How cheesesteaks are made

Six weeks ago, we set out on a mission to answer this age-old question: Which cheesesteak shop makes the ultimate expression of Philly’s iconic sandwich?

A platonic ideal answer to the question exists, of course — think of it as the fictional cheesesteak spot you’d cast in a movie.

The place would have to have been around for a while, but not be well-known enough to be mobbed by tourists. They’d do their steaks the traditional way, chopped on a griddle, and offer American and provolone, but not necessarily Whiz. They’d have a sit-down counter, but send most of their steaks out the door to-go. They’d have a loyal customer base with a preference for Arctic Splash.

Guess what? We found it. With your help, the wisdom of our crowd. You helped us narrow down a field of 32 over the course of five rounds and more than 50,000 votes, and the winner of our Ultimate Philly Cheesesteak Bracket fits all those ideal criteria. Plus, the cheesesteaks are damn good.

Congratulations to Barry’s Steaks.

A cheesesteak with onions and American at Barry’s
A cheesesteak with American and onions at Barry’s

Owner Barry McGuinn started out in 1967 under Bill Dalessandro at the shop just a few blocks down the road in Roxborough. He branched out on his own in 1989, opening on the corner of Ridge and Leverington. A few years later he moved slightly down the street to a larger store, one with a free parking lot in the back.

Over the past 27 years, business has remained solid. Barry’s daughter Rose designed a logo for him, which is used on t-shirts, napkin holders and the custom-branded bottles of soda, root beer and iced tea in the front cooler. Regular customers fill the 16 spin-top stools along the counter at lunch, and on weekends the whole place is packed full of young folks filling up after a night on the town.

A regular customer who loves Arctic Splash
A regular customer who loves Arctic Splash Credit: Danya Henninger

The menu has several options, from hoagies to burgers. Many patrons adore the chicken cheesesteaks, and the steak fries are absolutely perfect, but people mostly come for one thing — the classic cheesesteaks.

At Barry’s, the beef used is sirloin. It’s cooked off in advance several times a day, just like at Jim’s or Dalessandro’s or just about any other place that serves the chopped version and does lots of business. One difference here is that once it’s cooked, the meat is kept in a covered metal pan instead of in a pile on the grill, which helps it stay juicy and not dry out.

Cheese is melted onto the steak
Cheese is melted onto the steak Credit: Danya Henninger

The roll of choice right now is Amoroso, because it’s soft (good for proper cheesesteak inhalation) but has enough heft to keep it from turning mushy.

Building the sandwich is done with deliberate methodology. For each order, two rows are laid out on the grill. One gets slices of cheese on top of it, the other does not. When the two are placed side by side in the roll, the cheese is caught between them, so it neither slides off the top nor disappears into the bread. Instead, it melds — especially if wrapped up to-go — to create that otherworldly delicious meat-cheese stuff that sets Philly’s signature cheesesteaks apart.

So next time you want to impress a friend with the real deal? Get yourself to Roxborough and take them to Barry’s Steaks.

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...