Philly Taco: A tourist attraction or a real Philadelphia thing?

The cheesesteak-in-pizza special was created 15 years ago on South Street.

To make a Philly Taco, you roll a cheesesteak inside a slice of pizza

To make a Philly Taco, you roll a cheesesteak inside a slice of pizza

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
krisrhim

I was scrolling through my Twitter timeline one night when I saw something unprecedented. At least, I thought it was unprecedented.

A slice of pizza had been wrapped around a cheesesteak, and someone was calling it a “Philly Taco.”

“Absolutely NOT,” I wrote as I dropped the link in our newsroom Slack. That set off a minor storm.

“Wait, you’re from here and never heard of a Philly Taco?” Billy Penn editor Danya Henninger asked, as if she was disappointed in me.

“You really don’t know what that is?” chimed in reporter Mónica Zorrilla, a Miamian who moved here for college. “How do I know, and you don’t?”

I am the only Philadelphia native in the office right now, so after this encounter I had a lot of questions. My mind was filled with thoughts like “What’s wrong with me?” and “Am I really from Philly?”

So I asked my friends about it, but they had no clue either. I asked my dad — a 50-year Philly native — and he also didn’t know. I decided to do some research on this “Philly Taco,” to find out if it was a real thing.

I was saddened to find out that it is legit. Then it was my turn to be disappointed — not in myself, but in my city for creating something so gross.

A pizza and a cheesesteak; how do people actually willingly do that? And is this really a thing Philadelphians do, or just something people from other cities think is a Philly thing?

Philly Taco history

Turns out the “dish” was created by Philadelphians — but it’s a relatively recent introduction.

In 2003, Jeff Barg and Adam Gordon came up with the idea and dubbed it “The Lorenzo’s-Jim’s Challenge.”

As Barg related in a 2017 Vice MUNCHIES story called “I Invented the Philly Taco,” they were college students when they thought it up. “We were both huge cheesesteak aficionados and wanted to create a challenge,” he wrote. (Funniest part about this whole thing is that Barg has since become a vegetarian.)

“I was working for an alt-weekly here in Philly and I wrote about this challenge,” he explained, “not as a thing I made up, but as if it were already a thing that people did—and, sure enough, it became a thing that people do.”

How people actually do it varies, however. When you Google how to eat the thing, images and videos show two methods: you can either place the cheesesteak on the tip of the pizza and roll in toward the crust, or you can fold the slice around the steak the long way.

A 2010 NPR story on the unwieldy meal had staffers try both variations. The Inquirer also examined both methods, in a 2014 piece where reporter Michael Klein came up with the perfect description of the taco: “A turducken for drunks and stoners.”

According to Barg, lengthwise is the original methodology.

“Lengthwise is definitely better,” he wrote in Vice. “With each bite, you get more pizza than the previous bite. As a result, it actually gets more challenging as you go.”

Ken Silver, president of Jim’s Steaks on South Street, said he’s seen all different kinds of people come in and get one, from folks who look like they’re from here to tourists. He’s even tried the taco himself — and liked it.

“Yes,” he insisted, “they’re really good!”

The South Street adventure

There was only one thing left to do: go try one for myself.

First, we stopped at Jim’s for the cheesesteaks. Did you know they also sell hoagies there? Approximately two dozen orders come through every day, according to an employee.

But we were there for the steaks. (I go for provolone, with onions.)

Next, a quick walk one block down to Lorenzo’s, home of the biggest slices in Philly. (And a questionable sign…)

After ordering, the guy behind the counter looked down at my Jim’s cheesesteak bag and look back up at me with a smirk. H knew what I was going to do.

I found a place nearby to to sit down and eat, said a quick prayer and began to build this taco. I rolled the cheesesteak in the pizza from the tip of the slice— unlike they way Barg prefers, which I didn’t discover until after the fact — and dug in.

As I took my first bite I could feel my insides screaming for help. It felt like a million pounds of grease moving through my body.

I chewed for what seemed like forever. But as I swallowed my first piece, I was pleasantly surprised.

“It’s better than I thought! I’m surprised I didn’t throw up,” I said, while trying not to think about how unhealthy this was.

 

Overall though, the Philly Taco was solid, I didn’t throw up or die — which I was worried about — so I was pretty happy.  I do think, however, that it’s probably more of a tourist thing, considering that most people in my life didn’t know what it was. Also because of its origin story — its iconic status was basically faked from the start.

Final verdict: Not horrible, but I will never eat it again. And to others who feel compelled to try it? I recommend never doing it more than once.