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The Debate Is Settled. We’ve Declared the Best Philly Cheesesteak

The Debate Is Settled. We’ve Declared the Best Philly Cheesesteak: Illustration by Sean Noyce

Illustration by Sean Noyce

In 1776, Philadelphia brought the world life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But it was an event about 150 years later—the simple act of putting steak and cheese on bread—that is the city’s greatest contribution to the world. The cheesesteak is, simply put, the perfect sandwich. And Philadelphians recognize that, as hundreds of shops in the city sell the sandwich in various forms. Best known are Pat’s (Pat and Harry Olivieri invented the sandwich) and Geno’s (now even better known for his politics). But there’s more to the city’s cheesesteak culture than just those two. Eating a cheesesteak is about more than just the sandwich: It’s about the atmosphere of the joints you enjoy your sandwich at, the jokes you make with the people making your steaks, the conversations you have with other customers in line. Here are our favorite cheesesteaks in Philadelphia.


Photo courtesy of Steak Em Up / Facebook

Steak Em Up is probably best known in Philadelphia for its 10-years-too-late “Wassup!” parody ads shown during Phillies games and its 30-years-too-late “Shake It Up” parody jingle. (It also has a hilarious logo of a Mafioso holding a cheesesteak instead of a gun.) Don’t let the corny TV ads and logo fool you: They serve a great cheesesteak, too. Steak Em Up is proof you don’t have to go to a cheesesteak specialty shop to get a good steak in Philly. Your corner pizza joint might make one almost as good as anywhere else.

016 Larrys-Zagat

Photo courtesy of Zagat

Larry’s advertises itself as The Home of the Belly Filler. Pay extra and you can get a steak stuffed with so much meat you’ll need a clamp (or, well, a fork) to close it before you take a bite. A favorite of Saint Joseph’s students for its Wynnefield location, Larry’s also has a spot on Girard Avenue. Both locations seem to manage crowds well, a must for any top-notch cheesesteak joint.


Photo courtesy of Geno’s Steaks

Geno’s is now best known for its former owner, the late Joey Vento, who achieved notoriety for his political stance. A sign at the window reads, “This Is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING Please ‘SPEAK ENGLISH.’” With that in mind, eating at Geno’s can be an experience. No matter the hour, you’ll be enjoying your cheesesteak while bathing in neon. There are multiple reminders to never forget 9/11 on the walls. There are hundreds of police patches. This place actually calls them “freedom fries.” So, yes, you’ll be reminded of Joey Vento’s political stance (even if it was a one copied off a mall t-shirt). With all that baggage, at this point Geno’s actual steaks are a bit underrated. And, fortunately, the sign is a lie: People can mumble pretty much whatever they want and still get excellent service.

014 Sonnys-GooglePlus

Photo courtesy of Google+

This Old City spot is open until 3 A.M., and the quality of its steaks never really suffers even when there’s a long line of drunk New Jersey bros demanding their steaks. The workers even keep up their notoriously friendly attitudes late at night. This is an oasis amid the chaos of the 2 A.M. closing time in Philadelphia’s still kinda-trendy nightlife spot. For Sonny’s, the world.


Photo courtesy of Pat’s King of Steaks

The originator holds up. The service is always swift—the line at Pat’s is never as imposing as it looks—the workers are incredibly friendly and the steaks aren’t bad, either. Though some knock them for being too chewy, Pat’s rolls are always fresh no matter the hour. Going to Pat’s is like going to the Liberty Bell, only instead of looking at a bell with a crack in it you’re literally eating a piece of history. Having a steak whiz wit (cheese wiz, with onions) just seems right here.

012 Gooey-Looies FB

Photo courtesy of Gooey Louie’s / Facebook

Located in the weird Pennsport Mall—an inward-facing shopping center flanked by row houses—this place looks more like a convenience store than a cheesesteak joint. But the South Philly locals know their cheesesteaks. Served on softer-than-usual rolls, their sandwiches burst with finely chopped steak. Add in a bunch of cheese (hence the name) and you have one of the best-kept secrets in Philadelphia.


Photo courtesy of Yelp

Located at the other end of the Italian Market from those more famous, neon-clad cheesesteak joints, Lorenzo’s doesn’t have Pat and Geno’s frills, but it will cook you up a good cheesesteak in a matter of minutes. Above the grill is a sly take on Geno’s “When ordering, speak English” sign: It’s list of the same instructions in about 30 languages telling you to order and pay at the counter. You can even sit outside inhaling auto exhaust, just like you can down the street.


Photo courtesy of Zagat

Let’s not mince words (or steak) here: Joe’s Steaks used to be called Chink’s. Sam Sherman opened the shop in 1949 and christened it with his nickname. Fortunately, new owner Joe Groh—a longtime employee—changed the moniker 14 years after buying the place. It’s also good he otherwise kept the store completely the same. Both the new location and the original in Tacony have enthusiastic servers, a retro feel and some of the finest steaks in Philadelphia. The milkshakes go better than you’d expect with the sandwich, and now you can go here without feeling like your old racist neighbor from childhood.


