A Philadelphia Game of Thrones
A few weeks ago I got into a friendly debate with a fellow writer on Twitter. It was a debate I expected to eventually have on the platform, as it is one I have been having my entire life. The question? “Who makes the best Philly cheesesteak?” Based on that conversation, I knew this would be a great topic to explore as I debut my pop culture column, “Chris’ Class,” here at The Daily Drunk Mag. That being said, let’s dive into this multimillion dollar puzzle.
In Philly, as well as nearby in South Jersey and Delaware there is an ongoing war of who makes the best cheesesteak. The late Anthony Bourdain claimed the best was coming out of Camden, NJ, which many from that area also co-sign. While I will not deny the possibility that a good cheesesteak can come from Jersey or Delaware, Bourdain’s claim, respectfully, is like saying Texas or California has better tacos than Mexico. Let’s pay respect to the OGs after all.
The Philly cheesesteak was first introduced by two Italian American hot dog sellers, Pat and Harry Olivieri in the 1930s. In an unprecedented moment of culinary innovation mixed with pure hunger, Pat sent Harry to a nearby butcher in their South Philadelphia neighborhood. Shortly after the first Philly steak and onion sandwich was born. Here’s where things begin to get juicy. It wasn’t until about ten years later (the 1940s), that provolone cheese was even added! Many locals will swear by cheese whiz as the original, but Pat’s King of Steaks manager Joe Lorenzo added provolone before any other cheese was considered.
So when did cheese whiz become a phenomenon? In the 1950s as the popularity of Philly cheesesteaks began to spread throughout the city like this year’s pandemic, a desire for cheese whiz was also on the rise. American favorites such as broccoli with cheese appeared in this decade, so naturally this “liquid gold” would pair well with meat. Cheese whiz also allowed steak vendors to move booming crowds through the line much quicker. Not to mention it is cheap. Simply, it was a win-win for those in the business of cheesesteaks. By the end of the 50s, Pat’s King of Steaks was dominating the Philly area as the favorite. However, new cheesesteak restaurants began to pop up across the city – some even on home turf. In 1960, literally across the street from Pat’s, appeared Geno’s Steaks. Geno’s has been a friendly rival for the last 60 years. Fast forward to the 1970s, and almost every neighborhood in Philadelphia had its own spot claiming rights to the cheesesteak iron throne.
Every Philadelphian has a personal favorite, typically tied to their geographic proximity in the area. Most of the time it is not Pat’s or Geno’s, as they have become tourist traps, but locals will not deny their importance of paving the way. But if myself, and the majority of people from the area agree that Pat’s and Geno’s are NOT the best, then who is? Truthfully, it is hard to just pick one. So instead, I’ll give you my top five:
5) Max’s Steaks (North Philly) 3653 Germantown Ave
4) Delassandro’s Steaks (Roxborough) 600 Wendover St
3) Larry’s Steaks (West Philly) 2459 N 54th Street
2) Ishkabibble’s Steaks (South Philly) 337 South St
1) Jim’s Steaks (South Philly) 400 South St
In my not so humble opinion, these are the best in the city. Outside of Jim’s, they don’t nearly draw as big of crowds, and honestly beat out Pat’s and Geno’s in overall quality. If you have never had a Philly cheesesteak you might think, “how could they taste much different?” But Philly cheesesteaks, like gumbo in Louisiana, or poutine in Canada, has a distinct flavor when authentic. It can be imitated, but rarely replicated. But sometimes, even in the same city, the student surpasses the master. I believe that is the case with Jim’s, Ishkabibble’s, Larry’s, Delassandro’s, and Max’s. Their bread is flawless, their quality has never let me down, and quite frankly they are the ones I miss most of all, after no longer living in the city.
Chris L. Butler is an African American and Dutch poet, essayist, and reviewer from Philadelphia, PA. He is a Columnist here at The Daily Drunk Mag, where he covers pop culture. In July 2020, his poem “Rotten Fruit,” was selected as the penultimate piece in Perhappened Mag: Issue 2: Road Trip. His work has been featured in Head Fake Hoops, FlyPaper Lit, Wine Cellar Press, Ghost Heart Literary Journal, Dreams Walking Lit, Versification Magazine, Trampset, The Lumiere Review, and others. He currently spends his time between Houston, Texas and Calgary, Alberta as his wife is Canadian.