Cheesesteaks 101: Defining Greatness and How to Order

Streetview of the two duelling cheesesteak shops with both of their neon signs visible.

Pat’s and Geno’s, the famous dueling spots that share the intersection of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue in South Philly. Photo © Yuri Long, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

As much as I’d love to give you a definitive answer to the question of where to get the best cheesesteak in Philly, there just isn’t one. The argument will never be settled because it’s truly a matter of personal preference.

…don’t ever order a “Philly cheesesteak”—you’re in Philly, so that part goes without saying.Some like the rolls toasted and crispy, while others prefer them soft and chewy. Some like it dripping with grease, while others complain that too much grease makes the roll soggy. Some like the meat diced as thinly as possible, while others prefer slightly larger slices or even small chunks. Some love fake, yellow Cheez Whiz, but most opt for American or provolone cheese. Regardless, the one indisputable fact is that cheesesteaks are just not the same anywhere else.

The closest I’ve come to a perfect cheesesteak outside of Philly is at the New Jersey shore, and not surprisingly, it turned out the chef hailed from Philly. While it’s a fact that locals eat cheesesteaks regularly, we try to keep our consumption in check. Let’s be honest; they’re not exactly health food.

What Makes a Great Cheesesteak

All good cheesesteaks start with a roll that is chewy—not airy or tough—and many of the best spots in town use Amoroso’s brand, a local company that’s been around since 1904. The meat should generously fill the roll—leaving an inch of meatless roll is a definite no-no. Fried onions and either hot or sweet peppers are common additions, but beyond that, you’re getting into fancy-schmancy territory. Some like to add pizza sauce, making it a pizza steak, or tomato, lettuce, onion, and mayo, making it a cheesesteak hoagie. Others opt for the only slightly healthier chicken cheesesteak, in which chicken is substituted for the beef. (It’s technically a misnomer to call it a chicken cheesesteak since there is no steak involved, but cheesechicken just doesn’t have the same ring to it.)

While each of these varieties is delicious in its own right, cheesesteak virgins are advised to keep it simple and stick with the classic beef cheesesteak (with fried onions and hot or sweet peppers if you like) and American cheese.

How to Order

While not everyone is hard-core about ordering correctly, in South Philly or anywhere there is a long line, it’s best to know what you’re doing. First, don’t ever order a “Philly cheesesteak”—you’re in Philly, so that part goes without saying. The basic rule of thumb is to minimize the words you need to convey what you want, so don’t bother saying the word “cheesesteak” if that is the main thing the establishment serves. Cheesesteak is implied, so you can just give the specs: “Whiz wit,” means Cheez Whiz with fried onions, and “prov without” means—yes, you guessed it—provolone cheese without fried onions. These rules are most strictly observed at Pat’s and Geno’s, the famous dueling spots that share the intersection of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue in South Philly. Of the two, I prefer Pat’s to the neon-bedazzled Geno’s, in part because the meat at Pat’s is chopped more finely and in part because of the questionable sign at Geno’s that reads “This is America, when ordering please speak English.”

While there are certainly better cheesesteaks out there, this corner offers a worthwhile cultural experience. Perhaps best of all, it is the only place where you can find cheesesteaks (and cheese fries if you really want to go all out) 24 hours a day. While you wait in line, be sure to check out the autographed photos of celebs on the walls of both—everyone from Justin Timberlake to Oprah has been here.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Philadelphia .

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