A Tony Luke’s cheesesteak topped with Cheez Whiz and onions // © 2017 J. Varney for Visit Philadelphia
Feature image (above): Look to Pat’s King of Steaks for the origin story of the iconic sandwich. // © 2017 Getty Images
If you ask 10 Philadelphia natives where to get the best cheesesteak, you’ll probably get 10 different answers. That’s because everyone has varying opinions about what makes this Philly staple so great. For some, it’s the meat; for some, the cheese (or Cheese Whiz, as the case often is); and for some, the bread. On a recent trip to Philadelphia, my teenage sons, 19-year-old Josh and 16-year-old Jacob, made it their mission to find the best cheesesteak — or, at least, to find their favorite.
First, we needed to learn about cheesesteak.
A cheesesteak is a long, crusty roll filled with thinly sliced, sauteed beef and melted cheese. The most commonly used cheese is Cheez Whiz by Kraft Foods, but American and provolone are also popular. Other toppings may be fried onions, mushrooms and peppers. Some shops additionally offer cheesesteak hoagies, which include cold toppings such as lettuce and tomato.
When ordering a cheesesteak, three things must be concisely communicated: that you want a cheesesteak; what type of cheese you prefer; and whether you want fried onions. Locals have it down to three words. For example, “one whiz with” means a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz and onions, and “one provolone without” means a cheesesteak with provolone but without onions.
The challenge is remembering correct ordering protocol upon reaching the counter. Some shops will help customers with ordering, but failure to have your order ready might get you sent to the back of the line at other establishments.
The cheesesteak was created in 1930 when Pat Olivieri, a Philadelphia hot dog vendor, decided on a whim to put beef on his grill. A taxi driver noticed and asked for a steak sandwich, and the next day, cabbies from all over town showed up for steak sandwiches. Soon after, Olivieri opened Pat’s King of Steaks to sell his fare.
In 1966, Geno’s Steaks opened a rival shop across the street, and today, after more than 50 years, the two family-run businesses still battle for the title of best cheesesteak in Philadelphia.
Although Pat’s and Geno’s are obvious choices for grabbing a bite of the iconic sandwich, Josh and Jacob decided we should to skip both to sidestep the long-standing debate — and also to find shops with shorter lines.
Jim’s Steaks South St.
Jim’s Steaks South St. is considered by some Philly locals to be giving Geno’s and Pat’s a run for their money. Opened in 1976, the family-run business is a five-time winner of the “Best of Philly” award for best cheesesteak from “Philadelphia Magazine.” And with more than 200 years of cheesesteak-making knowhow behind the counter, that’s no surprise.
Jim’s also helps alleviate the stress of ordering “correctly” by posting instructions — a visual aid my sons and I were thankful for. Another plus for the restaurant? There’s plenty of seating upstairs.
We Ordered: One provolone “with,” plus mushrooms and peppers
Pandora’s Lunch Box
Whenever my sons and I visit a new city, we always take a food tour. It’s a great way to see sights, learn history and try local specialties. In Philadelphia, we chose City Food Tours’ Flavors of Philly excursion because the staff promised to take us to hidden gems that in-the-know locals love — and they definitely delivered.
“We selected Pandora's Lunch Box for our tours for the same reason that we select almost all of our venues,” said Robert Weinberg, co-owner of City Food Tours. “It's locally owned, and they are very good at what they do.”
Pandora’s is small, but its cheesesteaks were big on flavor, so it was easy to understand why City Food Tours chose this cheesesteak joint to represent the star of Philly’s food culture.
We Ordered: One American “with”
Hungry travelers can spend hours in the city’s Reading Terminal Market looking for delicious things to try, but as we quickly discovered — and what was reinforced by the long line — is that a delicious cheesesteak can be found under the red neon Liberty Bell at Spataro’s Cheesesteaks.
“Fresh ingredients and an attention to quality make our cheesesteaks the best,” said Alex Spataro. “And it doesn't hurt that we use only 100 percent rib-eye steak.”
Established in 1947, Spataro’s cooks its cheesesteaks the classic way — on a flat-topped griddle — and served them with the traditional option of “wit or wit-out” onions. For cheese, visitors can choose from American, provolone or, of course, Cheez Whiz.
We Ordered: One provolone “with”
With our quest complete — or so we thought — we headed to Citizens Bank Park for a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. Much to my boys’ delight, Tony Luke’s has a location inside the ballpark, so there was one last cheesesteak to try.
A relative new kid on the block when it comes to cheesesteaks, Tony Luke’s opened in 1992, but it has already won awards for its cooked-to-order sandwiches on fresh in-house baked bread. Particularly notable is that founder Tony Luke Jr. beat Iron Chef Bobby Flay in a cheesesteak challenge on television series “Throwdown With Bobby Flay.”
My son Jacob, an aspiring chef, describes Tony Luke’s take on the sandwich as a “chef-ier” cheesesteak. The establishment uses hormone- and steroid-free Black Angus rib-eye steak, though the “chef-iness” stops there since — in keeping with Philly tradition — its steak is still topped with American, provolone or Cheez Whiz.
We Ordered: One American “with”