The Ultimate Cheesesteak Taste Test
Cheesesteak taste test? Aren't they all basically the same? Fine to think. Not okay to say aloud in Philly. Philadelphians take our cheesesteaks very seriously, though we know finding the perfect cheesesteak requires patience and a hearty stomach. So hats off to Richard Rys from Philadelphia magazine, who wolfed down 50 cheesesteaks in 34 days in a quest to crown a Cheesesteak King. Richard ordered steaks with American cheese and no extras, also known as an "American, witout." He says, "This leaves only the three essential elements to any good steak -- meat (judged on taste and quality), cheese (amount and thorough distribution throughout the sandwich), and roll (freshness, consistency, proper meat-to-bread ratio). A great steak shouldn't hide behind onions or condiments."
Here's a sample of his top picks closest to Center City, rated on a scale of 1 to 5 Clogged Arteries.
Cosmi's Deli, 1501 S. 8th St. (tel. 215/468-6093; www.cosmideli.com), is just around the corner from famous rivals Pat's and Geno's, but Richard swears Cosmi's is the real king of steaks. "Fresh roll, meat chopped with a samurai's precision, and melted cheese embracing each piece like Mama giving Raj a bear hug on What's Happening." Richard's rating: 5.
Swann Lounge at the Four Seasons serves an $18 plate of four dainty cheesesteak spring rolls. "It's the culinary equivalent of flipping cheesesteak purists everywhere the bird. But you know, this is good. Meat, cheese distribution -- perfect." Rating: 4.5.
Tony Luke's, 39 E. Oregon Ave. (tel. 215/551-5725; www.tonylukes.com), is in South Philly, near the Walt Whitman Bridge. "Strips of meat stuffed into a hearty, rugged roll that was built for handling a serious payload. My only complaint is that for all its mass, it's a little light on cheese." Rating: 4.5.
Chubby's, 5826 Henry Ave. (tel. 215/487-2575), is a favorite in Manayunk. "That wet-hot dairy goodness is mixed in well. Perfectly sized roll filled well with meat that's tasty and gristle-free." Rating: 4.
D'Alessandro's, 600 Wendover Ave. (tel. 215/482-5407), also in Manayunk, has an ongoing rivalry with Chubby's. "They give up the crown this year. Not a bad sandwich, but it has its flaws. The roll is way overstuffed, leaving as much meat in my lap as in my mouth, and the meat is dry." Rating: 3.5.
Jim's Steaks, 400 South St. (tel. 215/928-1911; www.jimssteaks.com), is just south of Society Hill. "The roll looks like it just wandered in off the set of a Sally Struther's infomercial, the meat is only moderately chopped, and the cheese is barely melted. Yet the damn thing is inexplicably good." Rating: 3.5.
John's Roast Pork, 14 Synder Ave. (tel. 215/463-1951), is close to Tony Luke's, near the Walt Whitman. "I was thrown off by the sesame seed-speckled roll, which wasn't nearly as crusty as it appeared -- thin, but strong enough to handle the healthy portion of tasty meat stuffed inside it. Perfect amount of cheese." Rating: 3.5.
Lazaro's, 1743 South St. (tel. 215/545-2775), claims to have the biggest steaks in town, at 18 inches. Richard ordered a half. "Soft roll, though maybe a bit too much so. Steak diced nicely, but I detected a subtle, unidentifiable spice that I didn't enjoy. There also could have been a little more meat on this puppy." Rating: 3.
Sonny's, 228 Market St. (tel. 215/629-5760), gets a lot of traffic in Old City. "Good cheese distribution and loads of meat, but although it's well diced, is a bit stringy at times. The roll is too thin for the load." Rating: 3.
Geno's Steaks, 1219 S. 9th St. (tel. 215/389-0659; www.genosteaks.com), is a Philly landmark, but Richard gives it modest praise. "Decent amount of cheese. Good roll. The meat is another story. It's riddled with pockets and veins of fat and contains a rainbow of colors from brown to gray. Oddly enough, the taste isn't bad." Rating: 2.5.
Pat's King of Steaks, 1237 E. Passyunk Ave. (tel. 215/468-1546; www.patskingofsteaks.com), across the street from Geno's, gets no special treatment, either. "The cheese distribution on my sandwich makes me think Stevie Wonder is working dairy duty on the grill line. It's spotty, leaving some regions bare. Like Geno's, a good roll, but a frightening amount of fat in the meat." Rating: 2.
So how much weight did Richard gain from his cheesesteak binge? He tells us that he was stunned to find that his cholesterol actually went down and his weight stayed the same, though he admits that he worked out four times a week during the taste-test period. "Either I have a superhuman metabolism, or I should get to work on a Cheesesteak Diet book. That South Beach thing was overrated, anyway."
-- courtesy of Richard Rys and Philadelphia magazine (www.phillymag.com)
Cheesesteak 101: Our Top Cheesesteak Maker Tells All!
