink’s (now Joe’s Steak and Soda Shop) in Northeast Philly.  So here’s my capsule take on the best cheesesteaks I’ve found (and some less than great) in the Philadelphia region.

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1) Chink's Steaks: Chink's Sets the Standard (Northeast Philly)
Chink’s hits on all the key factors -- the roll, the meat, the emulsion of grease and grilled onions.  There are certainly more famous cheesesteaks in Philly (the good but overrated tourist traps Pat's and Geno's), but Chink's is clearly the very best. 

What makes a superb sandwich? The bread is the foundation. So many places use a roll that is too soft and has no character. (Tony Luke's makes a fine CS but their roll is actually too firm.) This roll is perfect in flavor and texture, with some mild exterior crunch and a satisfying chewiness within. 

Next, you need the perfect meld of meat, cheese, and grilled onions. You can watch it all happen in the storefront griddle. Chink's uses whole slices. I can enjoy a CS with chopped meat, but Chink's uses high quality beef that shines in the whole slice format. 
From www.cheesesteakmeouttotheballgame.com

This place smells delicious, it has a comfy retro feel, and the sandwiches are perfection. With the ambiance and the friendly staff, this is the Number One Cheesesteak in the world. Joe's is the new name, but the steak is the same.

Chink's Steaks on Urbanspoon

2) John's Roast Pork in South Philly
Another superb sandwich. John’s has VERY odd hours, in that it caters to third-shift city workers – they open early, close by 3pm, and aren’t open weekends. To get a sandwich there, I needed to take vacation time to get there before a Phils game. 
The steak at John's

You will generally encounter a long line for cheesesteaks. The steak is housed in a beautiful seeded roll, and you might cry when you see the staff tear out the soft interior bread to make room for the steak, onions, and cheese. But the final result is wondrous, and the roll is key.
The roast pork at John's

However, their roast pork is even better. The pork simmers in a salty broth and is heaped into the same lovely roll, and you can add greens (spinach only;  they would go up a notch if they had broccoli rabe) and aged provolone. This may be the second best sandwich in the city, trailing only the perfectly balanced banh mi (Viet Hoagie) at QT Sandwich Shop (details HERE). 
No sandwich has better balance than banh mi

DO NOT get the pork sandwich for takeout! Eat it fast, perched on one of the few rough picnic benches outside, before the juices turn the roll into mush. The good news is that the pork does not require the grill man’s contribution, so you can jump the line and get fed faster than those waiting for a cheesesteak.

John's Roast Pork on Urbanspoon

3) Steve’s Prince of Steaks, Northeast Philly, Langhorne
Just a small stainless steel counter, odd Philly ordering system by which you need to go to different windows with different cashiers in order to get fries and a drink with your sandwich, but they nail it. Lovely fresh roll, succulent tasty ribeye, great grilled onions. On my last visit, I ordered American cheese and was disappointed to find that it was applied in a liquid “Wiz” style. I really wanted slices of deli-style American cheese, not a flow of white goop.

Steve's Prince of Steaks on Urbanspoon


4) Grey Lodge, NE Philly
This tavern gets bonus points for ambiance. Sit at the bar, watch a game, have some excellent beer, and a well-crafted cheesesteak. I’d be there a LOT if I lived nearby.

Grey Lodge Pub on Urbanspoon

5-8) Tie.  Frusco's, Shank's, Oregon Beef, Talk of the Town
These are wonderful, near-great places. We enjoyed delicious steaks at each, with fresh rolls, tender steak, and some grill skill with the onions. Shank's has a nice riverfront location off Columbus Blvd, easy to hit on the way to a Phillies game.

Frusco Steaks on Urbanspoon
Talk of the Town on Urbanspoon
Shanks Pier 40 on Urbanspoon

9)  Tony Luke's, South Philly
TL’s can be great or it can be so-so. I noted a drop-off in quality a few years back, but a comeback more recently. They are expanding, new locations as well as a frozen version. It’s never going to be the best, but it will likely always be better than any cheesesteak you can get outside the Philly region.

Tony Luke's on Urbanspoon

10)   The Pepper Mill, Rt. 352 at Paoli Pike, West Chester
They do chop the steak, but it’s good enough and tender enough to be served in whole slices. Juicy, savory, and nestled in a superb fresh roll that would be too soft for an ideal hoagie but hits the spot for this cheesesteak. DO NOT, however, order the pizza here – it is soft, floppy, bland, and mediocre. I also enjoy the crinkle-cut fries here.

