Life

A Philly Native Returns Home In Search Of The Perfect Cheesesteak


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When I left Philly 10 years ago, my first thought as the skyline disappeared in my rearview was, “Good riddance.” My second thought was, “I’m never going back.” But the thing about time is that it softens even the hardest of feelings and gives you the distance you need to really take stock of things. In my case, that meant allowing myself a few years to direct my anger at an entire city and culture (as unfair as that may be), then finally returning when I was good and ready.

I knew the time had come when I started searching for a decent cheesesteak in Oregon. I quickly discovered that out on the West Coast people think “Philly cheesesteak” means mushrooms, overcooked green peppers, and — literally, kill me — Philadelphia cream cheese. This stark reality put my negative associations with my city in perspective. Soon, I was desperately homesick for a steak with whiz.

To be clear, the cheesesteak is quite literally the perfect sandwich. The only sandwich that I can imagine setting aside my personal traumas for. The umami of the beef, the salty cheese, the hint of sweetness courtesy of slowly caramelized onions, the Amoroso roll offering a perfect balance of snappy crust and soft, delicate dough. Pair it with a birch beer and you’ve reached peak comfort food.

It’s also emblematic of the city I was raised in. Philadelphia’s very identity distilled into a food. Misunderstood, often derided for being greasy, artery-clogging, even low-rent, criticisms of the cheesesteak mirror criticisms of the city itself — whose rough-and-tumble reputation is perhaps not undeserved, but definitely gives short shrift to a metropolis that calls itself home to about 1.6 million people (to say nothing of the sprawling towns and suburbs surrounding it). The cheesesteak, like Philadelphia, seems easy to define on the surface but is a mix of disparate ingredients working in perfect concert to create an unrivaled, underrated experience.

So I decided to go back and eat my feelings. To try to figure out, through the power of whiz and beef, how I felt about home. But I didn’t just want a cheesesteak. I wanted the best damn steak in the city. Which presented a problem (albeit a tasty one): Locals are… uh… quite opinionated about where you’ll find the best cheesesteak (and what, exactly, constitutes a real cheesesteak) in Philadelphia. So I asked family and friends, including Mark Simmons — founder/ tour guide at Free & Friendly Tours, which offers a decadent Colonial Cheesesteak Tour — where I should go.

Everyone I asked came through with recommendations. Shared aggressively. I did my best to try them all.

Tony Luke’s, W. Oregon Ave., South Philly

Driving from my current home in North Carolina, it made sense to start at Tony Luke’s. It’s next to the highway and the southernmost shop on my list. The fact that it’s located on Oregon Ave. is a detail that did not escape me. In fact, it downright delighted me, almost as much as the fact that there was parking right out front. In the middle of the street. Which is perfectly legal, in case you see a bunch of cars just randomly parked in the street and you’re wondering where the hell all the tow trucks are.

There’s a certain sound to the first bite of a good cheesesteak. A snap, if you will, at the moment your teeth tear the bread and all that flavor finally has an outlet. It literally pops. The pop is an indicator that your bread is fresh and high-quality. It’s a sound I hadn’t heard for years but immediately remembered upon my first bite at Tony Luke’s.

I do wish Tony Luke’s were more generous with the toppings. I like for every bite to be evenly slathered in cheese and onions, and the distribution was slightly uneven. Some bites were just steak, which was disappointing. Still: the cheese-meat-onion bites were near perfect, and I was practically floating off of my seat.

Jim’s Steaks, South Street

Continuing north toward Center City, I decided to stop at Jim’s on South Street. This was my usual haunt when I would come to the city years ago. Growing up, my forays into center city usually included secretly attending punk, emo, and ska shows at the Theater of the Living Arts with my friends, then polishing off a night of being a mopey teenager with a greasy, delightful sandwich.

I got to Jim’s early enough that the line wasn’t quite out the door yet, though it was already snaking around the restaurant’s bottom floor. That didn’t stop me. There may be 30 people in front of you, but that doesn’t mean you have a long wait ahead. Jim’s is efficient. Prepare your order early because they will bark at you if you’re not ready.

I ordered my usual — whiz with onions — with a Dr. Brown’s cream soda. After handing over some cash, I walked upstairs and found a seat at a table by the window. I was shocked to discover new tables and chairs. Don’t get me wrong, Jim’s is still bare bones, the kind of place that considers photos of famous customers to be high-level interior design, but it’s jarring to see the old fake wood Formica tables replaced with Jetsons-looking silver tabletops.

I digress. What’s important is that the steak was juicy, the whiz was generously poured, and the cream soda offered a refreshing reprieve from the umami bomb.

Woodrow’s Sandwich Shop, South Street

Via @breakfast_lunch_tradition

This is a place I felt immediately suspicious of, as it is new and puts house-made truffle whiz and cherry pepper mayo on its steaks. Not to go too deep on the analysis, but my resistance to change is one of the drawbacks of being raised in a culture like Philly’s. “There’s a right way to do things,” I thought, “and this is not it.” Still, this was for science so I pushed on.

I’m almost strictly a whiz-and-onions lady, but I understand the merits of provolone, too, and, sure, even American cheese. That said, I do not mess with vegetables on my steak. Peppers or mushrooms can f*ck off. The whole point of this sandwich is its simplicity. That’s why it works. So though I gave Woodrow’s a shot, I didn’t experiment much with the menu.

The results of my adventurous spirit? Yes, this is a sandwich. But it’s not really a cheesesteak. The steak itself is great—juicy with a perfect sear, the right size and texture for ripping into, but I could have done without the earthy funk of the truffle. And the mayo just seemed overboard on a sandwich that uses liquid cheese as one of its core ingredients.

Mostly, I left feeling vindicated as a Jim’s fan.

