August 24, 2007

For the Love of a Cheesesteak

I’m starting to experiment with eating meat again. I had stopped eating meat nearly five years ago, not for ethical or political reasons, but for personal health reasons. (Without going into too much detail, I would eat meat and would subsequently end up in the bathroom for a long time.) This was not something I was fond of, so it was with great sadness that I set aside cheesesteaks (the pride of Philadelphia) and the wonderful cooking of my Italian family (the meatballs!) to become vegetarian. I eventually upgraded to “pescatarian” by added some fish to my diet, but aside from that, it was a cheese, fakon, hot frauds, tricken, and shamburger existence—my friends and I have always enjoyed imagining fake meat products as being actively deceptive.

Upon a recent apartment-hunting trip to New York, I ended up in Coney Island for an afternoon. Needless to say, I snapped and had a hot dog. When you don’t eat meat for a long time, you only crave the least healthy and most delicious varieties thereof. I now find myself in something of a meat renaissance, slowly catching up with all of my old favorites.

Alas, there is one problem: now that I am away from Philadelphia, there isn’t a decent cheesesteak in sight. For those who either don’t know or have never been to Philly, a cheesesteak is not as mundane or as easily accomplished as it may sound. A cheesesteak is not just mere cheese and steak on a roll. The magical combination far exceeds the sum of its parts, and to the best of my knowledge, a cheesesteak of respectable quality can only be attained in or around Philadelphia, PA.

As much as I would like to believe that the mere 100 miles separating Brooklyn and Philadelphia would mean a halfway decent cheesesteak has found its way across the border, I remain unconvinced. I could run about willy nilly and try every advertised “Philly cheesesteak,” but let’s not kid ourselves, taste-testing cheesesteaks at every meal, while providing that Adonis-like Philly physique we all love, would likely leave anyone in traction.

So, for anyone previously or currently in and around New York, can you recommend a place where I can find a real Philly cheesesteak? Sorry, if you aren’t from Philly, or at the very least, have never had a Philly cheesesteak, you probably aren’t qualified to answer this question.

Commentary (62):

1. Liz Danzico says… aug 24, 2007 | 10:36 am

This looks like a good place to start. Good luck!

2. Michael says… aug 24, 2007 | 10:37 am

Well… Ever tried cooking it yourself? You’re from Philadelphia… :)

3. bearskinrug says… aug 24, 2007 | 10:39 am

Why don’t you make one of your own? All you need is one cow to provide the cheese, and then later on, the steak.

4. Jason Santa Maria says… aug 24, 2007 | 10:42 am

Liz Danzico: Some good potential contenders there. What I’m really hoping for is someplace in Brooklyn that fits the bill.

bearskinrug: That sounds like an awful lot of waiting.

5. Shane says… aug 24, 2007 | 10:42 am

My wife became a vegetarian about 2 years ago and it’s been a tough go of it for me, especially living in Kansas City, the land of Barbecue.

Only recently she has gone through a similar “meat-testing” phase. She took a bite of my Chick-fil-a sandwich a while back and even tried a burger of mine a while back.

As far as your cheesesteak problem goes…I have a good friend from the Philly area and he explained to me the difference between Philly’s cheesesteaks and everywhere else’s. Doesn’t it have something to do with Cheez Whiz? I’ve never had one, so I don’t know.

There is a place here in KC called the Original Boston Cheesesteak Company that my wife (who is a mural artist) did some work for. The owner was born and raised in Boston and claims that the cheesesteak was not born in Philly, but in Boston and that Ben Franklin brought it to Philadelphia. I don’t know if I buy his story, but his cheesesteaks were pretty good. But like I said…I’ve never been to Philly so I have no comparison.

After reading this, I realize that it doesn’t help at all. But there you go.

6. Mark Boulton says… aug 24, 2007 | 10:45 am

Don’t eat Cheesesteaks. As my wife will tell you, they make you ‘smell of meat’.

7. Kevin Tamura says… aug 24, 2007 | 10:48 am

A hot dog? I thought bacon was the gateway meat. It has turned many of my vegetarian friends.

