Friday, February 19, 2010

Philly Cheesesteak Showdown: Geno's Steaks vs. Pat's King of Steaks

(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.

Pat's Contender

Geno's Contestant

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.

Year Opened1930*1966
Cost of Cheesesteak$7.50$8.25

They are literally across the street from one another at E. Passyunk Avenue and S. 9th Street.



kevinEats said...

Now I'm curious about how the banh mi places stacks up.

Kung Food Panda said...

Agreed on the overly "American" sign at Geno's. The unfriendly atmosphere could be found at both Pat's and Geno's.

It's too bad neither sandwiches were that much better than the ones I could get in LA. I'm not sure either are more than just a tourist trap in Philly, but I wasn't impressed with either.

With that said, we enjoyed Pat's a bit more, and preferred whiz wit over prov. It was an experience though, not sure I'll return to either! :)

On a side note, Mike would love that Pepsi sign!

ila said...

pat's version looks true to its name. good to see that you're having fun eating adventures on the east coast too!

mattatouille said...

I'm curious to know where the best cheesesteaks can be found. Jersey Mike's? hard to believe it holds up, but I have heard good things about the chain. Amazingly, they've landed in LA - there's one in Castiac area. Next time I'm on a roadtrip to SF, I'll stop by a try a cheesesteak.

gourmetpigs said...

How far is Philly from NY? I had many random philly cheese steaks when I was there, all of them touting to be "world's best". The only thing I remember is the central marketplace/station building ..

Aaron said...

@kevinEats: Strangely enough, they don't advertise that they're a banh mi place at all. I dont think they even mention that they're Vietnamese!

@KFP: Philly is unfriendly in general.

@mattatouille: There's also a Jersey Mike's in Westwood now too.

@burumun: Philly is a 2-2.5 hour bus ride from NYC. The Central Marketplace might be Reading Terminal, which is like a giant food court.

Eugenia said...

It looks like you're having a good time on the east coast :)

Hope all is well!

Continue to post on the delicious food you eat!!

phillystan said...

When did you do this taste test? I have been a loyal Pat's fan for 30 years, but due to currently living out of state only get there once a year or so. I was there this past Saturday and when I first bit in, something didn't taste right. I figured out it was the roll and when I looked through the window I found out that I was correct, they have stopped using Amoroso rolls. I'm trying to figure out when they made this switch. I was there back in July and they still had Amoroso. I'm wondering when you were there which roll they had? The new rolls are awful and I will not go back if they are here to stay.

Aaron said...

@phillystan: This taste test was back in February 2010. It wasn't the roll that turned me off to Pat's; the steak was dry.