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:
- Pat’s King of Steaks. 1237 East Passyunk Avenue.
- Geno’s Steaks. 1219 S. 9th Street.
- Jim’s Steaks. 400 South Street, 431 N. 62nd Street, Bustleton and Cottman Avenues.
- John’s Roast Pork. 14 Synder Avenue.
- Shank’s Original. 120 South 15th Street.
- Dalessandro’s Steaks. 600 Wendover Street.
Have you been to Philly – where do you get your cheesesteaks?
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Kristin Conard is an editor at Matador Nights as well as a writing instructor in California. As a child, she wanted to be a librarian, because she thought that the librarian was the one who got to write all the books in the library. Her obsession with reading and writing has continued, and when she is not grading papers and lesson planning, she is working on a collection of essays and planning her next trip.