Philly dining has come a long way, but cheesesteaks and I have not. Maybe the problem is mine, not cheesesteaks’. One thing’s for sure. A great city like Philadelphia deserves a better signature dish.
The fact is that to me, cheesesteaks don’t taste good. To me, a great dish involves combining the best ingredients and adding flair.
And I just don’t see how you can apply the term “great ingredients” to a cheesesteak’s components: a cottony hero roll, a thin layer of fatty beef, squirted-on American cheese or Cheez Whiz, and old, cold grilled onions.
Then again, maybe a cheesesteak is more than the sum of its parts. Maybe there’s some…karmic quality I’m missing.
I tested this optimistic theory recently. I headed to South Philly, home of Rocky Balboa, the 150-year-old Italian Market, and my destination: the two most celebrated cheesesteak purveyors in town, Geno’s and Pat’s.
They are both no-frills. Whatsoever. You order fast-food style and eat outside on dirty picnic tables. Geno’s and Pat’s possess what a restaurant reviewer once called “less atmosphere than Mars.”
I braced myself for Geno’s. I unwrapped my cheesesteak’s crackly white paper, streaked with runny cheese the color of a stop sign. I took a bite.
All I tasted was the stop sign. The roll seemed to expand and gum up in my mouth. I had trouble swallowing this ball of food-related matter.
One bite was all I gave Geno’s cheesesteak. I rewrapped it and offered it to two grade-schoolers who seemed to be angling for castoffs, like pigeons. They tore into it. Maybe cheesesteaks are an age thing.
I hoped for a better epicurean experience at Pat’s Steaks down the street. In place of Geno’s sliced meat, Pat’s is chopped. It was not an improvement. My sole bite of Pat’s cheesesteak didn’t go down any easier. I rewrapped the gut-bomb and gave it to a homeless person knowingly loitering nearby.
I felt equally despondent. Like a patient, I needed sympathy and a second opinion. I called my Philly foodie friend Jenn, who lives not far from South Philly in the trendy Queen Village neighborhood, and is married to a chef for Stephen Starr.
Recounting my experience, I could sense Jenn’s impatience. “Look, KT,” she lectured me, “a cheesesteak is what it is. That’s why we go to John’s Roast Pork.
“You won’t believe this,” Jenn continued. “I didn’t when I heard it. But John’s won a James Beard award for culinary excellence a couple of years ago.”
Jenn told me that John’s cheesesteaks are made of pork roasted in-house and freshly pulled off the bone for each sandwich.
I begged her for John’s address and began racewalking the few blocks. John’s came into view: a humble little place you could describe as a shack. But its relatively ambitious menu covers breakfast items and “hoagie” (hero) sandwiches.
I ordered the marquee pork sandwich. It did not squirt at me as I unwrapped it. And it was not orange, because the cheese is Provolone. The onions were not limp. The roll was not spongy. This cheesesteak looked and smelled fantastic.
I took a bite. And another. And another. It was indeed fantastic. I finished the entire John’s Roast Pork Sandwich. Which was a foot long. I was officially in cheesesteak heaven, aka South Philly.
At long last, I get cheesesteak…as long as it’s John’s. It is, indeed, a karmic thing. Stop seeking, and ye shall find.