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August 11, 2009

Philly Pit Stop

Tony Luke's Dominic Armato

I spent a lot of time on the road in June. In the course of dropping off the family, moving out, moving the cars, moving in and reclaiming the family, the final route, over the course of two weeks, ended up being Baltimore to Cleveland to Baltimore to Boston to Cleveland to Baltimore to Boston to Cleveland to Boston. And what did this mean to me? Two shots at redemption. A number of years ago, I attended the wedding of some dear friends in Philadelphia, and tops on my list for non-wedding-related activities was a quest for cheesesteak. As it turned out, the schedule didn't quite allow for it, and I left Philly without having sampled the local meaty specialty. I swore then and there not to let such an opportunity pass me by again. While on the road, a man's gotta eat. And if he's gotta eat, better a local specialty than service plaza fast food.

Pat's King of SteaksDominic Armato

Trying to research Philly cheesteaks is tricky. Like its cousin, my beloved Italian Beef, the cheesesteak engenders extreme and sometimes belligerent passion in its local devotees. So when a comprehensive citywide tasting isn't an option, trying to determine where to go and what to get is a tricky proposition. Top round or ribeye? Whiz or provo or American? Geno's or Pat's or neither? Amoroso or... well... Amoroso? How to settle on the quintessential steak for a quick pit stop on the way north? It's impossible. So I resolved simply to eat what I could and not beat myself up over it. Despite warnings that I could do much better elsewhere, I kind of felt obligated to hit one of the big boys if for no other reason than to have a reference point. Pat's and Geno's are famously located across the street from one another, and while the media would make the rivalry out to be a bitter feud, on the balmy summer evening I drove through the neighborhood I detected no signs of sandwich-related turf wars. Consensus seems to be that they're pretty interchangeable, so I opted for Pat's -- the less ostentatious and purportedly more original of the two. Like any good local downscale foodstuff, cheesesteaks have a certain ordering protocol, which Pat's is kind enough to outline on the wall next to the register. The fellow who took my order and my money didn't respond with so much as a grunt. I think that means I passed.

Pat's CheesesteakDominic Armato

Because a sizable portion of the cheesesteak's fanbase swears fealty to it, and because Pat's is widely credited with first introducing it, I went ahead and selected whiz to accompany my steak and onions. Pat's serves a sandwich that's large, if not exactly brimming over when it comes to fillings, but still more than any rational individual should really be eating in one sitting. The meat itself is not a classy product. This cheesesteak was -- and I say this with the utmost affection -- junk food. Griddled and heavily seasoned, if a little dry, it sat atop a light, spongy roll accompanied by softened diced onions and the aforementioned processed cheese food. I was a little leery of the whiz, but having now tasted my first cheesesteak with, I understand the appeal. The saltiness plays up the craveable junk food angle, and its *ahem* unique texture combined with the moist bread make it kind of a sticky, gooey mouthful that probably sounds a lot less appealing than it is. And for me, the little bit of heat and vinegar provided by the pickled peppers put it over the top. If this is a "true" Philly cheesesteak, this is pretty lowbrow food. But it's also indisputably tasty.

Tony Luke's CheesesteakDominic Armato

There was no way I was escaping Philly without making at least one more stop. Some folks I trust had recommended Tony Luke's, which was conveniently situated beneath the highway I'd be taking. So with six hours of late-night driving ahead of me and little sense of self-preservation, I made my second stop of the night. But standing in line at Tony Luke's, I made three critical errors. The first, we'll get to in a moment. The second was ordering fries, which were a particularly tasteless frozen version. And the third was passing on the sharp provo in favor of whiz with the idea of comparing apples to apples. The third was the most egregious because Tony Luke's is, frankly speaking, a better quality sandwich and deserves a better quality cheese. I was a little taken aback by the crusty roll, since I'd been led to believe that Amoroso's had cornered the market. The big difference, however, was the meat, a tender, juicy, flavorful sliced ribeye in lieu of Pat's steak hash. My spies had served me well, but I'd let them down by going the processed cheese food route. As it was, I enjoyed it more than Pat's, but I'm thinking their sharp provo makes it even better.

Roast Pork Italian with RabeDominic Armato

The final mistake, alluded to above, was not also trying Tony Luke's Roast Pork Italian. Though it had inexplicably escaped my detection while reading ahead of time, in the week after my first trip through town no fewer than three people asked if I'd tried the fabulous roast pork sandwich. What could I do? I went back on the next trip through. And while it was a little oversold, this is a very good sandwich. Tender, sliced pork flavored with herbs and garlic is piled on the same roll with cooked broccoli rabe and the same sharp provolone that I should have tasted on the first go-round. Perhaps I'm not quite as enthused because this sandwich only reminds me of its ancient antecedent, the jaw-dropping-when-it's-on Italian porchetta. Tony Luke's Italian pork is no porchetta. But that said, it's a really good sandwich and eschewing the cheesesteak in favor of one wouldn't be a terrible choice, even if it's your only shot at the former.

So what did I learn on my dual sojourns to Philly? I learned that Pat's is good, but there's better elsewhere. I learned that whiz is worthy. I learned that even if the Philly cheesesteak won't be upending my beefy allegiances anytime soon, I'd love to do a Philly Beef-Off given the opportunity. And I learned that even if you find yourself questioning the wisdom of consuming the better part of two cheesesteaks around the time you hit Connecticut, it's totally worth it.

Pat's King of Steaks
www.patskingofsteaks.com
1237 East Passyunk Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19147
215-468-1546
24 hours a day, 7 days a week
Tony Luke's
www.tonylukes.com
39 East Oregon Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19148
215-551-5725
Mon - Thu6:00 AM - 12:00 AM
Fri - Sat6:00 PM - 2:00 AM

Comments

Tony Luke's also has the very yummy, and wrong- bacon ranch fries.
I like the grease dive Abner's which is near UPenn above a strip joint. They have Cheez whiz waffle fries.

Having lived just across the river from Philly my whole life I have had many chances to eat at the many cheese steak places in the city and South Jersey. Of the big names my favorite is Jim's http://www.jimssteaks.com/
I do like Tony Luke's (right around the corner from the Ikea we shop at :) ), but I always get the pork sandwich, not a cheese steak there.
Glad you enjoyed your visits Dom. Sometime when you have a little longer to visit there are a lot of great restaurants in town to try.

see... that's what i love about this blog. you write about cheesesteak and bouchon and top chef in consecutive posts and each with equal enthusiasm and food-love. what more could any reader ask for? way to go, man. it takes a true lover of food and life to understand how cheese whiz and napa valley and raging dale all have their place in this world.

What's wrong with bacon ranch fries? That sounds like something worth having... Speaking of fries, the double cooking method of fries and precision of prep described in the Bouchon cookbook is great. Personally, I've never had great luck making fries (I refuse to buy a fryer), until I folled TK's approach. Now I think I need to go home and make them right now - with bacon and ranch dressing.

Dom,

I was really hoping you'd give us (your) definitive verdict bet. Pat's & Geno's. Ah well. :)

Also, reading this back-to-back with your Bouchon entry, it it wrong that I'm craving a Philly Steak more?

--
Dave

I suggest another visit to Tony Luke's for a roast pork/b.r./aged provolone sandwich. I've never had a Italian Beef or cheesesteak that has compared.

Paragraph five, Dave :-)

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