Many U.S. cities take culinary pride in a specific dish, Chicago the deep dish pizza, New Orleans the po’ boy, New York the ideal slice and so on. In Philly for the weekend to see my friend GG compete in his 52nd triathlon, the debate over where the best Philly cheesesteak was a hot topic. Located across the street from one another, Pat’s and Geno’s do battle every day, 24 hours a day, for the title of best cheesesteak. The rivalry is fierce, and residents take sides as they do in New York over the best pizza pie, Grimaldi’s or Lombardi’s.
While many other establishments make their own versions of cheesesteaks and hoagies, the mere mention of eating a cheesesteak any where else is considered sheer blasphemy. After a late nite house party, I headed down with a new friend, Julian, to a raucous stomping ground of hungry patrons. It was almost four am, yet there was a formidable line at Pat’s. Looking over at Geno’s, there was much ado about nothing. “That’s because Pat’s is the best, and Pat’s was here first,” a native chimed in.
Geno’s looked like it belonged on Coney Island with the bright lights and big glitz of Vegas. Pat’s was more subdued, sporting an aluminum diner façade and steely cool vibe. The excitement could not be contained. The line was electric, tongues were salivating. “You have to know how to order,” my line mate declared, her enthusiasm unabashed. Cynthia was her name, a pretty Italian woman who had just had a night on the town with her friend Anna. “You have to say wiz with of wiz without,” Cynthia instructed. The “wiz” being cheese wiz, of course, and the “with” signifying onions. I had my moment, ordered and received my hero of gold.
There was a scramble for a table, but my new friends saved us seats. There really was no speaking from that point on, just incredulous looks of glee and satisfaction. Cynthia and I basically inhaled our sandwiches. I almost went for number two, if not for the line. We chatted about travel and told stories, and enjoyed the starry night. All walks of life were in queue, all races and classes represented, all united by the hunger of Philly’s best. The city of brotherly love was manifest, all over a cheesesteak.
I could not imagine Geno’s being better, but I decided to give it a try the next day. Without going into too much detail, in fact I can’t really put my finger on it, the slight edge goes to Pat’s, maybe because it was my first love, or perhaps because as Cynthia opined, “The bread is just much fresher.” I found the bread to be of similar quality. The differences are in the cut and flavor the meats. At Geno’s the meat is sliced thin. At Pat’s the meat is served in chunks. At Geno’s I found the sauce to be a little watery. At Pat’s everything was just right. You can’t argue taste. Those who love Geno’s are just as correct as those who love Pat’s. For me it’s Pat’s and that’s all she wrote.
Back in New York, I am savoring a cheesesteak, and the joints that sell it here don’t really cut it. I’ll try to make my own, but until the next time, I’ll be dreaming of Pat’s.