Sara Zeglin, associate producer for National Geographic Digital Media, conducted a cheesesteak taste-off on a recent visit to Philadelphia.
After the recent snowstorms hammered the D.C. area, my husband and I decided to skip town for the weekend and go to Philadelphia. If you’re anything like me, when you hear “Philadelphia” you think “cheesesteak.” I’d always heard stories about Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks, the two famous cheesesteak restaurants located across from each other on the corner of Ninth Avenue and Passyunk Avenue. Touristy? Certainly. Tasty? For sure.
CONTENDER ONE, DAY ONE: PAT’S KING OF STEAKS
I was hoping that I’d be able to get my favorite cheesesteak variant at one (or both) locations. My preference has always been a cheesesteak hoagie with no mayo. That means steak, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and raw onions. The first time I ordered one of these in front of my husband’s Pennsylvanian grandmother, she was horrified. Hand-to-the-chest horror. I can’t help myself, though. I really love tomatoes.
Pat Olivieri founded Pat’s King of Steaks in 1930. The restaurant is credited as being the birthplace of the cheesesteak sandwich. I was nervous as I approached the window to order. The restaurant is all about efficiency–you order and then continue down the line. I didn’t want to be the one to hold up the process. I knew enough to know to ask for a “whiz wit,” meaning Cheez Whiz and sautéed onions on top of the steak. There were other cheeses available, but I’ve always read that Cheez Whiz is the way to go. The posted menu said that lettuce and tomatoes were available, but when I ordered a “whiz wit with lettuce and tomato” I was told they didn’t have either. So close! At least this way I got the authentic experience.
All of the seating at Pat’s is outside. You can’t eat a cheesesteak with gloves on, but the warmth of the sandwich makes up for it. The first bite was heaven–soft bread, warm steak, and melty, delicious cheese. There was just enough cheese on the sandwich to evenly cover the steak, but not so much that it was dripping out the ends. The steak was thinly sliced and very tender. The sautéed onions were soft all the way through, which is very different than the raw onions I usually prefer, but they were delicious. The bread was incredibly fresh and soft. This was one tasty sandwich.
CONTENDER TWO, DAY TWO: GENO’S STEAKS
Geno’s Steaks is the one you’ve probably seen pictures of. It’s flashy, with neon signs, photos, and memorabilia everywhere. Founder Joe Vento picked this location to found his cheesesteak restaurant guided by the philosophy that to sell cheesesteaks, it’s a good idea to go where you already know people are buying them.
I felt more confident stepping up in line. I didn’t bother checking for lettuce or tomatoes this time, opting to duplicate the sandwich I had at Pat’s for a better comparison. One thing I noticed right off was that the service was friendlier at Geno’s. Pat’s was more concerned with efficiency than with pleasant service. It took a little longer for the sandwiches to appear, but that’s okay–they were fresh and hot, which is the important part.
The overall impression I got was that this sandwich was both gooier and chewier than the one I had at Pat’s. The bread was crustier, and the steak slices were thicker, making it slightly more difficult to bite off a mouthful. The onions were sliced thicker, with a little bit of crunch left to them. There was also more cheese.
The taste was very similar to the cheesesteak I had at Pat’s; texture was the big difference between the two.
My pick would be Pat’s. I liked the softer bread and tender onions, and I think the whiz-to-steak ratio was a little more balanced. That’s not to say that I would count Geno’s out–both locations make a mean sandwich, and I’d gladly eat on either’s outdoor benches again, even in the middle of winter. It really comes down to personal taste. If you prefer a sandwich that will stand up to your teeth a little, pick Geno’s. If you want a sandwich that is easier to chew, pick Pat’s. If you want to avoid the crowds, you might want to consider going somewhere else.
OTHER FAVORITES FROM PHILLY
Reading Terminal Market: Pickles in barrels, Amish preserves, butchers, produce, and much more. This place is a food lover’s dream.
Mutter Museum: You’ll find morbid anatomical curiosities here including skulls, a piece of President Garfield’s skin, and a collection of objects removed from patients’ throats (including a Best Attendance button!).
Eulogy Belgian Tavern: If you like beer, go here. The staff is very knowledgeable and will pick the perfect brew to go with your mussels. I liked the Moules Dijon.
Photos: Sara Zeglin