What, you may ask, does a vegetarian know about cheesesteaks? Valid question What can a vegetarian possibly add to this debate? Yes, valid concern.
Well, I was not always a vegetarian. I ate meat, including an occasional steak sandwich, until I was 18. In Philadelphia. That said, I was a picky eater.
Lots of peanut butter and jelly. When I had a steak sandwich, it was most often at the Mari-Nay Diner on Lancaster Pike in Bryn Mawr.
Actually, Rosemont. Just west of Bryn Mawr. Not far. But I am stalling and evading. I didn’t eat cheese. I didn’t like grilled onions. I had a plain steak sandwich. And then stopped eating meat.
So, the bottom line is – I have NOTHING AT ALL to bring to a discussion of the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia. Nothing. My sister met her husband while she was working at Billy B’s Steaks and Hoagies in West Philadelphia. Does that help? No, I know it doesn’t.
But I love the signs and the smells and the ambience. So I have taken a list from visitphilly.com and found pictures and then cross-checked with comments from Craig LaBan’s 2002 Cheesesteak Project and – here you are.
John’s Roast Pork (14 Snyder Avenue): The favorite spot for dock workers. They say the crusty, seeded roll is to die for. John’s won the best cheesesteak title in the Inquirer‘s 2002 Cheesesteak Project: Aside from serving the city’s best pork sandwiches, chef-owner John Bucci Jr. unanimously swept all three categories of the cheesesteak competition, serving up zestily seasoned, perfectly seared beef and chicken steaks on crusty rolls with real cheese and garlicky spinach.”
Tony Luke’s (39 East Oregon). No inside service or seating. Just outside. Winter summer spring or fall. Gruff service is a trademark. Great neon. LaBan: “Crusty housebaked rolls, bitter broccoli rabe and aged provolone give the hefty steak Italian a gutsy neighborhood flair, and the neon-lit awning lends the South Philly location an authentic ambience.”
Geno’s Steaks (1219 South 9th Street). Across the street from Pat’s. Kind of gutsy, taking on the original guy like that. Open 24-7. Literally. Really embodies the ethos of South Philadelphia architecture. LaBan gave it a 3/5 – Will Satisfy the Craving. And he liked it better than Pat’s.
Pat’s King of Steaks (9th and Passyunk). The home of the first cheesesteak. It was invented here by Pat Olivieri in 1930. The family still runs it. I love the name of the street – Passyunk. Which is what happens when you bring a vegetarian to a cheesesteak fest. LaBan got snarky on Pat’s: “The inventor of the steak is coasting on its reputation, serving up puny, gristle-laced sandwiches at a famous corner that could use a good scrub.”
Jim’s Steaks (400 South Street): South Street is very hip and is technically in South Philly but – not exactly. When I grew up in Philadelphia we waited in line. Now they wait on line. At Jim’s. LaBan was not impressed: “I’ll cede this Jim’s some of the best fried onions in town, but even the partisans had to admit the meat was stringy.”
Campo’s Deli (214 Market). Liberty Bell-adjacent. For the lazy tourist. Not in South Philadelphia. LaBan appreciated the dried roses in the restrooms but found “the sandwiches were also far too polite, with parsimonious portions and sterile flavors.” Ouch! But – there is the 3-D sign.
McNally’s Tavern (8634 Germantown Avenue). Far from South Philadelphia, in Mayfair / Chestnut Hill. This, my friends, is what a corner tavern looks like. And, happily, LaBan liked it, lots: “This unmarked tavern in Chestnut Hill produces one of the region’s great specialty cheesesteaks, the Schmitter, a steak-and-salami fantasy on a kaiser roll.”
Dalessandro’s Steaks (600 Wendover). Roxborough, a different world than South Philadelphia. But I’m getting kind of fond of the understatement of these last two. LaBan wasn’t happy with the food here, but the kindness of the staff produced a slight dialing down of snark: “The staff couldn’t be nicer at this Roxborough classic, but the huge mound of steaming, mass-cooked beef on the griddle has a dryness that soaks the drip out its generous sandwiches .”
Steve’s Prince of Steaks (7200 Bustleton Avenue). This is the Great Northeast. Boy did I love the sound of that when I was in high school listening to Hy Lit and Jerry Blavat. Okay, mostly Hy Lit. I had a warehouse job there in the summer of 1969. I had a few great meatball sandwiches from a catering truck before giving up meat that fall. And here, Steve’s Prince of Steaks has got (1) the best name and (2) the most classic Philly look of all of them. LaBan has it 3/5 (Will Satisfy the Craving): “The unchopped meat has a minimalist effect, but is very tasty, with a particularly oozy white American cheese.” And what, exactly, is a cozy cheese? GREAT adjective.
Shank’s Original (120 South 15th). I think I’ve got this sorted out. They started in 1962 near 10th and Catherine – the heart of South Philly. In 2009 they moved to 15th Street, Center City, and at some point opened on the Pier. Glad we worked through that. LaBan didn’t get here, so no cross-checking. Good signage though.
So there are the top ten. Maybe. LaBan had one more in the second highest grouping – Worth Busting the Diet – that wasn’t on the visitphilly.com list. It has/had great signs so I include it.
It used to be Chink’s (6030 Torresdale Ave). In the Great Northeast. There was a controversy about the name. So they changed it.
Joe’s Steaks (6030 Torresdale Ave). LaBan oves it and writes about it in a way that makes you want to visit: ” Step into a time warp at this marvelously preserved soda shop, where chocolate egg creams and frothy shakes are the ideal pairing for what may be the most succulent traditional soft-roll American cheesesteak in town.” That is praise indeed.
Well, I looked this over with my friend. “Not bad for a vegetarian.” He said. I said, “Well I kind of focused on the names and signs. What do you think?”