"Wit What?"

An exploration of Philadelphia's quintessential greasy delicacy...the cheesesteak

1st Feb 2006 Nick Kindelsperger

With Blake off for the weekend, Nick blew the whole...


With Blake off for the weekend, Nick blew the whole Paupered Chef budget on a $20 Chinatown Bus ticket to Philadelphia in search of the city's quintessential greasy delicacy...the cheesesteak.  Armed with locals with serious appetites, he checked out some of their favorite institutions in search of the real thing...Wait, with cheez whiz?

Up until three months ago, I wasn't sure whether Philadelphians really loved their cheesesteak or if they just enjoyed writing passionately about the subject.  Numerous websites were dedicated to the "best" cheesesteak restaurant or the best way to enjoy one.  It all seemed a little too self-glorifying for a food that just looked like a greasy sandwich.  And then I had one.  Local friend Austin took me down to South Street, and we experienced Jim's Steak .  I watched as they quickly grilled the shaved beef, slicing it into shreds, before serving the mess with grilled onions, cheez whiz on a beautiful warm bun.  I have numerous dreams about the experience  and am still to this day unable to talk about it openly.

A good cheesesteak is an extravagance.  It's heavy, mammoth, an all-encompassing event.  I've seen a man eat a whole one with fries before, but he did it only in defiance of normalcy, of the routine grind of life.  Scrafing down those gigantic creations to warm the insides is proving something.

The history of cheesesteak is something you either care about or don't, and it really has no bearing on the actual enjoyment of a sandwich. Wikipedia has a nice article. PhillyPa.org has a detailed history.   But I didn't return to Philly for a history lessons.  I was there to eat.  I picked out two restaurants that had gotten the most press and then went to one that my local friend Austin had recommended.  That's right, three sandwiches in one day.

My search began far from the tour bus stops of Independence Hall and the Rocky Steps (Philadelphia Art Museum?), at the intersection of 9th Street and East Passyunk Ave in South Philadelphia where two of the cities most treasured relics stare back at each other.


Pat's is considered the originator of the cheesesteak, and has been open the longest of the big three.  Opened in 1930, the history is surprisingly uninteresting, but you can read about it at their website .  It certainly looks like it's been open the longest.  The sign is dated, the benches unpainted, and open cheez whiz containers line the windows.   Austin went to the counter and ordered the first sandwich of the day.

For all its mystique, cheesesteak is a surprisingly simple thing.  First and foremost is the steak, thinly sliced and quickly grilled.  Second is the cheese.  Provolone makes you feel better about yourself.  American does not.  But Cheez Whiz?  According to the Joy of Coooking (p.192), Wikipedia , The New York Times, and my good friend Austin, Cheez Whiz is the purists choice.  Yes, the whiz.

Now Cheez Whiz is a nefarious substance created by scientists in a lab and is absolutely perfect for coating every bite with goodness. And if cheesesteaks are an extravagance, than this is a must.  I was going to go all out.  Cheez Whiz it would be.

Third, the steak and the cheese must be contained in a bun.  Hoagie rolls and Italian bread are fine.  In Philadelphia, they use rolls made by local Amoroso's Baking Company .  They apparently taste different, but I can't really tell.


After my near-religious experience with Jim's, Pat's couldn't help but being a little bit of a let down.  Not that it wasn't good--the bun was great, the whiz swirled around every bite.  But something was missing: the enormity.  The bun too big and the meat not that distinctive.  It might be the originator, but it didn't seem that special.  So relutantly we packed it up and headed across the street.


Geno's is on the exact opposite corner, but looks like it should have be in Vegas.  It's gaudy and tacky -- ridiculous neon flames sprout out the side and a large greasy looking cheesteak looms over the top.  I was prepared to order until a large man greeted --nay, yelled at me -- at the window.  Suddenly all my training for ordering had gone out the window.  It's an intimidating place.

There are many, many sites dedicated to cheesesteaks, and most have a section on how to order one.  The rules are quite simple.  They know why you are there, so there is absolutely no need to say cheesesteak, steak, or sandwich.  All they need to know is exactly how you'd like it.  First, state the kind of cheese.  Most have either American , Provolone , or Cheez Whiz .  Then you say either "with" or "without" , which states rather you'd like your sandwich with onions or without.  Now, lots of people shorten that down to "wit" or "witout", but that's all down to how much like an idiot you'd like to feel.   "American With"


The meat was much better this time, but due to my nervous lock-up we ended up with American cheese, which just doesn't have the same feel--it didn't quite reach the level it probably could have reached.  But it was a dramatic improvement.  The meat was tender, but not overly oily.  The other dirty secret about cheesesteak is that ketchup is perfectly fine.  Really, fine.

