(photo credit: Craig)
What better way to celebrate the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln than with a cheesesteak taste comparison? Last weekend, I traveled by bus to a very unsunny Philadelphia for the authentic experience.
Pat's and Geno's have been cross-street rivals since the 60s. I'm sure there are loyal fans on either side of the match-up, but to a tourist in Philly, they appear equally well-patronized. Luckily, the lines move fast. Geno's looks like the Las Vegas version of a cheesesteak purveyor. Apparently, all the neon signs light up at night, drawing both hungry Philadelphians and moths alike. I could do without the glare and glamor, but it doesn't detract too much from the restaurant. What is more of a detractor though, is the severely xenophobic atmosphere. Under the guide of patriotism, the sign in the window says, "This is America, When Ordering Speak English." Four years after Congress renamed its cafeteria sides, Geno's still serves "Freedom Fries."
Pat's on the other hand, has a much more understated confidence in its exterior. The Pepsi sponsored signs are a bit of an eyesore, especially when the PEPSI logo is almost as large as "Pat's Steaks." I got the sense the Pat's was resting on its laurels as the birthplace of the Philly steak sandwich. A sign displayed in the rear warned me not to "eat a misteak." Both eateries consisted entirely of outdoor seating, though the kitchens looked more than ample for what they served. Both places had two ordering windows, one for sandwiches and one for drinks and sides. Both had the aggressive ordering style. Make sure you know how to order and have cash in hand by the time you get up to the window. Name the cheese (whiz is more "authentic", provolone, American) and either "wit" onions or "wit-out." In this expedited method, a Cheese Whiz steak sandwich can be procured with no more than two words--"whiz wit."
Pat's claim to fame is that the original founders, Pat and Henry Olivieri, were credited with inventing the steak sandwich. According to Pat's, the brothers ran a modest hot dog stand near the present location since 1930. One day, they procured some chopped steak from the nearby Italian Market and fried it on the hot dog grill with some onions. Placed a top an Amoroso bread roll, the Philly steak sandwich was born. The history of the cheese becomes much foggier. Even the Pat's website is unclear, "As the years passed, both employees and customers alike demanded change...cheese was added." Nonetheless, the most common cheesesteak is topped with Cheese Whiz, though Geno's might actually prefer sharp provolone.
Now for the taste test. It had to be the same sandwich of course, so I opted for the standard "whiz wit" from both restaurants. Same bread, same slather of yellow mess, onions all the same, the sandwiches are fairly indistinguishable. It might have been my imagination, but I thought I detected a hint of peppers in the Pat's sandwich that was absent from Geno's. But the real distinction lay in the steak. Pat's, following tradition, chops its steak, while Geno's serves it sliced. This seemingly minor difference actually might have been the crucial factor. The Pat's steak was simply...dry. Sigh, an overcooked steak destroys the sandwich no matter how much cheese product is deposited on top. The taste test victory goes to Geno's.
A note on the prejudiced signs at Geno's. While this type of behavior does disturb me, I didn't experience any overt discrimination that would be enough to deter me from ordering a sandwich. I won't go as far to boycott the place for their close-minded viewpoint, but it certainly is a negative point in Geno's column. Still doesn't beat a good cheesesteak though.
While the sandwiches are good, I'd argue that neither Pat's nor Geno's is unique to Philly. There are plenty of places outside of the city that serve excellent sandwiches. They might not be authentic, and I'm sure I'll have dissenters, but these places can go toe-to-toe with homegrown talent. For one, Jersey Mike's makes delicious cheesesteaks that are much more accessible. Oh, and if you're in the neighborhood and not feeling like cheesesteaks (though I can't imagine why) there's a banh mi shop right next door to Pat's.
|Cost of Cheesesteak||$7.50||$8.25|
They are literally across the street from one another at E. Passyunk Avenue and S. 9th Street.