Ode to the Philly Cheesesteak

- October 17, 2012

This gooey, cheesy mess is a Philly icon, as much as the Eagles, the Flyers, the 76ers and the Phillies...

I just got back from an impromptu getaway to the East Coast, where I spent time in Philadelphia, New Hope and Princeton, N.J., my hometown. Because it's easier to fly into Philly than Newark, and because my flight arrived close to midnight, I spent the night in an airport hotel and the next morning,  took off to explore the City of Brotherly Love and its famous cheesesteaks.

The iconic Philly cheesesteak was developed early last century by stuffing frizzled beef, sautéed onions and melted cheese into a crusty roll. But who invented this sinful sandwich, and why? According to some, Pat and Harry Oliveri invented the cheesesteak in the early 1930s and sold them from the hot dog stand near south Philadelphia's Italian Market. They were a hit, and Pat opened his restaurant, Pat's King of Steaks, which still serves the celebrated steaks today.

Situated strategically across the street from Pat's is Geno's Steaks, and the rivalry between these eateries is notorious. And while Pat's is a humble stand where you line up to order and eat at picnic tables surrounded by photographs of all the celebrities who have eaten there, Geno's is hard to miss, illuminated by blazing neon lights and huge signs.

Authentic cheesesteaks are made with fresh, thinly sliced rib-eye or round cuts of beef that are sliced, cooked in grease on a grill and scrambled into smaller pieces with a flat spatula. Cheese slices placed over the meat melt, and the roll is then placed on top of the cheese. The mixture is pressed into the roll, which is then sliced in half. Popular toppings include sautéed onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, mayonnaise, hot sauce and ketchup. It's typical to use Cheez Wiz, American or provolone cheese. Geno's goes through eight to10 cases of Cheez Whiz a day, and Pat's sells 10 times more Cheez Whiz than American cheese.

As it neared lunchtime on my day exploring Philly, I headed down Passyunk Avenue in the heart of South Philly, and the landmark corner where Pat and Geno's showdown has been entertaining Philadelphians for decades. It was a beautiful fall day, and the streets were crowded with people out and about. I decided to try Pat's, because several locals had steered me in that direction. "Geno's may have the bells and whistles, but Pat's has simple, good food," one native confided.

I got in line next to a nice young guy who offered to help me order the way a Philadelphian would. "You gotta say 'wit" if you want onions and then always ask for Cheez Whiz, if you want to keep it real," he said. I felt a little like the hungry customers lining up for soup from the Soup Nazi in "Seinfeld," as I inched my way to the counter, where a tough-looking bald guy with tattoos and a sleeveless shirt was taking orders. "One Philly cheesesteak wit Cheez Wiz, "I said. He grunted, took my money, and waved me down the line.

When it arrived, wrapped in foil and steaming hot, I couldn't wait to take a bite. It had been a few years since I was able to find a real Philly cheesesteak, and I wanted to savor the moment. This gooey, cheesey mess is a Philadelphia treasure. The roll was crispy, the meat and onions flavorful and the Cheez Wiz oozed out oof the sides as I sank my teeth in. I was transported to my childhood when we'd spend time in Philly visiting my grandparents, during the summer and we'd make ourselves sick eating so many cheesesteaks.

I've tried cheesesteaks in other cities, from the freezer of my local grocer and even at home, where I tried to recreate them. But there's no subsitute, anywhere. The secret, that local guy who helped me order at Pat's that day, is to not chop the meat.

I had another cheesesteak the day I was scheduled to fly home. My flight was cancelled due to bad weather somewhere in the Midwest. My uncle, who lives in Philly, met me at the airport for lunch before I was supposed to fly out. When we found out the flight wasn't going to make it, we headed over to a restaurant in a Philly airport hotel, where I promptly consoled myself with a gourmet Philly cheesesteak.

This one cost $15, and it came with onions and provolone cheese and sweet potato fries. Sacrilege. No Cheez Whiz, and sweet potato fries? I wonder if the Oliveris are rolling over in their grave. The gourmet version was good, but I prefer the more humble cheesesteak from Pat's. I scoured the web and found a recipe for that very same cheesesteak that made me so happy that day. I doubt it's going to taste as good as the real thing, but until I can get back there again, it will have to do.

Pat's King of Steaks Philly Cheesesteak  (Makes 4)

32 ounces thin sliced rib eye or eye roll steak
6 tablespoons soya bean oil
Cheez Whiz, to taste
4 crusty Italian rolls
1 large Spanish onion

In an skillet over medium heat, heat 3 tablespoons oil and sauté onions until soft and translucent. Remove onions, add remaining oil and sauté the meat slices quickly on both sides.

Melt Cheez Whiz on stove or in microwave. When meat is ready, place 8 ounces in each roll, add onions and pour the Cheez Whiz on top. You can garnish fried hot or sweet peppers, mushrooms and ketchup.