8. Scott Nelle says… aug 24, 2007 | 11:03 am

Should a proper cheesesteak have onions and/or peppers on it? Whenever I get one (admittedly not in Philly) I have to request that they leave these unsavory items out. I just want Cheese and Steak. If I wanted salad on it, I’d go to a health food store.

9. Scott Troyan says… aug 24, 2007 | 11:05 am

Even if you didn’t mind the waiting and tried the “One Cow” plan, you’d still need a second robotic cow to process the cheese into Cheez Whiz.

And it’s so very true that you can only get a true Philly cheesesteak in Philly. Most offerings I’ve tried in other cities barely surpass Steak-Ums. I live in the suburbs (eastern Delaware County, about 15 minutes from an emergency trip to Pat’s) and even the way the sandwich places around me make a cheesesteak is very different from Philly.

10. Renaud says… aug 24, 2007 | 11:11 am

Jason is right. It’s not just one variable that makes a Philly cheesesteak. That would make it too easy to reproduce. I think ultimately it comes down to Philadelphians having no fear of using the most fattening items to make their sandwiches. Great italian rolls with processed flour - check, processed cheese-wiz or the refined provolone - check, fattiest steak for ultimate flavor with the right ratio of pepper - check, onions sauteed in oil and butter - check. I just think non-Philadelphians puss out on of one those heart clogging steps.

11. Sharif says… aug 24, 2007 | 11:14 am

If you do go the make-your-own route, set the Tivo for this Good Eats episode…

12. Kevin Barnett says… aug 24, 2007 | 11:24 am

I have a feeling that finding truly authentic Cheesesteaks in New York is like trying to find some decent Mexican (and/or Tex-Mex) - it’s next to impossible.

That said, I think Wogie’s in the West Village is pretty good.

13. Wade Winningham says… aug 24, 2007 | 11:38 am

This won’t help you in NYC, but having lived in Philly for 20 years and now living outside of Dallas, TX, I found Fred’s Philly Cheesesteaks is the real deal. Fred is also an ex-Philly native who ships in his ingredients from Philadelphia, including Amoroso rolls, and makes them just like I remember. I know what you’re going through.

14. Jason Santa Maria says… aug 24, 2007 | 11:41 am

There are numerous “proper” variations for the Philly cheesesteak; whiz or american (provolone is usually frowned upon), “wit” or “witout” (short for “with onions” or “without onions”, but there is an interesting variant I hadn’t heard of on the Wikipedia cheesesteak entry, “South Street Sushi”:

South Street Sushi, is made by wrapping a cheese steak from Jim’s Steaks, located on the corner of 4th & South Street, in a slice of pizza from Lorenzo’s, at 305 South Street.

Lorenzo’s serves some of the best pizza in Philly, especially late at night, and the slices are as big as your head. But wow, that’s a recipe for a heart attack.

15. Mathew Hoy says… aug 24, 2007 | 11:51 am

First, I am a vegetarian. I too have been tempted lately for some reason. Last night it was for crazy fried chicken for some reason. Haven’t been eating fish in a long time either, but recently have bought some salmon to eat at lunch. Had one piece of it the other day and it was really great. Next time, will BBQ it.

Second, I love Good Eats. Anything Alton Brown says is golden. If he told me to light a tire on fire to truly get The Simpson’s mesquite-flavour, I would do it in a heartbeat.

Third, hi! Following you on Twitter for a month or so now. Good luck with your meat-making!

16. beth says… aug 24, 2007 | 11:59 am
When you don’t eat meat for a long time, you only crave the least healthy and most delicious varieties thereof.

This is so true. I was vegan for five years until one day I met the piece of pizza that was my match.

17. Matt Jacobs says… aug 24, 2007 | 12:16 pm

I’ve yet to find a decent option in Brooklyn but I’m hoping this thread will bear some meat-shaped fruit.

Liz’s link has the only three I’d recommend in the city (in order):
Philly Slims
99 Miles to Philly

18. Justin Kilcher says… aug 24, 2007 | 12:33 pm

Oh how you will miss south philly now that your eating meat again. Just try to organize a “Happy Cog Philadelphia goes to Pats” one day. A day of design, standards, and cheesesteaks with whiz.