How does our top cheesesteak maker, Cosmi's Deli, make its winning cheesesteaks? We talked to owner Mike Seccia, and to our surprise, he revealed many of the details of Cosmi's cooking process. All you pretend "Philly Cheesesteak" shops out there, read and take notes.
Frommer's: When did you open Cosmi's, and how did you get into the cheesesteak biz?
Mike Seccia: Cosmi's was opened in 1932. Leon, my father, has been here since 1950 and took it over in 1976. I've been here since 1986 and am the boss as of this year. It was a grocery store/deli/butcher for the better part of 40 years. We stumbled into the cheesesteak biz a little bit. A fire in the next door house forced us to close for 9 months. With groceries being a dying biz (opening of many large chain stores), we decided to give prepared food a go. We had already won awards for having the best hoagie. We were now gonna apply our hoagie principles to hot sandwiches.
F: Has anything about the way you make your cheesesteak changed since you first started?
MS: Many things have changed since then. We have changed our bread, our steak, our cheese, peppers, and even our cooking techniques. We today will still seek out the best ingredients. When something is better, we will find a way to incorporate it into the final product. Through trial and error we feel we have come up with a great final product, and we won't be afraid to change if it means upgrading our product.
F: How do you get the cheese to coat the meat so evenly?
MS: We cook the steak to about 90% doneness and then put the open roll face down and spatula the steak from underneath so the cheese is on the roll. The hot steak will melt the cheese onto the bread evenly, thus forming a marriage between steak and cheese.
F: Are there any other cheesesteak-making secrets you can divulge? Are you willing to mention your brand of cheese, or where you get your steak meat or your rolls?
MS: Secrets? I don't know about that. I believe it's all the little things that you do that make the big things. People are too focused on other areas, like what brand of steak and what roll. They skip the basics -- how to layer the steak, seasoning and not over-seasoning. At Cosmi's our steak stays refrigerated at 34 degrees until it hits the grill. This keeps our product optimum. Other places let it sit at room temperature or on a warm side of a grill. Every morning we cook about 20 lbs. of bacon before we even open, to season our grill. The bread in a great sandwich is key as well. We use Sarcone's seeded rolls which may be the best in the world. We also use Aversa's hoagie rolls which are softer and lighter (more kid and teeth friendly). Cheese: We use New Yorker American. Provolone: We use aged sharp Provolone that we import through DiBruno Brothers. We also use a mild Provolone made by BelGioioso. Our whiz: We use aged cheddar. We also offer imported Swiss, pepper jack, Cooper, and fresh Buffalo mozzarella. Steak: We use a loin tail that is marinated and well-marbled (but not fatty or tough like others). The marinating process helps keep the steak moist while cooking. We don't need to use oil, and our steak doesn't come out dry. Great marbling with no grissle. Lean!
F: So many chains pop up in other cities under the guise of "Philly Cheesesteaks," and most of them fail miserably. What's the main thing they're doing wrong?
MS: (1) They're not interested in doing the little things of preparing food the right way. Everything is rushed. You cannot rush perfection! (2) Bread: It's hard to get good bread outside of Philly, New York, or New Jersey (softness of the water is key here). (3) Analogy: You can take a Cuban seed and grow it in the Dominican; it doesn't make it a Cuban cigar. The richness of the soil and climate make it a Cuban. Same thing here. It's not the oven you cook the bread in, it is the softness of the water and humidity and altitude that makes the bread great. (4) Just because you know how to order a good sandwich doesn't mean that you can construct a good one!
F: How's your traffic these days? Do you get the late-night crowds that Pat's and Geno's get?
MS: Late night crowds: None. We close at 9pm. We all are family people. We used to be open much later, but we cut our hours for quality control purposes. We are open 11 hours a day, which should give most people an opportunity to experience Cosmi's.
F: Why do you think the cheesesteak has become such a symbol of Philly? What is it about Philly and cheesesteaks?
MS: I think it is because we are such a blue collar town. We wear it on our sleeve, so to speak. If I have a construction worker come in on his lunch break it will be tuough to sell him on a 7-multigrain baguette with grilled portobello and brie; but I can sell a CEO in a suit a cheesesteak verdi with sharp provolone and broccoli-rabe or just a plain cheesesteak with fried onions. Cheesesteaks are the ultimate comfort in Philly, in my opinion. We have one that appeals to all. We even have a veggie-lovers' cheesesteak.
About Philly and their cheesesteaks: We own it and until someone can do it better, the crown will always remain in Philly (as like cheese is to Wisconsin).
F: How do you personally like your cheesesteak? with or without?
MS: Believe it or not: steak, no cheese, fried onions, and hot peppers.
F: Thanks again, Mike.
Get there: From downtown Philly, head to 8th Street and walk south for about 10 minutes, a few blocks past South St., until you hit Dickinson St. Avoid the temptation to follow the crowds a few blocks northwest.
-- Stephen Bassman