Previous Next

Photo: yurilong

How to order a Philly cheesesteak in Philadephia.

IT FELT LIKE A cliché to get a cheesesteak in Philadelphia. I tend to avoid the obvious, touristy attractions in cities – I was dragged up the Empire State Building, I was unimpressed with the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo – but when a city is known for a type of food, it may be a cliché, but it’s going to be a delicious one.

A cheesesteak is steak thinly sliced or chopped, depending on where you go, with melted cheese on a crusty long bun or roll. It’s a juicy, dripping delight of a sandwich that true connoisseurs will say you can only get in Philadelphia. Even more devoted sandwich fans will stay true to just one cheesesteak restaurant, denouncing all the rest as pale imitations of the real thing.

The story I heard on the birth of the cheesesteak is this: it originated in 1930 with Pat Olivieri. Olivieri was a hot dog vendor in South Philadelphia who put some beef on his grill one day and served it in a sandwich to a cab driver. Then fellow cabbies heard about it and started requesting it, which led to Olivieri opening a restaurant modestly named Pat’s King of Steaks. The adding of the cheese was reportedly done by Pat’s across-the-street rival – Geno’s, founded by Joe Vento.

I’d been taught the etiquette of ordering a cheesesteak in Philadelphia. It’s not rocket science by any means, but people/the cooks and cashiers do get picky/territorial/angry about the way it’s done. Here’s what I learned:

    First: What kind of cheese do you want? The options are generally American, Provolone, and Cheese Whiz. Yes, Cheese Whiz, the neon yellow-orange processed cheese food product that comes in a can.

    Second: Do you want onions? If yes, say “wit.” As in “with” in a Philadelphia accent. If you don’t want onions, it’s “widdout.”

    Third: Put the two together. If you want a cheesesteak with Cheese Whiz and no onions, say “Whiz. Widdout.” If you want Provolone with onions, “Provolone (or Provi). Wit.” And don’t order any drinks or sides when you order the sandwich – do that with the cashier.

It’s deceptively simple. Yet, if you do it wrong, you can be kicked to the end of the line. Or just made to feel like an idiot and get yelled at when just trying to order dinner.

I was practicing in my head what to say as I stood in line at Jim’s Steaks gripping my tourism board gift certificate. I’m an over thinker and I like to get things right – make fun all you like of my obsessing as I stood in line, but this was my first “real” Philly cheesesteak experience and darn it, I was going to do it right. They weren’t going to peg me for a tourist.

The cook wielded his metal spatula with speed, precision, and just a touch of fierceness; cutting up the steak as it cooked on the griddle, flipping it, stirring it, and occasionally giving it a firm slap, leaving the meat alone only to have a stir at the onions and to pour meat juice over the top of everything, which made a satisfying steamy sizzle.

“Let’s go, let’s go. What do you want?” barked the cook. The couple in front of me were dithering. I winced.

Come on, I thought, you’re clearly not from here, but seriously, he’s getting pissed and as a fellow out-of-towner you’re starting to embarrass me. You can do it; I believe in you. Now order!

“Ummmm….I’ll have a sandwich with…” Her voice was shy and apparently inaudible over the sound of the grill and the conversations of the other employees.

“Speak up. I can’t hear you.” They don’t mess around here or at any cheesesteak-only joint. The line must always keep moving.

They finally got their order in. I was next. I stepped forward, spoke up, and ordered an “American. Without.” I couldn’t quite bring myself to go for the full “d.”

Successfully ordered, I took my cheesesteak upstairs to eat so I could watch the passersby on South Street, imagining all of them to be jealous that it was I who at that very moment was enjoying the greasy goodness of a cheesesteak and not them.

Where to try a cheesesteak in Philadelphia. Each has its slight variations in the cooking of the meat and rolls:

Have you been to Philly – where do you get your cheesesteaks?



About The Author

Kristin Conard

As a child, Kristin wanted to be a librarian, because she thought that the librarian was the one who got to write all the books in the library.

  • CheeseSteaks

    Don’t forget Tony Luke’s, under the 95 overpass on Oregon

  • Dan

    Glad you went to Jims.  Pats and Genos serve some of the worst steaks in the city.  And you were right in not forcing a fake Phila-talian accent.  The only people who really do that are tourists who read the “how to order a cheesesteak” rules on the wall of Pats and want to sound cool.  The point of the ordering guidelines is just to be succinct– notice how you got your steak within 6 seconds of ordering? Well done.

  • Reedequine

    There’s a new sheriff in town- Wit Or Witout, in NE Philly.  Clean, friendly and delicious!  Try yours with “long hots”.

    • Kristin Conard

      I’m almost scared to ask – what’s long hots?

  • Anne_Merritt

    Nice roundup Kristin! I love the cheesesteak history lesson. My first and only time in a cheesesteak joint, I got a potent stinkeye from the cooks for asking if they could just do a grilled cheese. Seems that’s an insult in Philly.

  • Jkozak86

    Moved to Philly last year and have been pleasantly surprised to learn so much about the sandwich culture. This might be the best sandwich city in America!

    @twitter-118767453:disqus  – Long hots are Italian peppers added to hoagies in order to give them some texture and some spicy zing! They are either red, green, or both. They are spicier than a banana pepper and go great on roast pork sandwiches or any typical lunch meat sub.

  • Philly Mom

    Philly cheesesteak is the best!

  • Eric Brachwitz

    Philly born. Dalessandros’ in Roxy is the best.

How lovely to have fatty food arrive in an athletic stance!
Soak up that last shot of whiskey you probably shouldn’t have taken.
There’s more to Hershey than roller coasters and chocolate mud wraps.
Many of the best cheap-eats places in the Holy City are located in strip malls,...
Pam Weis has dug into the local cuisine for the past 18 months and shares some of her...
Eat in bed or underwater, drink from an IV bag, or chow down on 8000 calories in one...
Happiness can be found in greasy foods.
Some of the most delicious food in Hong Kong will only run you about $2 USD, but you have...
Cure your cravings for Spätzle, Wienerschnitzel, and Salzburger Nockerl.
An increasing number of restaurants in Montreal are becoming socially engaged, on top of...
I seriously considered the Hot Mess (don’t we all, at some point or another).
I buy a ripe mango and watch Mennonites sell watermelon, next to Creoles hawking...
Get off the bridge, take a left, and get ready to eat.