19. Jason Santa Maria says… aug 24, 2007 | 12:40 pm

Matt Jacobs: I might have to try out some of these (and other recommendations) and report my findings here. :D

20. Chris Griffin says… aug 24, 2007 | 12:50 pm

Duh, Applebee’s has the best philly cheesesteak around!

21. Alex Beard says… aug 24, 2007 | 12:58 pm

I dream of the day when I can indulge into a genuine Philly cheesesteak.

I’ve had new york pizza/hot dog, chicago pizza/hot dog, and now the only thing left on my list is the cheesesteak.

22. Darrin Hawe says… aug 24, 2007 | 1:23 pm

Perhaps it’s just me, and the fact that I live in SoCal, but I have driven 150+ miles to eat dinner at a favorite spaghetti restaurant. A cheesesteak pilgrimage would be an excellent reason for an impulsive road trip, just remember to pack your camera and take lots of pictures.

23. Greg says… aug 24, 2007 | 2:13 pm

I like this now ‘meated’ Jason. He’s far more agreeable and his jokes are funnier.

24. Jason Campbell says… aug 24, 2007 | 2:58 pm

With all this effort surrounding the hunt for meat I find it impossible to resist the urge to ask on my own behalf for directions to the best Polish sausage in Chicago within walking distance of Monday and Tuesday’s event apart. My first trip to Chi-town and I will walk the earth like Kane to get a decent sausage in, what I understand to be, the mecca from which all good polish come.

Thanks in advance.

25. Jason Santa Maria says… aug 24, 2007 | 3:15 pm

Jason Campbell: I can’t answer that question, but I am sure there will be quite a few people at the event who can. :D

26. Greg says… aug 24, 2007 | 3:15 pm

For all sinew-encased meats in Chicago, I turn to Portillos, first and always.

27. Adam says… aug 24, 2007 | 4:00 pm

Being a philly native who recently moved to nyc myself, I’ve been going through similar withdrawl. I say I’m leaving for Philly to visit friends, but little do those up here know I’m actually taking the pilgrimage to cheesesteak-mecca.

Question (or Troll, you pick) for all you Philly folk - fav. cheesesteak?

Personal opinion is geno’s over pats, tony luke’s over either, and Jim’s ftw.

28. Jason Santa Maria says… aug 24, 2007 | 4:13 pm

Adam: For the traditional cheesesteak, I would vote for that same order. Though, I honestly think that Pat’s and Geno’s are tourtisty cheesesteaks, if there be such a thing. Most people head there because they are the best known, but it’s pretty easy to find a better steak elsewhere.

Some friends swear by the lunch carts around the city, but chances are that any pizza or sub shop you walk into in Philly will serve a decent sandwich.

And, for what it’s worth, the best Vegetarian/Vegan cheesesteak in Philly can be found at Gianna’s on 6th, between South and Lombard.

29. Jason Campbell says… aug 24, 2007 | 5:19 pm

Greg thanks for the heads up there, since Adobe sees fit to sponsor a party for San Fran along with Media Temple but not Chicago (sniff, sniff, heh) I propose a closing party (or at the very least an opening to the closing party :D ) at Portillos for all meat eaters interested, hehehe.

30. Naz Hamid says… aug 24, 2007 | 6:13 pm

You’re going to come down here and eat at Portillo’s? For the love of god no.


You must go to Hot Doug’s. Though, regrettably and uselessly, they will be closed when you’re here.

Second best choice? Superdawg. Though if downtown, one must go to Al’s No 1 Italian Beef.

However, Kuma’s will not be closed. And if you want the best damn burger ever, named after your favourite metal band of choice (I recommend the Mastodon, though the Slayer is awesome), then you must go.

31. Jason Santa Maria says… aug 24, 2007 | 6:24 pm

Naz Hamid: Crap, I hope Hot Doug’s isn’t closed, I was planning on heading out there. And then hitting Quimby’s on a full stomach.

32. Stephen Collins says… aug 24, 2007 | 8:17 pm

Sorry guys, but by far the best cheesesteak in Philly comes from Delasandro’s in Roxborough.

