There will never be an end to the debate of who makes the best cheesesteak in Philly, and for that, we’re blessed. Because while those of us in Philadelphia get to argue the merits of one classic joint versus another, the rest of the country seems to have trouble figuring out what a cheesesteak actually is.
There’s really not all that much to it. Three, maybe four ingredients. Minimal cook time. Slap it together. Raise to mouth, hunch over, dig in.
And yet restaurants, fast-food chains and delis around the world manage to mangle cheesesteaks into creations that, while possibly tasty, would bewilder any true Philadelphian. For a chronicle of the most egregious examples, check out @notacheesesteak, a Twitter account set up in 2011 for the specific purpose of shaming unworthy pretenders.
As a public service, we’ve decided to help advance the cause. What makes a cheesesteak a real cheesesteak? Read on.
First things first, some lexical ground rules. Cheesesteak is one word. Merriam-Webster says so. Oxford English Dictionary says so. Lots of food-expert Philly natives say so (even if our paper of record sometimes gets it wrong).
If you want two words, the phrase “Philly cheesesteak,” while redundant, is OK. However, calling a sandwich “a Philly” is not — it shows a foolish unawareness of just how many amazing sandwiches we claim as our own (what up, roast pork and Italian hoagie?).
It’s not “cheesesteak sub,” and although “cheesesteak hoagie” is a kind of sandwich, it’s not the same thing (see below). And, sorry Boston, but it is absolutely and most definitely not a “steak and cheese.”
Getting down to the actual thing, the meat is obviously of utmost importance. For the real deal, it must be sliced thin (not cubed or cut into slabs), and cooked on a hot grill or griddle — “frizzled” is the word in vogue to describe the process these days.
Whether or not the meat gets chopped as it fries is a matter of preference (neither Geno’s or Pat’s chops, Dalessandro’s and Chubby’s do), but it definitely must not be pre-cooked. This is not a roast beef sandwich, a French dip or a beef on weck.
Most Philadelphians (and most Philly cheesesteak shops) regard American, provolone and Cheez Whiz to be the true trifecta of cheese choices. And while there’s no official “right” cheese for a cheesesteak, there are several cheeses that are just flat-out wrong, including gouda (too smoky), cheddar (too oily) and Swiss, which is too bland and also too foreign-sounding — a lesson 2004 presidential candidate (and then-Secretary of State) John Kerry learned the hard way.
Of note, many seem to think that provolone was the OG option, but that’s not necessarily true. The idea makes sense, since the sandwich was invented in South Philly, where Italian-American heritage is rich and provolone is prevalent. However, at Pat’s King of Steaks, where the cheesesteak was invented, the first cheese offered to customers was Whiz. The reason? Pat Olivieri knew he had lots of Jewish customers who attempted to keep kosher, so he was loath to mix meat and dairy on his grill; Whiz is easily dripped on separately. (According to current owner Frankie Olivieri Jr., the first can of Whiz was actually snuck in and served without his uncle Pat’s knowledge.)
Why do cheesesteak shops on the West Coast get rolls shipped in from Philadelphia bakeries? Because the texture of the bread is a critical part of true cheesesteak enjoyment. A proper Italian hoagie roll is soft in the middle, so the meat and cheese can melt into it, but also has enough tooth and chew to avoid getting soggy. The crust cannot be too hard, though, because a cheesesteak should be able to be inhaled without worrying about cutting up the roof of your mouth (no baguettes, Food Network, c’mon now).
For the same reason as above, the roll should not be toasted. If anything, it can be lightly warmed, preferably by placing it on top of the meat and cheese so it catches the steam as they cook on the grill. And this shouldn’t really have to be said, but a cheesesteak is definitely not a panini.
To stay classic, onions are the only optional add-on. Like cheese, there are several variations acceptable to Philadelphians, from those chopped tiny to those in longer strands to those in thick chunks. It all comes down to preference. They must be well-cooked and not raw, though.
Peppers & Mushrooms
The most common type of mistake outlanders make is to think that bell peppers are a topping. They are not. That’s partly the fault of the internet — this photo of a green-pepper-studded cheesesteak (originally from Milwaukee’s Chubbys Cheesesteaks) has been shared by hundreds of “food porn” accounts on Twitter — and partly the fault of fast–food chains (maybe they want to make customers feel healthier about their choice?).
Both mushrooms and peppers are optional add-ons at Pat’s, while at Geno’s, founder Joey Vento swore his shop would never offer either one. Chomping on a hot pickled pepper on the side, however, is widely accepted as a great way to cut the sandwich’s richness.
In general, tomato sauce is not a regular part of a cheesesteak when served in Philadelphia. (A “pizza steak” with mozz and marinara is a popular thing, but it’s not the same.) However, visit a cheesesteak joint in the Lehigh Valley, and chances are every order will be met with the question: “You want sauce on that?” It’s a regional variation, and it’s not half bad — the acid in the tomato cuts the fatty flavor just like the pepper on the side.
That brings up the ketchup question. While some might squeeze it on if it happens to be around because of a side of fries, it’s definitely not part of the regular order. And some feel very strongly about it, like the Florida Subway employee who was fired for getting in a fight after he refused to add it to a customer’s cheesesteak.
Lettuce & Tomato
Remember the idea of a “cheesesteak hoagie”? If you add fresh lettuce and tomato, that’s exactly what you’ll have. It’s an option available at many delis and pizzerias around Philadelphia. Some people claim to like the combo, but probably they just feel bad about not eating their veggies. (Tip: just get a regular cheesesteak and then chug a V-8, you’ll enjoy it more.)
Former Phillie Ben Revere found out the difference between the two when he tweeted a photo of his “first Philly cheesesteak” at Chickie’s and Pete’s, and proceeded to get made fun of by the entire Philly sports and food communities.
Doubling his hardship, the “cheesesteak” not only had bright green lettuce and thick tomato slices on it, it was made of chicken (he eventually apologized).
Which brings us to the last question: does a cheesesteak need to contain beef and only beef? Without a doubt, yes. However, some of the variations on the theme can be fantastic, like the chicken cheesesteak at Ishkabibble’s, which makes Questlove’s top five list. As for veggie cheesesteaks, lobster cheesesteak and the like: we’re happy to lend you cheesesteak as an adjective to help you feel better about what you’re eating. Have fun with that; we’ll stick with the original.