Pepper Mill on Urbanspoon
From www.cheesesteakmeouttotheballgame.com

11)   Chubby’s. 5826 Henry Ave., Roxborough
12)   D’Alessandro’s, 600 Wendover Ave, Roxborough
Chubby's and D’Alessandro’s are great neighborhood places, but I gotta say the sandwiches are on the Pat's & Geno's level. The roll, fresh and tasty, was identical in both places, but too soft for my tastes. It did not detract, but nor did it enhance.

Great atmosphere in the cramped D'Alessandro's, and very friendly service. Alas, out of all the steaks we've had on our Macnow quest, this was the worst. No flavor at all. Chubby's was considerably better -- flavorful beef, but like D'Alessandro's, you could barely taste the provolone. Neither is worth the trip out to East Falls/Roxborough.

Chubby's Cheese Steaks on Urbanspoon

Dalessandro's Steaks on Urbanspoon

Also-Rans: Geno’s and Pat’s
Geno's steaks are a little better than Pat’s but I don't think I ever want to buy a sandwich there again, due to their anti-immigrant stance. Everyone – local or tourist – needs to visit Pat’s/Geno’s just once, but more for the atmosphere than for the culinary experience. It’s really a colorful scene, but it likely leaves a lot of folks wondering “what is the big deal” about a Philly cheesesteak.

Geno's Steaks on Urbanspoon

Pat's King of Steaks on Urbanspoon
From http://patsvsgenos.blogspot.com/
From http://patsvsgenos.blogspot.com/

Must be Mentioned, More than Honorably
Peter McAndrews, chef at Philly's Modo Mio, runs my favorite pizza place (and Italian restaurant) this side of Trenton -- Media's La Porta (review HERE). In South Philly's evolving Italian Market you will find McAndrews' tiny spot called Paesano's, and there is just an unparalleled assortment of inspired sandwiches. Most are unique, but on my visit I had the roast pork, and it is RIGHT THERE with John's Roast Pork sandwich.


Paesano's on Urbanspoon

Roast pork at Paesano's


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My final food trip with Pete was a visit to Federal Donuts (fried chicken and, of course, donuts - reviewed HERE) in early 2012. Pete had been gamely battling lung cancer, and remission gave him time for our baseball and culinary excursions, as well as two trips to Italy with his family. Pete was a soft-spoken guy but with his few words he showed me and others how to grab the most out of life. The world lost a great man at the close of last summer.


Federal Donuts on Urbanspoon
When I think about the Phillies, I think about Pete. I think about our trip to the victory parade with his son when the Phils won it all. When I eat a cheesesteak, I remember our gluttonous adventures. I will never again have a grouper sandwich without wishing he was at the table with me. Without him, I wouldn’t have undertaken the “research” to verify the findings of Glen Macnow. And I get an empty feeling each winter when it should be time to plan a spring training trip together.


With Pete, out for grouper sandwiches near Clearwater FL

So I lift my glass (beer, Coke, martini) to Pete. Thanks for the Phils’ companionship, thanks for the food adventures, and thanks for helping me see the small things that add up to a life well lived.

4 comments:

  1. Nice list! I'll have to try a few more of these. I'm curious if you've had Carmen's downtown or Philip's Steaks in South Philly? Both have been recommended to me and look great on Yelp.

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  2. I've been living in the Phil-delphya area for 37+ years now...and have been eating at Mama's Pizzeria on Belmont Ave. in Bala Cynwyd, PA....for 30 of those years. Been to most on your list....and never had one that was better...than Mama's. If I'm gonna eat the calories..it's Mama's.

    Wondering if you've ever tried this place?
    For me, the Delorenzo's of Hudson St. of cheesesteaks...and been around almost as long as it was. http://www.yelp.com/biz/mamas-pizzeria-bala-cynwyd

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  3. I have heard a little about Carmen's, Philip's, and Mama's, but I've not visited any of those. Sounds like it might change my list a bit! Thanks for the tips, much appreciated.

    I said, "Hey, Carmen, come on, let's go downtown."
    She said, "I gotta go, but my friend can stick around."

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  4. "...due to their anti-immigrant stance..."

    STOP STOP STOP. Gino's doesn't (and didn't) have an "anti-immigrant stance." Asking people to speak English is not anti-immigrant. You might consider it rude or inappropriate (I don't), but it's not anti-immigrant and Joey Vento made his stance on legal immigration well-known while he was alive.

    ReplyDelete