33. rainsford says… aug 24, 2007 | 8:28 pm

Hey, being Irish, living in Ireland, can’t say I’ve experienced steak covered in cheese in a bread roll. How thin is the steak cut? I think it’s time to go to butchers…

34. Jason Campbell says… aug 24, 2007 | 9:18 pm

Ok so things get interesting. Hot Dougs their site mentions nothing about being closed is there something particular happening?

I will be there from sunday to tues so I am going to do my best to hit all of the places you mentioned (that are open), thanks for the insight.

I am just going to have to try every place to figure this out, heh.


35. Terententen says… aug 24, 2007 | 10:33 pm

I don’t know what to tell you about getting a cheesesteak in NY however I do know that if you’re now eating meat and in NY, I hope you’ve been to Katz’s for a pastrami sandwich. It’s almost worth the 99 mile drive from Philly to Manhattan just like I’d drive back to Philly to go to John’s Roast Pork for that cheesesteak.

36. Vladimir says… aug 24, 2007 | 10:47 pm

Oh how I long to enjoy another Cheesesteak from Pat’s…

37. nick says… aug 24, 2007 | 10:59 pm

ok so we’ve heard some ideas for NY, what about Chicago? i’ve always been partial to Philly’s Best (on Belmont, between Clark and the el). these guys are from Philly, so i always assumed their ‘steaks are close to what you would find in Philly. but, having never been to Philly to have an authentic cheese-steak, i just have to take their word for it.

since i moved to St. Louis i’ve found a dearth of cheese-steaks — let alone good ones. there’s the Penn Station restaurant chain (who also report themselves to be from out east). they make a good steak sandwich, dont get me wrong, but i’d define it more as a steak and cheese sandwich than a true Philly cheese-steak. it’s good, and it hits the spot, but it doesnt compare to what i used to eat in Chicago. and i doubt anyone from Philly would even waste time with it.

does anyone have an opinion (good or bad) about either of these two joints? Jason, next time you’re in Chicago, check out Philly’s Best and let us know what you think.

38. Eric Strauss says… aug 24, 2007 | 11:57 pm

I don’t know, something about eating a “Philly Cheesesteak” anywhere outside of Philly just seems to make it a “Cheesesteak.” Maybe it’s the humidity or the negative attitude — but eating a cheesesteak in Philly is what it is.

Maybe consider postponing your Cheesesteak comback until you can’t stand it and you come down here just for one?

39. Khoi Vinh says… aug 25, 2007 | 2:31 pm

I was hoping to give High Stakes Cheese Steaks on Flatbush a try, if only because the name is so great. But from that review, it doesn’t seem that promising.

I hope this was helpful.

40. nick says… aug 25, 2007 | 5:32 pm

also, is it possible that we could be in the midst of a cheese-steak evolution? just as there are variations of pizza (New York-style, Chicago-style, St. Louis-style, etc.) or hot dogs, could we soon see variations of the cheese-steak? maybe a Chicago cheese-steak would include Italian beef (from Vienna Beef of course) and be constructed like a combination of an Italian Beef sandwich and a Philly. a San Francisco cheese-steak would be built on sourdough bread. or maybe St. Louisans like their cheese-steak on a toasted roll.

sorry, these are the things that pop into my mind. i just figured that rather than trying to imitate a ‘steak from Philly and getting it wrong (like many cities/places do), it would be better to take the good qualities of the Philly and adapt them to what people like and expect in a certain region — similar to how pizza has evolved across the U.S.

41. apartness says… aug 25, 2007 | 10:08 pm

Dude, you smell of meat.

42. Mason Wendell says… aug 26, 2007 | 2:06 am
And, for what it’s worth, the best Vegetarian/Vegan cheesesteak in Philly can be found at Gianna’s on 6th, between South and Lombard.
I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to call you on this one. Govinda’s Gourmet-to-Go at South and Broad make the better sandwich. Their fake chicken cheesesteak is like grilled crack.
43. mgist says… aug 26, 2007 | 2:15 am

first of all, eat cheesesteaks because they are from heaven.
second of all, i was a nyc resident of 1 year and never found a quality substitute or contender. so i think you may be SOL.
third of all, i am now (sad to say) a phoenix resident and I have found a place that gets their bread from amaroso’s, they get cheese from philly, they get tasty cakes shipped out here… and thank GOD, they are ACTUALLY real philly cheesesteaks. simply amazing. that funny, and welcome, catch in this case is.. the people of phoenix don’t know that these are real and THUS prefer the fangled stupid creations at various restauants in the area.. for shame.

i think you’ll just have to plan a pilgrimage. good luck. and have a bit for me.

pats, genos or tony lukes or another - which is your preference?

