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.