The Philly Cheese Steak

It’s below freezing, there is a 25 mile-per-hour wind whipping through the streets of South Philadelphia, and you are standing in a line 30 people deep. Is it a concert at the Wachovia Center? The start of the Mummers Parade? Nah, better — much better.

You’ve been waiting a long time. Finally, you hear the magic word that makes the wait worthwhile.


Life is good. I venture to say it doesn’t get much better.

Many cities are associated with a particular food. New York has the corner on the Jewish deli, Chicago has pizza and Minneapolis has — well, anything on a stick (just go to the State Fair and you will see what I mean). As for Philadelphia, it’s the venerable cheese steak.

Rocky Balboa ate a cheese steak from Pat’s when he was training against Apollo Creed back in 1976. Governor Ed Rendell loves Philly cheese steak (although he will deny it in Pittsburgh), and so do John McCain, Larry King and *NSYNCH. How do I know? Well, next time you’re waiting in line at Pat’s, take a look at the ceiling and you will see a veritable Who’s Who of famous people, young and old, who appreciate Pat’s and the fabulous sandwich that has become synonymous with Philadelphia. For that matter, take a look at the line you may be sharing with someone famous.

I recommend a trip to Pat’s any time you are in town. (It’s the white brick building at the corner of 9th and Passyunk, and you’d better say PASH-yunk, or you’ll be pegged as a tourist.) Having grown up in the Philly ‘burbs, and having gone to Temple University, I consider myself an ex-Pat here in Annapolis, and I try to head north for a Pat’s fix every few months.

I’m not alone in my estimation. We asked our Tripso readers who had the best cheese steak and they voted for Pat’s by nearly three to one. Once you’ve experienced a cheese steak at Pat’s, I guarantee you will return, and you will thereafter hold in disdain every sub shop across America that proclaims it serves “Philly Cheese Steaks.” After a real Philly cheese steak, you will know these shops for what they are — third place also-rans.

So, just what is an original Philly cheese steak?

First, toss out the Steak-Um. A true Philly cheese steak is a rib-eye steak sliced thin, topped with sautéed Spanish onions and melted cheese, served on the freshest crusty Italian bread you can find. Cheez Whiz is the preferred cheese, but provolone or American cheese will do in a pinch, and the onions and steak should be fried in soybean oil.

Those are the ingredients, and they are delicious, but a cheese steak at Pat’s is also an experience. A homemade cheese steak, even using Pat’s recipe, is never the same.

Knowing how to order is perhaps the most critical part of the experience. First, you place your food order at a window designated for steaks and other “main courses.” Know what extras you want (more on those in a minute) and have your money ready, as Pat’s likes to keep this line moving. When it’s cooked and assembled, your steak will be pushed across the counter with your change; at this point, you need to move quickly to the next window to order your fries and drinks. Mess up at any point and you may be returned to the end of the line.

If you are a novice, ordering can be a daunting task — one that can place you at the end of the line time and time again. So, heed the following:

1. Specify if you want your steak “wit'” (with) or “wit’out” (without) onions.

2. Specify “plain,” “Cheez Whiz,” “Provolone,” “American Cheese” or a “Pizza Steak.” Pat’s also offers lettuce and tomatoes, but if the counterman has to read your mind, it will cost you 50 cents extra.

3. Have your money ready. Do all of your borrowing in line.

4. Practice Steps 1-3 while waiting in line. If you make a mistake, don’t panic; just go to the back of the line and start over.

These rules are posted very clearly, right next to the order window, so no need to print this column out.

While Pat’s does serve other food, the steak sandwich is the staple of the menu. On her first trip, my youngest daughter ordered a hot dog — to the dismay of her brother and sister, me and 20 patrons — and she opined that it was “not that good.” Ever the helpful big brother, JT replied, “Well, duh, why do you go to a cheese steak place and get a hot dog?” Good point. In fact, I think it kind of screws up the system and interrupts the flow at Pat’s when someone departs from the steak.

Once you have your meal, and are trying to juggle it, you can add sweet peppers, salt, pepper and other condiments at the adjacent countertop. Seating is outdoors and limited, first come, first served. Pat’s recommends that you not feed the pigeons, but they will mooch and they definitely appreciate a tossed french fry. Equally frowned upon — by the pigeons, SEPTA and Pat’s — is a friendly game of pigeon ball (for the sophomoric details, please email me). When you’re done with your cheese steak, you bus your own table and move on to give someone else a chance.

Pat’s is open 24 hours a day, 364 days a year (on Christmas, you’re out of luck). The South Philly landmark is Pat’s only location; it is also the original location, established by Pat Olivieri in 1930. Today, Pat’s is a third-generation business still run by the Olivieri family.

While there are several good steak places in Philly, the top three are Pat’s, Geno’s (right across the street from Pat’s; Geno is a good friend of the Olivieri family) and Jim’s (at 400 South Street). People may disagree on which eatery is tops, but there’s no doubt that Philly is king. As Ned, a Platinum Poster on the Tripso Forums and a native Philadelphian, puts it: “I’ve traveled over much of the world: U.S. and Canada, Europe, South America, Central America, Caribbean, Middle East, Africa. You haven’t had a “real” Philly Steak unless it’s been prepared in Philly. There’s something special about how they’re made here in Philadelphia. Elsewhere, the Philly Steaks sold are pale imitations, generally soggy and tasting flat.”

My vote is for Pat’s, which edged out Jim’s and distanced Geno’s and Rick’s (in Reading Terminal Market) in the Tripso poll. In fact, all are very good, each with its own nuance and experience. With some investigation, you will decide your own favorite. But between you and me, if it’s not Pat’s, you are simply mistaken.

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