44. Scott Powers says… aug 26, 2007 | 2:49 am

I feel your pain Jason. Lemme rephrase.. I felt your pain.. haha. I just moved back up to North Maryland from a year living in Mississippi. There’s really no place like philly to get a good cheesesteak.

In Atlanta there’s a chain called, for some reason, Philly Connection. To say it politely to PC… yous guys ain’t connected!

I’d never been to Tony Luke’s until I saw him on that Bobby Flay show on tv… Showdown? His steaks were definitely better than Pats or Genos… I’d venture to say even better than Jims.. but then again.. maybe one steak from Tony Luke’s isn’t enough to go that far.

Happy hunting.. if you find a good philly, write a blog… i’m sure somebody in nyc is hunting with you.

45. Ralph Brandi says… aug 26, 2007 | 4:18 am

I’ve never found a decent Philly cheesesteak in NYC. Not to say they don’t exist, just that they’re pretty thin on the ground. Most of the contenders are Camden cheesesteaks; close, but not quite Philly.

I know a few places on the Jersey Shore that do a credible job, though, and that’s something that wasn’t true ten years ago. Maybe in another ten years, real Philly cheesesteaks will make it to Brooklyn.

46. Jason Santa Maria says… aug 26, 2007 | 6:33 am

Mason Wendell: While Govinda’s does make a powerful sandwich, it’s not a tried and true (fake meat) cheesesteak. I agree, the fake chicken cheeesteak is grilled crack, but Gianna’s is the more traditional option. Let’s not fight, we’ll get one each and go halvsies. :D

47. Chrissy says… aug 26, 2007 | 4:35 pm

Unfortunately I haven’t found anything close here in NY. Its been really disappointing. But, all of the comforts of home are a click away if you’re willing to pay for it…

The Philly Cheesesteak Package includes:
* Original Philly Cheesesteak (12” long, 1 lb.) w/ or w/ onions
* Tastykake Cupcakes and Pie
* Herr’s Potato Chips
* 2 Large Soft Pretzels
* Bookbinder’s Soup & OTC Crackers
* Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak Soda
* Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews
* The Philly FUN-ics Book
* Yo, Wha’s Supp Button

48. Travo says… aug 27, 2007 | 1:20 am

Ah, mate, the Wikipedia picture alludes to the reason you had to give up meat in the first place. I reckon an unhealthy diet of those would have me in the bathroom too…

49. David Sleight says… aug 27, 2007 | 9:53 am

Haven’t been to Wogie’s or Philly Slims yet, but 99 Miles to Philly does a respectable job, and it’s tough to beat the cramped, screaming red neon ambiance on a humid summer night. (And their hot sauce ain’t bad either.)

50. Jared says… aug 27, 2007 | 11:24 am

Hot Dougs is going to be closed?!?! When? I’m going to Chicago next week and was given very explicit instructions to eat there.

Though it’s not a cheesesteak, I must recommend the beer milkshakes at Schnack in Red Hook. If you’re ever in DC, the best cheesesteaks we have here IMHO are at Yum’s on 14th st. It’s chinese carry-out.

51. Peter Santa Maria says… aug 27, 2007 | 12:17 pm

Tony Luke’s makes the best cheesesteak in Philly.

As for the ‘burbs, Moccia’s Train Stop rocks in the cheesesteak dept.

I’ll make sure to have one waiting for you when you come down to visit in Oct.

“Butter up that bacon, boy!” - Homer to Bart

52. Todd says… aug 27, 2007 | 4:14 pm

I’ve never seen anything close to Philly cheesesteak in NY, and I’ve lived between the island and Brooklyn all my life. But if you’re ever in Atlantic City, it’s White House Subs, hands down.

