I love a good controversy…AND I love a good sammich. The thing with Philly Cheese steak goes way back to the old truism that you should ALWAYS eat the local specialty. You will get the best of the best of everything. So, while rolling through Philadelphia recently, my wife and I decided to fan the flames of controversy and do our own throw-down, head-to-head taste-test to uncover the BEST Philly Cheese steak.
There are Philly Cheese steak (PCS) joints all over Philadelphia – and all over the country for that matter. But there are two that have been duking it out year after year – literally on opposite corners of the street in south Philadelphia. Both CLAIM to be THE PCS. Both have extremely loyal followings. But is one really superior to the other? Is there a discernable difference? For the purpose of this taste-test, let’s just agree that this is totally unscientific – two people’s uneducated opinions based on the fact that we like good food. (Seriously, this is a white-hot controversial issue and no matter which way we go or what we say – there will be hate mail…lots and lots of hate mail). But if you read this far, you care – so we press on.
My wife and I went to some lengths to even the playing field. First of all, eating on the street corner in 90 degree weather can do a lot to sway your opinion. And Pat’s and Geno’s have very different vibes in terms of décor (or lack thereof) and personality – can’t control that – so we got our sandwiches “to go”. Each was “born” minutes apart – passing through the windows of Pat’s and Geno’s with exactly the same ingredients. For the inexperienced, the Philly Cheese steak or PCS is not a complicated thing – and yet, if you haven’t had one from one or the other of these places…you really haven’t had one. More on that in a moment. There is only one proper combination of ingredients for a true PCS – grilled steak on a roll with Cheese Whiz and onions. There is no mustard, there are no pickles, there is no lettuce, no hot sauce – nothin’. Known as a “Whiz ‘wit” – that’s Philly slang and proper ordering etiquette for grilled steak on a roll with Cheese Whiz and onions – got it? Good, ‘cause you’re holdin’ up da line! One can choose another type of cheese – say, provolone or Swiss, and I believe at least one of the places will add grilled mushrooms or peppers. But why do you want to mess with perfection? Whiz Wit – that’s all you gotta know.
So, we get our sandwiches “to go” and we make them road ready for the ride back to DC – wrapped up in foil and inside an aluminum serving tray with a lid on it. We went through the trouble of clearly marking which was which so as to not taint the results of the taste test – but after our analysis, I’m confident I could tell you which was which on sight – a subtle, yet important difference in the construction method that is a dead giveaway. When we unwrapped the sandwiches, we noticed a couple of things immediately – Pat’s is a bigger sandwich – more STUFF in it. Also, Pat’s slathers the top of the sandwich with cheese – Geno’s puts the cheese on first under the steak and the onions. So, even after a couple of hours on the road, one is fairly neat and one is cheesy and gooey. Believe it or not, the difference in the construction does seem to have an effect on the taste. But we’re talking about Cheese Whiz here – it’s not even cheese – it’s a cheese “product” out of a can. It’s not like it’s a fine-aged cheddar or a creamy brie – its Whiz wit a “Z”, baby.
Did I tell you this was going to be detailed? – because we picked these things apart for YOUR benefit.
Next up, the rolls. Geno’s roll is a softer white bread kind of roll. Pat’s is like crunchy, Italian-style bread. Both are definitely fresh – and both good in their own way. But again, THIS sammich is a sum of its parts.
Onions. Grilled. Onions are onions, right? Nope. Both are white onions and both are grilled with the steak. Pat’s puts a fine chop on the onions, so they mix in more with the steak and the cheese – almost like the three elements become one yummy sammich goo. Geno’s on the other hand features larger diced pieces, a little bit smaller than a postage stamp. The larger size leaves you with a bit more oniony crunch in your sandwich. (I’m making up all kinds of words here, but the PCS is a religious experience and I need a little latitude).
Finally, steak. You have to remember that every scrap of steak that comes out of either place is grilled on a flat-top grill that has had millions of steaks grilled on it. Don’t discount that. While I couldn’t say for sure, I think this is why you haven’t REALLY had a PCS unless it comes from one of these places. Something about the juice and the kibbles and bits and char and mojo of a ba-jillion steaks affects the taste in a good way. Next, Pat’s chops the steak up – so you get shards and pieces of steak. It’s all steak – and I think it’s why the Pat’s sandwich looks bigger. I doubt you get significantly more steak, but with it all chopped up, it makes for a “meatier” sandwich. Geno’s, on the other hand, uses whole pieces of thinly sliced steak. Also, in tasting the steak independent of the sandwich – Geno’s tastes like the meat is seasoned more than the Pat’s steak. It might just be that whole pieces allow more surface area for the seasoning to hold on to. My wife said that the Geno’s steak reminded her of Steak-um meat. You want controversy – here it is. In my opinion, the Geno’s steak is more tender. Without a doubt, the Pat’s steak is chewier. One theory – JUST A THEORY, a notion, whatever, easy there – Pat’s could be using a more inexpensive piece of meat, tougher meat, chopped up to make it more palatable and tender. Less expensive meat = more on the sandwich = bigger sandwich. And for a lot of people – that’s the key factor and Pat’s is a winner hands down. (Man, I can just feel the rush of hatemail from the Pat’s loyalists coming my way for suggesting such a thing).
These are both the finest sandwiches known to humankind and both these joints are institutions in their own right. Neither is going out of business anytime soon and each rakes in a ton of cash. And it IS cash, because neither accepts credit cards. I’d go out of my way – in fact, I DO go out of my way to get them. If you haven’t tried them – make some excuse to go to Philadelphia and go do your own taste test. At the end of a long, hot day in south Philly, I think there’s room for both. And I think on any given day, I could see myself saying “Today, I’m in the mood for Pat’s” or “I think I’ll have Geno’s today”. Each sandwich has its own unique taste despite being essentially made of the same ingredients. In the interest of full disclosure, I was worried that I’d be biased to go with Pat’s. Pat’s is what I’ve had before. Pat’s was my first PCS. It’s consistently great. Pat’s just FEELS like the “People’s cheese steak” – numero uno, the original. Geno’s has a lot of flash and personality – lots of neon and a million pictures of Joey Vento, the owner, with every celebrity that ever ate a PCS lining the walls. Always seemed to me that they were trying to make up for some inferiority. If they thought they had to try so hard, they must know something is up – why am I gonna break my neck to cross a busy street for #2, right? Well, it was worth the trip across the street. GENO’S WINS. The combination of the soft, fresh roll, the tender steak, the crunchy onions and the cheese on the bottom tying it all together worked for us. Pat’s seemed tougher. Everything chopped up and mixed together created kind of a gooey mixture – that, while still great – didn’t give you enough definition of flavors to set it apart.