American Hero

Why is the cheesesteak sandwich a national obsession? To find out, we went straight to cheesesteak holy land: Philadelphia.

Standing over the
grill in his eponymous South Philadelphia sandwich shop, Tony Luke Jr. pushes up
the sleeves of his triple XL black sweatshirt. “Cheesesteak,” he says. “Watch
how it’s done.” Luke lays a row of raw rib-eye onto the greased metal surface.
Using a spatula, he shifts it around without chopping it (chopping, he suggests,
is just a way of making lesser cuts of meat easier to chew). “When there’s just
a little red left,” he instructs, “throw the cheese on. It melts. Put it on a
roll. Add onions. You’re done.”

Once a regional specialty
peculiar to Philadelphia, the proudly blue-collar cheesesteak is now a culinary
star on a national scale. Food service companies pull in an estimated $500
million annually shipping cheesesteak meat across the country. Subway and
Quiznos each serve their own version. It’s even traveled to California, where
Cheese Steak Shop franchises dot the coast from San Francisco to L.A. But these
aren’t the real deal. The real deal cannot exist outside of Philly, where the
cheesesteak is treated like the city’s overprotected daughter: not to be fucked
with nor taken from home.

Still, even within that
135-square-mile cheesesteak mecca, there are so many subtle variations of the
sandwich, it seems an impossible task to determine which is best. A greasy,
cheesy, gut-busting task. Upon further consideration, a task I must complete.

Meat and Greet
I begin
at the corner of E. Passyunk Avenue and S. 9th Street, site of one of the
country’s most famous food rivalries—a 42-year-old battle for cheesesteak
supremacy between Geno’s and Pat’s. The two restaurants face each other across
the intersection, their massive signage engaged in a stony, decades-long staring
contest. “For out-of-towners, it’s the thing to do when you come to Philly,”
says lifelong resident Lauren Ainsworth, 32. “You run up the Rocky steps, you go
to Pat’s or Geno’s.”

Both are hallowed institutions. It was
brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri who created the steak and grilled onion sandwich
in 1930. According to Pat’s great nephew Frankie Olivieri, cheese—American and
provolone—came along in the ’40s. Ten years later, Cheez Whiz was introduced for
efficiency (because it’s liquid, it’s faster).

The first
rule of cheesesteak ordering in Philadelphia is, there are only three cheese
options. It’s American, provolone, or Whiz, period—a lesson then-presidential
candidate John Kerry learned in 2003, when he requested Swiss at Pat’s and was
derided by locals for his ignorance.

The second rule of
cheesesteak ordering is, learn the lingo. For a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz and
onions, order “one Whiz wit.” If you don’t want onions, drop the “wit.” Despite
the shop’s rep, my “Whiz wit” from Pat’s is disappointing. The bread is cold,
the meat is rubbery. Even the Cheez Whiz tastes off, a bit too waxy. How do you
screw up Cheez Whiz?

Hoping for better, I cross the street
to Geno’s, a blur of neon lights and nuclear orange tiles. Joey Vento opened
Geno’s in 1966 and claims it was he who first wed cheese to the steak and onion
sandwich, a contention that rankles his chief competitor. “Ludicrous!” Olivieri
says. “For all he’s concerned, he invented the wheel and signed the Declaration
of Independence. Joe Vento is the Mother Goose of cheesesteaks.” Maybe, if
Mother Goose were the type to ride motorcycles, sport a Confederate flag tattoo,
and post a sign beside her pickup window that reads:
ENGLISH. But it’s in Vento’s best interest to stop
instigating and get back in the kitchen. Simply put, his steaks also come up
short. Dry meat, cold buns.

As I talk to locals, I’m quickly
learning about the proud Philadelphia tradition of loudly debating both sides of
an argument. It is a town full of strong opinions. Don’t forget, these are
people who once booed Santa Claus at an Eagles game. When it comes to their
cheesesteaks, they’re just as adversarial. Tony Luke Jr., owner of the next shop
on my list, tells me, “I’ve literally had people walk by my place and go, ‘Tony
Luke, you suck! Pat’s is the best!’ Then other people walk by and go, ‘Pat’s
sucks! Tony Luke’s rules!’” My opinion of Luke’s cheesesteak? Not to knock it,
but let’s just say if I came here again, I’d order the roast

Closing In
all the variety around town, there are some constants that define a Philly
cheesesteak. According to Luke, it all comes down to two ingredients: The best
cheesesteak is the perfect marriage between meat and bread. “You can have the
best meat, but with a shitty roll, it ain’t gonna happen!” Most of the sandwich
bread served around town is made in local bakeries such as Liscio’s, Carangi’s,
and Amoroso’s. Richard Pepino Jr., a 32-year-old Philadelphia chef, pins the
bread’s distinct flavor and texture to geography. “It’s a Northeast thing, has
to do with the water,” he says.

The one thing a definitive
cheesesteak is not is overwrought. I discovered this
firsthand at Barclay Prime, a high-end steakhouse that offers what some
gourmands would label the ultimate cheesesteak: It includes Kobe beef, shaved
black truffles, lobster, taleggio cheese, house-made mustard, and fried
shallots. It costs $100. And it tastes totally muddled, inspired not by
tradition but by marketing gimmickry.

My sandwich at Cosmi’s
Deli, however, corresponds almost perfectly with Luke’s philosophy. The roll is
soft but not spongy, and the meat retains its juices—no easy thing for a slice
of steak so thin. Even more unusual, it’s actually seasoned. The difference, I’m
told, is a meat called “8 oz Wow.” Not a cut of beef I recognize. John
Karamatsoukas, whose Original Philadelphia Cheesesteak Company manufactures Wow,
explains: “Wow consists of a blend of choice and select grade loin tails, rib
lifter, and cap/wedge meat.” It’s also marinated—the key to its juiciness. While
purists might decry the use of a mass-produced, preseasoned meat, I think it’s
delicious. There’s only one problem with Cosmi’s steak—where the heck are the
onions? I can taste them, but I can’t see them, a head-scratcher of the highest

I find the answer to my onion prayers in North
Philly, at the unfortunately named Chink’s. The roll (from Liscio’s) retains
both softness and crunch, but it’s the onions that are cooked to perfection,
blessedly browned, which deepens their overall flavor and smell. The rest of the
sandwich takes a backseat to their mouth-watering

Fill ’Er

Thousands of calories after my day began, I’m ready
for a gastric bypass—and to admit that there’s no such thing as “the best
cheesesteak in Philadelphia.” Then, at the intersection of Snyder and Weccacoe,
I spot John’s Roast Pork. As the name indicates, John’s deals primarily in pig,
but they also serve, judging from my short but intensive blitz, the best version
of the cheesesteak in existence.

The sandwich is hefty—about
a foot long and a few inches high—and beautiful. The white American cheese melts
around each ribbon of meat, protecting its juices like a membrane. The grilled
onions are gleaming. In the mouth, it’s all balanced comfort: not too salty nor
sweet nor savory. It is the lack of excess that lends this sandwich strength. At
the table next to mine, four cops start to wolf down theirs with the fervor of
meth addicts. They’re eating so intently, I’m not sure they’d notice if a
lunatic with a shotgun busted in. As I finish my sandwich and watch them, it
occurs to me that it’s a long drive back to New York City; I might get hungry
again. I head back up to the counter and grab one for the road.