It’s probably one of the best sub shops outside of Philly on the East Coast, on the corner of Arctic and Missouri. Eveyone and their mother has been there, from Frank Sinatra to Don Rickles. The “Cos” still goes there. They’ve got a ton of pictures on the wall of all the celebs, been there for about 70 years.

And try all of the other subs there, too, especially the classic Italian and the cheeseburger sub!

53. killputer says… aug 27, 2007 | 11:17 pm

I lived in Philadelphia for the last 13 years and had come to the realization that I am the only “Philadelphian” who could careless about Geno’s, Jim’s, or Tony Lukes cheesesteaks. Out of the three I always rated Tony’s the best and Jim’s the worst (especially the south street location). The entire Geno’s NEON experience is terrible and to me the steaks taste like the grill hasn’t been cleaned in years. Plus I am an American Cheese type of guy, cheese whiz - I rather eat dirt.
My personal favorite cheesesteaks came from a little spot on Broad Street just past Oregon Ave on the way to the Stadium next to the gas station (the directions are long because I can not remember the name “Kings of Steak” maybe?). Small place that took pride in the meat selection and the preparation. You get better meat, more meat, and for about $2 less than the other guys. No long lines filled with tourist, no rude cashiers and cooks, just a good steak.

As far as Brooklyn is concerned… good luck with that.

54. M. Jackson Wilkinson says… aug 28, 2007 | 11:33 am

I had a similar problem when I initially moved to DC. I was a Jim’s fan back in Philly, and even had some pretty great steaks out in the burbs, but my first three attempts in DC were horrendous.

Then there’s the Philadelphia Cheesesteak Factory in Georgetown, which not only sells decent steaks (and all the common philly variants, like chicken cheesesteaks, pizza steaks, etc), but uses Amoroso’s rolls and sells Tastykakes on the side. Worse/Better yet, they deliver to us.

My girlfriend and I have a twice-a-month rule on ordering from PCF, but they definitely do a good job.

There may be hope yet for you in NYC, but you can always order Amoroso’s rolls and make a decent one yourself, though it takes a decent amount of work to do it right.

55. david lowry says… aug 29, 2007 | 6:20 am

There’s a decent vendor just off Madison Ave about 69th St who did a rockin’ Shish Kebab and he also did philly cheese steak… Can’t say I tried

56. Christopher Hawkins says… aug 29, 2007 | 7:55 pm
I now find myself in something of a meat renaissance
First off, OMG. This is comedy gold. Jason, you must use this as your epitaph when the time comes. :p

You’re pretty close to Philly; do you know anyone who could vacuum-wrap and FedEx an honest-to-God cheesesteak from Philadelphia? I know it sounds weird, FedExing a cheesesteak, but hey - it could work.

57. Tieg says… aug 30, 2007 | 1:37 pm

Speaking of not eating meat, there’s this restaurant off of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn that I believe has vegetarian philly cheesesteaks, but I keep passing by and haven’t tried it yet. For some reason I can’t find it on gmaps, but it’s out there. Oh yes.

58. Warren says… aug 30, 2007 | 9:07 pm

Vegetarian philly cheesesteak? What… how… why?

59. Drew McLellan says… aug 31, 2007 | 9:54 am

I have absolutely no idea what Cheez Whiz is, but something tells me I’d rather not know. I’m guessing the local cheesemongers around here aren’t going to be stocking any cheese product with that many Zs.

60. Lawrence says… sep 11, 2007 | 7:31 pm

Gotta agree with killputer here. NEVER has “one wit” passed over these lips with Whiz, and never one shall.

61. Jason says… sep 13, 2007 | 1:22 am

There’s always the Philly Way if you are near Milwaukee.

62. Joe Clay says… oct 9, 2007 | 10:46 pm
First off, OMG. This is comedy gold. Jason, you must use this as your epitaph when the time comes. :p You’re pretty close to Philly; do you know anyone who could vacuum-wrap and FedEx an honest-to-God cheesesteak from Philadelphia? I know it sounds weird, FedExing a cheesesteak, but hey - it could work.

Uh, it’s already been done. I live in Tampa, and a guy who works at the studio I work at has his father send him one every once in a while. I think there also used to be a few companies that did it.