The Cheesesteak: Philly’s Answer to Poutine

A few weeks ago I was excited for a show by The Charlatans in Montreal. Then it was been cancelled because drummer Jon Brookes had passed out and stopped breathing during their show in Philadelphia the night before. He was recovering in a hospital. Having recently been to Philly, my immediate thought was “cheesesteak.”

Cheesesteaks are notoriously unhealthy. This may explain why Philadelphia has the highest obesity rate in the United States. Imagine the greasiest cuts of beef fried with onions in oil and drizzled with fatty cheese in a large bun. And I’m talking large. Most cheesesteaks can feed three people but are typically eaten by one person.

Philadelphia, PA

Cheesesteaks were invented in the early 20th century. They are credited to Pat and Harry Olivieri, who opened Pat’s King of Steaks in 1930. In 1966, Geno’s Steaks set up competition across the street. The rivalry continues to this day, with locals queueing up at the South Philly grease purveyor of their choice.

Philadelphia, PA

Which one did I go for? Neither. I avoided the hype and followed the advice of a food critic for Philadelphia magazine who tried 50 cheesesteaks in 36 days. He was horrified by the meat at Geno’s, “riddled with pockets and veins of fat” and “a rainbow of colors from brown to gray.” The description of Pat’s sounded equally vile. So off I went off to try the “damn good sandwich” at Cosmi’s Deli.

Philadelphia, PA

Judging by the girth of people in Philadelphia, I was expecting something far worse. I avoided the Cheez Whiz topping and went for American cheese instead, which may have saved the day. The meat was quite tasty. It reminded me of thin lean cuts of fondue chinoise or Korean bulgogi, not the lardy stuff I’d expected. The cheese blended in perfectly. It was quite good, and left me feeling better than most poutines.

Philadelphia, PA

Something was wrong. This wasn’t the trashy experience I’d been promised. Maybe I should’ve gone to Pat’s. Or maybe I should’ve gone for THIS. Ouch!

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5 Comments

Filed under Other Trashy Food

5 responses to “The Cheesesteak: Philly’s Answer to Poutine

  1. Ralph

    The original steak sandwich in Philadelphia did not include cheese. That was a relatively recent addition, and not a good one, to my mind. Even now, you don’t have to have cheese on your Philly “steak.” The genuine Philly steak sandwich, sometimes just called a “steak” — a poor man’s repast — consists of sliced (never chopped) steak on an italian torpedo roll. I recommend adding either raw or fried onions, and maybe some hot sauce or even a hot pepper or two, which are served in big jars at the napkin counter.

    To my (admittedly prejudiced) mind, Pat’s is still the best. My dad used to take me there, and I have no intention of changing horses — no, I mean cows, they don’t sell horsemeat — at this late date.

  2. Ralph

    What I meant to say about chopped steak was that it is not authentic. Many places here unfortunately do chop up their steak while cooking it, but the real Philly steak sandwich is never made that way. It just consists of slices, so the quality of the meat matters.

  3. Ralph

    Rereading your entry about the cheesesteak, I stopped and stared at, “It was quite good, and left me feeling better than most poutines.”

    Shock! Will you now become the, uh, Poutine & Philly Pundit? I felt sure you would look down your Montreal-trained nose and pronounce our cheesesteak altogether an inferior fattener!

    Next time go to Pat’s. It has the history. It’s a pretty basic place. This is the real thing, but wanna know something? The quality varies. One day you will get the perfect, chewy slices you were dreaming of, with just the right amount of beef fat and oil and onion flavor on a perfect roll, and you can feel happy for maybe one hour.

    I think we need to harvest a certain amount of pleasure for ourselves, not just give every bit of it away. The Philly Steak Sandwich is one way I used to be able to revel in that private atmosphere of required enjoyment. Maybe some day, years from now, I will be able to enjoy all that again, at least briefly. Maybe.

  4. Heh, for the best Cheesesteak sammich in Philly, Tony Luke’s the one true place.

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