Cheesesteak vs. hotdish: A Philly-Minnesota showdown

How the two regional food specialties stack up.

cheesesteak-hotdish
Cheesesteak: Danya Henninger; Hotdish: Flickr Creative Commons / Lee Davenport
danya

Update, Jan. 22: We didn’t want to mention it before for fear of a jinx, but hey! The Super Bowl is being held in Minneapolis, so this guide might be of use to Eagles fans headed out west for the Big Game. 

Vikings fans who’ve trekked across the country to watch their team battle the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game are no doubt planning to try a cheesesteak while they’re in town.

If the home field advantage was reversed, what would Philadelphians be tasting? Apparently, something called “hotdish” — a Midwestern favorite that’s best described as green bean casserole crossed with noodle kugel.

In the interest of knowing all you can about your opponent, here’s a breakdown of how the two regional food specialties measure up.

Name

Interestingly, both items have a similar naming conundrum. One word or two?

In each case, it seems locals favor the compound noun, while outsiders flub any chances of sounding hip by using the two-word moniker.

When it comes to the word components themselves, Philly’s entry is much more specific. “Cheese” and “steak” are both distinct ingredients, while “hot” and “dish” are extremely general. The fact that this sentence makes sense — “I took the hotdish out of the fridge” — just adds to the confusion.

Appearance

Cheesesteaks are not very photogenic, as countless Instagrams have proven.

But hotdish can be even more gross looking. Some Minnesotans say that the more beige and unappealing the casserole looks, the better it’s likely to taste.

A variation called “tater tot hotdish” has a slightly more appetizing appearance thanks to the toasty nuggets spread across the top, but even those tasty fried potatoes can’t do all that much for looks.

Ingredients

The ingredient list for a cheesesteak as served in Philadelphia is simple: Steak, cheese, bread and sometimes onions. That’s it. Nothing more. (No green peppers, got it?)

Hotdish, on the other hand, can be made a thousand different ways. It usually starts with canned cream of mushroom soup, other canned veggies, and some kind of starch.

But it can take countless forms. Some people add hamburger, others prefer chicken, others tuna. Some say tomato sauce is key, others stick with the soup as binder. Tater tots on top are popular, but rice, noodles or potatoes are also used.

Ease of eating

Cheesesteaks are inherently portable. They come wrapped in deli paper — if they don’t, they just don’t taste right — and so can be scarfed down easily while walking or standing. (It helps to affect the “Philly lean.”) They’re perfect for chowing down outside at 2 a.m. after a night on the town.

Hotdish is just as well suited to being drunk food, but it’s much harder to eat on the go. It’s the kind of thing you might make the day before a big party so you’re sure to have leftovers to microwave when you get back home.

Political clout

This could be an unfair comparison, since Philadelphia is a municipality and Minnesota is a whole state. That said, the Philly metro area has around the same number of people (6 million) as the entire Land of 10,000 Lakes (5.5 million), so in that sense they’re on par.

Midwestern politicians seem to eagerly embrace their ugly comfort food item. The Minnesota Congressional Delegation hosts an annual “Hotdish Off,” and former Senator Al Franken has appropriated the term to drag Trump’s policies.

In Philly, local pols usually avoid attaching their names to the sandwich. For national candidates, however, cheesesteak choices loom large. When he was a presidential hopeful, John Kerry’s request to have his topped with swiss may have cost him front-runner status.

Most famous place to get one

The corner known as “Cheesesteak Vegas” might be the most well-known food tourist destination in the country.

Locals might not think Pat’s or Geno’s makes a particularly great rendition of a cheesesteak, but what they serve is representative. And the fact that you can sample two in one visit, at a buzzy corner bursting with South Philly character makes a visit a perfectly great tourist activity.

Minnesota doesn’t have anything quite so iconic, it seems — in large part probably because hotdish is something best made at home.

One spot that gets many shoutouts is Happy Joe’s, a small pizza shop in New Ulm, around 90 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. If you look for versions in Minneapolis itself, you’re likely to come up with fancy chef twists on the recipe instead of the classic casserole of *delicious* canned goop.

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