With my stomach yelling after the double action of Pat's and Geno's, it was clear that I preferred Geno's.  But I knew that Austin had one more to go.  Tony Luke's is more of local place.  My heart said go, but my stomach said no way.

Not that I worry too much about such things, but the average cheesesteak has 900 calories (according to University of Penn Health System ) and in the course of 1 hours I had had 2.  And was about to think of having a third.  My body ached, my senses were stalled.  I could feel each bite floating around my body.

It wasn't until much later that night that Austin and his roommate Duncan (whose camera photographed the above pictures) and I explored Tony Lukes.  Roast Park and Provolone is the sandwich of choice for the univeristy crowd, and after an afternoon of cheez whiz and greasy steak, it tasted like everything I'd ever wanted.  The meat was tender, the cheese sharp and distinctive.  Every bite felt full and complete.  Nothing could make this better.  Then one friend ordered one with spinich and we all freaked out.  Yelling erupted in the store, friends started munching on various sandwiches, and all was agreed the spinich added another layer of flavor.  After searching high and low for an experience that could compete with Jim's, I found it.


The morning after my body hated me.  My soul seethed cheese; grease ran down my spine.  I pulled my languid body out of bed and left Philly never wanting to eat food ever again.  For one whole day I refrained from meat, cheese, bread and onions.  Because I knew what I had to do.  I knew the moment would arrive when i'd fire up the grill, pull out the cheez whiz and try it for myself.

Nick's Manhattan Philly Cheesesteak

  • 1 large Italian hoagie
  • 1 pound of sirloin pounded, and sliced very thin
  • 1 onion
  • 1 cup of cheez whiz
  • Salt and pepper

adapted very loosely from The Joy of Cooking .


The most important aspect of the recipe involves the thickness of the meat.  I used some absurdly expensive sirloin ($9 for 1/2 pound) that the butcher recommended, "this will make an excellent sandwich."  He then pounded it with his heavy knife (nearly the size of an axe), then cut it in between his hands like some swordsmen from the middle ages.  I strongly recommend watching safely from the other side of the counter.


Wrap the bun in aluminum foil and place in the oven on low.  As the meal goes on it is probably best to turn the heat up, but just try not to forget about it.


Cut the onion in quarter moon-like strips exactly, perfectly, and precisely like this one.  One of the dozen recipes I looked at said something abou this.  It doesn't really matter.


Grill the onions with a little bit of onion on medium to medium-low.  You don't want them to have much color, so it might take fifteen minutes.


Grill the meat on medium-high for about 1 minute per side.  As soon as the red is gone remove.   Cooking the meat any longer will make it tough to bite through, resulting a bad sandwich.


Next comes the most crucial part of the whole recipe.  How to cook the cheese whiz.  I did my homework, checked out the main site , and looked for directions on the back of the label and they all said one thing: place in a bowl and put in the microwave for a couple minutes.  Don't mess with the authorities.


The construction, like nearly every single aspect of Philly cheesesteaks, is of much debate.  But I'm going to go with the original, Pat's.  Cut the steak into smaller strips, remove the bun from the oven, take off the foil, and place the steak on the bun.


Place the onions on top of the meat, if you are a 'wit' kind of guy or girl.  If you aren't, then you hopefully didn't spend the excessive amount of time cutting the onions up into moon-shaped pieces.


Now pour the cheez whiz over the sandwich and you now have in your hands a fairly close to authentic Philly Cheesesteak.  If you don't own any heavily processed cheez, you can alternatively use "real" cheese, whatever that may be.  I've heard a sharp provolone is tasty.  If anything, this recipe is a little too good.  And at a pricy $15 a sandwich, it isn't really Paupered Chef budget-friendly.  I would not suggest it to the those looking for a filling cheap meal.  This is one of those cases when you're better off just trusting the experts and buying it in a restaurant.

If you're not in Philly but do live in New York, we highly recommend "99 Miles to Philly" on 3rd ave near 12th st., started by three gentlemen from the city of brotherly love.  They simply realized that if New York would have excellent cheesesteaks, they'd have to bring it themselves.  Open just under one year, there is a MapQuest print-out taped next to the register which confirms that their exact location is, indeed, 98.8 miles away from Philly.  New York Magazine did a feature confirming this spot to be New York's best.

*Pictures of Philadelphia provided courtesy of Duncan Yoon's camera.


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