There are a lot of myths about the Philadelphia cheesesteak, but let's get the biggie out of the way right now: No one actually believes the best sandwich in town comes from either Pat's or Geno's. The cycle of publicity the two have built upon one another has caused 9th and Passyunk to become a tourist landmark amongst the narrow one-way streets of South Philadelphia. But if you want the best sandwich, it's absolutely not worth the slog past the Capodimonte shops and mid-street parked cars to get there.
Yes every politician and celebrity visiting the city ends up there at some point, and I've actually had some good times there. Once on a layover on the way back to Tampa after a C-USA basketball tournament my Mom picked up me and a few friends at the airport, and we went there while The Mummers were practicing in the middle of the street. That's about as Philadelphia as an experience as you can have on a layover. But the best sandwich? Not even close.
Everyone has their favorite places (I'm from the Delaware County suburbs, so for me it's Thunderbird on West Chester Pike and Jim's on Baltimore Pike), but of the bigger and more well-known joints I'd think Tony Luke's is what Philadelphians would say is the best. The roast pork is even better than the cheesesteak, and with broccoli rabe it's insanely delicious. But you're not here for that new spin, you want the original. So here's the key, and the one thing you can't replicate anywhere else on earth:
Due to an Act of God and the prayers I said during most of my adulthood finally being recognized, my beloved Tampa finally has Wawa. And believe me I am not complaining as I'm in there more days than I'm not. It's freaking fantastic to have Herr's pretzels, Wawa iced tea, the really good Tastykakes, awesome coffee, and most importantly kick-ass sandwiches and soups available 24/7. But... it's just not the same. They fly the dough in, and bake the rolls in-house. Wawa has never been a place to get a great cheesesteak anyway, but when you get it on a sub-par roll, it's just not good enough. It's sure as hell better than Subway, but it's not quite there. The flown-in rolls are too sweet, as are the in-house baked soft pretzels which are good but not the real deal.
Note: Trust me it goes both ways as you really, really miss Publix when you live in the Northeast. And I'm doubly cursed since I lived out West for a while too and totally fell for In-N-Out and Rubio's too. But now that Tampa is finally getting a Trader Joe's(!!), the only things left that we need are a Shake Shack and an In-N-Out. Franchise Gods and/or Jeff Vinik, please make this happen.
To make a true Philadelphia cheesesteak, you have to have your rolls delivered from the Amoroso Bakery every morning like every cheesesteak shop has for generations. There's just no other way around it. Philadelphians swear it's the water (or with the accent, "wudder") that makes the difference. The water in Philly is harder which makes a better roll, and it doesn't hurt that Amoroso has been doing this every single day for over 100 years.
As for the cheese and steak, you can be a touristy heathen and get it with Cheez Whiz, but American or provolone is probably going to make your sandwich suck a lot less. Onions are optional, but for most people compulsory (I do mine without, which puts me in the minority). As for the beef, you'll want to do thinly shaved ribeye (but not TOO thin as it'll end up burnt on the flat top). Put the roll on top of the steak while it's still grilling and let that melt the cheese naturally. Wrap it in wax paper so you can catch all the dripping as it falls to the bottom.
Oh, and you people that put ketchup or pizza sauce on yours, I have a message for you from the City of Brotherly Love: Take the El to 30th St. Station and get a SEPTA transfer straight to hell. Do people come to Tampa and put ketchup on your Cuban sandwiches? No? THEN SHOW A LITTLE GOD DAMN RESPECT!!
You think I'm taking this too seriously? I'm not. Read this.
I do still test out cheesesteak shops & trucks in the South, but the Delco's at Brighthouse Field where the Phillies have Spring Training is the only one that's close to passing muster I've had. Anything that advertises itself as a "Philly Cheesesteak" is absolutely not a cheesesteak. The city is always implied because it's the only place on earth to get a good one since you can't get the rolls anywhere else. Also when I order a "provolone without" and the guy behind the counter looks at me funny, I know I'm about to be disappointed again. You don't have to order your cheesesteaks that way (by just saying what type of cheese and whether or not you want onions), but don't ever trust a place that looks at you funny if you only say two words. It's all that should need to be said.
Every city takes their food seriously, but I've heard a quote about Philadelphians that sums up the difference in how much food means to the city. I think it was from the great Clark DeLeon, but I'm not sure. Paraphrasing: "Philadelphia is the only city in America where people wake up in the morning and ask 'what's for dinner?'" And it's true. Whether it's the cannolis at Termini Brothers, the incredible, life-changing smells you get when you walk into Reading Terminal Market, the crab fries at Chickie's and Pete's, and the seemingly endless number of places like the Llanerch Diner where Bradley Cooper and J-Law got into in Silver Linings Playbook (in my old neighborhood) .. I don't think there's a city where food matters more to the culture. And since Philadelphia is the also the most parochial place on planet earth (for better and for worse), Scrapple will always have a market.
But the rest of those things can be transported and replicated, whereas the cheesesteak simply cannot. And that's why it's so damn special. I miss three things about Philly most of all: watching the Phillies all summer long with Harry & Whitey, how the city just feels totally different on a Monday depending on whether the Eagles won or lost, and the food. Believe me: the weather, the traffic, the parking, wintry mix, the City Wage Tax... they all completely suck and there's a reason I don't live there anymore. And when I'm in Philly for extended periods of time of course I crave La Teresita, Datz, and Taco Bus, and everything else from my adopted and beloved home. But there's something so special about a Philly cheesesteak that it's in a dead heat with a Bern's chateaubriand as my death row meal.
"Youse wanna jeez take?"