Photo courtesy of Zagat

The best thing about John’s right now: Earlier this year, it extended its hours. Instead of closing at 3 P.M., the venerable lunch spot that has been cooking steaks on Snyder Avenue since 1930, now stays open until 7 P.M. This is earth-shatteringly good news for hungry Philadelphians. If this were a list of best roast pork—which some believe should be the official sandwich of Philadelphia—John’s would easily top the charts. The provolone cheesesteak at this South Philly spot made it to the finals of Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America. But this is a list of steaks, so John’s slots in at a respectable No. 9.


Photo courtesy of Yelp

Tony Luke’s hasn’t been the same since it took down the greatest celebrity photo of all celebrity photos: Former Extreme Championship Wrestling star Balls Mahoney from Nutley, New Jersey. Yes, Tony Luke’s has been, in the words of GQ’s Alan Richman, “transformed into a self-congratulatory shrine to owner Tony Luke Jr.” But let’s forgive him a little. It’s still a great spot. The rolls are crispier here than at other cheesesteak joints, providing a nice change of pace. And the enclosed stand on South Philadelphia’s Oregon Avenue is still the best place to grab steaks after a game in South Philly. And if you’re not at the original location in Oregon, Tony Luke’s has locations everywhere from the Phillies’ stadium to Wildwood Crest to Florida to Bahrain. No, really.


Photo courtesy of Yelp

The weirdest thing about Campo’s? It serves you a cheesesteak in a wicker basket, like you’re buying something from the Pennsylvania Dutch down the road at Reading Terminal Market. No matter. The steaks here are still top-notch, with cheese that’s melted around the meat then piled into great rolls. On warm days, Campo’s opens its doors and it’s one of the better spots to sit, enjoy a steak and people watch.


Photo courtesy of Yelp

Ish Kabibble was a comedian and cornet player from Erie, Pennsylvania who derived his stage name from his mock yiddish comedy song “Isch ga-bibble.” Somehow, he inspired the name of this tiny cheesesteak joint that’s more than just an alternative to Jim’s when the line is too long. The rolls here are fantastic, the meat is tender and the Gremlin drink—half grape soda, half lemonade, a combination that works much better than it reads—is the best thing to pair with a cheesesteak. There’s a second location down South Street if you want a better chance at seating. They both taste the same.


Photo courtesy of Jason Williams / Google+

Every cheesesteak joint in Philadelphia has its staunch boosters from its respective neighborhood. People in Roxborough—or, really, all over Northwest Philly—are definitely the loudest defenders of any neighborhood cheesesteak spot. They are right to crow. Dalessandro’s has a friendly staff, quality meat, good rolls and just the right amount of cheese. Plus, it serves beer. You could spend a great night at this place, for sure.


Photo courtesy of Dan McQuade

Mike is one of the best food cart operators in Center City Philadelphia. He’s friendly, but doesn’t overdo it with the small talk. He runs an efficient ship with a second person helping him cook; despite his popularity, his cart seems to never have a long line. He also happens to serve one of the best cheesesteaks in town. That’s the beauty of the Philadelphia cheesesteak: It’s so simple, great ones can pop up all over town. Mike’s may be a food truck that’s only around during work hours on weekdays, but it has some of the best steaks. Mike’s Steaks is on 16th Street between Market Street and JFK Boulevard weekdays during business hours.


Photo courtesy of Yelp

At times the line at this South Street location of Jim’s stretches around the block. The open secret about Jim’s is it’s the touristy cheesesteak spot that best holds up to its reputation. It has all the ingredients as the perfect touristy joint: Well-organized, relatively fast-moving line; jovial workers who’ll joke around with you; counter seating; line of celebrities (some actual celebrities, some not) on the wall. This place also has beer.


Photo courtesy of Yelp

Steve’s turns its back on the rest of the city’s cheesesteak culture. Unlike most other places, Steve’s doesn’t stuff its rolls full of chopped meat. The longtime Northeast Philly cheesesteak shop—which also has a location downtown, plus one in the suburbs—Steve’s serves its cheesesteaks with thinly sliced meat. One bite and you’ll be a loyal subject for life, as the slogan goes.


Photo courtesy of Dan McQuade

At the bustling intersection of Germantown Avenue, Erie Avenue and Broad Street in North Philadelphia, Max’s may not be as well known as other Philadelphia cheesesteak joints. But it’s the best. The steaks—which come on enormous, 18-inch rolls—seem to embody what a Philadelphia cheesesteak should be. It’s also the type of place where, while waiting in line, you can buy a pair of fake Oakleys and a copy of Furious 7. After you get your steak, stop at the Clock Bar—an old-school dive bar attached to Max’s—for cheap drinks in a great atmosphere. Max’s has the whole cheesesteak game on lock.

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