D’Alessandro’s, Manayunk

Via @tony_herald

My next stop was at D’Alessandro’s, in Manayunk. To get there, I drove east down South Street, caught 95 North, and took the subterranean Vine Street Expressway, which cuts straight through then rises up and out of the city, curving around the art museum and Boathouse Row before dropping out in Manayunk. It offers a quick tour of some of the city’s most iconic sites, and it made me ache just a little. (If you want to go for the true scenic route, take Kelly Drive, which cuts through Fairmount Park, instead of the Vine Street Expressway.)

D’Alessandro’s is a place I probably should have been before this trip. My dad grew up in Manayunk before his family moved out to King of Prussia, and I spent plenty of time in the neighborhood as a kid. But alas, as I said above, when you have your spot, you just kind of stick with it. I never really saw the point of driving an extra 30 minutes to try a new shop.

Immediately upon walking inside, I was assaulted by nostalgia. There is something intensely romantic about the fact that you could walk into a dozen different places and find the same foil-paper wrapper, the same refrigerator full of Dr. Brown’s and birch beer, and the same paper napkins that are borderline useless when your hands are covered in cheese and beef drippings. It’s quotidian and beautiful and it made me appreciate something that seems deeply intrinsic to Philly’s DNA.

This being my fourth stop in a single day, my mouth felt slightly pickled from all the salty whiz. I decided to switch things up and get my steak with provolone. D’Alessandro’s was busy, but they were still quick with my order. I sat at the counter and dug in. The bread was great — fresh, snappy, with a middle that was ready to sop up juice. The provolone was enjoyable, and my palate was definitely appreciative that I didn’t get whiz again. What gave me pause here was the steak. It kind of crumbled on the tongue. It tasted good, but I was left wondering how long it was sitting on the grill.

That said, did not stop me from finishing half of the sandwich. I’m no quitter; I powered through. Once a Philly girl always a Philly girl.

Paesano’s Philly Style, W. Girard Ave.

When I finished at D’Alessandro’s I was definitely not feeling spectacular. I decided to head back to the city. The day was winding down and I still had a few shops on my list. This time, instead of getting back on the highway, I took the long way through North Philly, riding Broad south to Girard, a broad, busy, public transit-heavy street that I mostly associate with nightly news reports about traffic accidents. These days, it’s kind of a destination. There are restaurants and apartments everywhere. The change is jarring, but then, ah! Paesano’s. Having opened in 2009, this place is new — relative to the old guard, that is — but it’s at least semi-familiar to me.

I ordered provolone with onions. It was crowded in the shop, so I got my sandwich to go and took it back to my car, like the sort of sad sack who eats the better part of six cheesesteaks in a day. There’s an art to eating a cheesesteak, especially in a small vehicle. First things first: make sure you have plenty of napkins. Like, more so than you would need were you eating at a table, like a normal human being. Next, make sure your car seat is all the way back. You don’t want your steering wheel to get in the way. Finally, make sure that you open the foil all the way, making a nice picnic blanket-esque situation in your lap. And don’t forget to pull up the sides of the foil to make little retaining walls for the drippings.

Have I done this before? What in the world makes you say that?

For some reason, eating my Paesano’s in the car made it taste…better? I’m not sure. Maybe Paesano’s is just plum delicious and I had forgotten. At any rate, they’re generous with their cheese, and the meat is well-seasoned. Every bite was evenly flavored, and I had to stop myself from finishing the whole thing.

After all, I’d saved the best for last.

Chick’s Deli, Cherry Hill, NJ

Via @paejawnos

No matter what, I was always going to end the day at Chick’s. I just had to. Growing up, plenty of people insisted I wasn’t really from Philly, since I grew up in Camden County. So I decided to honor my “technically Jersey” childhood by heading to Chick’s in Cherry Hill, arguably the best cheesesteak in America and definitely worth crossing the Ben Franklin Bridge for.

Plus, it’s actually closer to center city than Manayunk. So how about that, you snooty Pennsylvanians?

At any rate: Chick’s Deli has been open since the 1950s and there’s a reason they’re still around. The place is amazing. You cannot order a bad thing there. Go ahead, try it. I freakin’ dare you. Order the buffalo chicken cheesesteak or go crazy and get a hoagie cheesesteak. This one time, I won’t even be mad that you’re covering your delicious steak in shredded iceberg lettuce like a cretin. I would even say that if you’re taking the time to go to Chick’s, you should get a cheesesteak and a hoagie. (I recommend their Italian, light oil and vinegar.) Save the hoagie for later, when the vinegar has soaked into the bread.

It’s relatively easy to get to Chick’s from Philly. Cross the Ben Franklin Bridge and head onto Route 70. You’re going to pass a shopping center with a Wegman’s on the left, which means you’re close. When you see the Locustwood Cemetery, take the first left after the cemetery onto Cooper Landing, take the first right, and you’re there. Chick’s is in a low-key gray strip mall with a small sign announcing Chick’s Cold Cuts. It’s very suburban, and it’s very much worth hoofing it 15 minutes from center city.

I ordered a classic cheesesteak with provolone and onions, and I took a seat at one of the Formica tables. This was the big show. I was going to finish this baby (after eating smaller and smaller portions of each cheesesteak throughout the afternoon). The first bite nearly killed me, it was so achingly good. Steaming hot, gooey cheese covering almost every square inch of steak, fresh bread that would make a French aristocrat cry. It was transcendent — something you can only get in this part of the country. Something the West Coast’s most hipsterish chefs can try to copy but can never hope to truly master. There are certain things you can only get from home.

***

At the end of a very long, very gluttonous day, I walked back to the car and leaned against the driver’s side door. Aside from being uncomfortably full, I felt happy to be home.

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