Streets of Philadelphia

So I traveled up to Philly this weekend with a couple of friends for a birthday, which didn’t go as well as planned, but was fun nonetheless. Mostly we had travel issues, which basically resulted in us spending 12 hours in the City of Brotherly Love and 12 hours on our asses in a car (whoever thought merging I-95 into one lane for construction was a good idea, I have a few choice words for them…)

I hadn’t been to Philly since I was 10, but as we drove through the middle of the city, it all came back to me, as if I had been there so recently. I always hear from people that Philly is not a great place, that it has tons of students because of the universities but no one actually stays there after graduating, and indeed everyone I know who has lived there or moved there got out or is looking to get out. But as I spent my 12 hours there, I was intrigued. The city center was clean, the buildings downtown dynamic and well planned out. The people were young and engaging. The architecture was real interesting, intermingling townhouses from revolutionary times and modern houses. History is abundant. The city is sprawled out, and is the closest thing to New York City I have ever been to. Unlike DC, residences and storefronts lined the neighborhoods seamlessly, much like the boroughs surrounding Manhattan.

So why no love?

A quick google gave me some answers. Someone actually posed this question on Yahoo! Answers, which yielded the following answer:

“Philly is a great city. The ghettos suck, and the city is getting worse and worse (crime wise) as time goes on, but it’s got great historical crap.”

Well, if you put it that way…sounds enticing. This person should work for the tourism bureau and post this on billboards. As much as I may love it, I don’t think “historical crap” is going to be a good dealbreaker.

Seriously though, crime does seem to be a big issue, along with corruption, and an unresponsive police department. My overall impression going through Philly native’s comments is that it does nothing especially well, and that there are places out there safer, with better jobs, with more attractive real estate, with better schools. So I guess the city is great place to visit or spend a few college years, but has little to offer in the ways of encouraging people to settle down there.

But it does have cheesesteaks, which, of course, is a reason in itself to visit. So even though we were late leaving getting back to DC, we set out to experience this authentic cuisine..

Through my Philly friends I know that the two most famous and frequented cheesesteak establishments are Geno’s Steaks and Pat’s King of Steaks, which are both located at the corner of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue in South Philly. For those Rocky fans out there, there is a part where Rocky stands outside Pat’s Steaks (and indeed there is now a marker there to commerate this). The two are fierce rivals, one claiming to be the originator of the Philly steak, the other the innovator of adding cheese, and both claiming to be the best in Philly. Apparently both rake it in all the same, as during both day and night long lines are common. We decided to be fair we would split up, with three of us (inlcuding me) heading to Geno’s and the other two to Pat’s.

I watched as my friend ordered at Pat’s, which (like Geno’s) has two windows from which to place orders, one for cheesesteaks and one for fries and drinks. He asked the man, “What do I order if I want a lot of steak and a lot of cheese?” There is no inside eating area, so those that were there at 10 am eating cheesesteaks were scattered on the tables outside next to us, and I noticed several look up from their sandwiches and make a face. Guessing it could not be from their cheesesteaks, I apologized on his behalf, saying, “Yeah…we aren’t from around here.” I didn’t know this at the time, but it turns out that there is a very strict way to order cheesesteaks. Here is an explanation:

Steak orders are often given as simple commands, an ordering method the establishment prefers. Typical orders consist of two or three words per steak and it is improper to order anything but a steak at the first window. Fries and drinks are served at the second window.

The first word specifies the cheese wanted for the steak: American, Provolone, Whiz (for Cheez Whiz), Plain (for no cheese) or Pizza (steaks with cheese and pizza sauce).
 The second word indicates if the steak should be made with or without fried onions, customers often saying it as “wit” or “wit-out.”

This ordering format contradicts the posted rules, which instruct that the onion preference be made first. But typical orders are: “Whiz wit,” “American wit-out,” and not the other way around.

Customers who want mushrooms or peppers on their steaks submit orders as, for example, “American mushroom wit” or “mushroom American wit.” Pizza steaks will be made with Cheez Whiz unless ordered as “Pizza American” or “Pizza provolone.”

Regardless, the last word is almost always “wit” or “wit-out.” For non-standard toppings such as lettuce or tomatoes (sometimes called a steak hoagie), a common order would be “Whiz wit, with lettuce and tomato.”

The cashier often expects to be handed money as the order is placed. Customers also typically step slightly to the left after paying, since the cashier makes change while already taking the order of the next customer.

As the customers reverted their attention back to their sandwiches I saw that my friend already received his cheesesteak, signature of the quick service of Pat’s Steaks.

I headed to Geno’s to sample their cheesesteak, ordering one with “whiz” and onions.  Clearly clueless, I tried to order a drink, but was shooed over to the next window. I ordered a Pepsi, but immediately changed my mind, and told them birch beer, when they give me a look and asked if I was sure. Meanwhile, the guy yelled at me from the window I just left to pick up my cheesesteak. I guess this was part of the ambiance.

We all had cheesesteaks at this point, and settled on one of the tables outside to dig in. Two bites in, the window from Pat’s was slid open, and a man yelled at us, pointing to the Geno’s cheesesteak in mine and my friends’ hand and saying that we couln’t eat that here. Well, seeing as we could not go to Geno’s with Pat’s food or stay outside Pat’s with Geno’s, and there was no other place to eat, we were in a quandary (no wonder people are so divided over the two – a mutual location has to be agreed upon, otherwise friend’s can’t eat together!). So we literally took two steps to out left and placed all the sandwiches on top of the hood of the car, and ate them there.

How were the cheesesteaks? Delicious, but slightly disappointing. I think I was expecting something more elaborate, but in fact both are simple kiosk style venues with a uncluttered menu. Geno’s meat was cut like one would find on a gyro, in long slices, while Pat’s was chopped in smaller pieces. Both are greasy, but Geno’s a little less so. The portions were good, but not overwhelming. The verdict by consensus was that Geno’s was better, which is sacrilege to diehard fans of Pat’s, I know. But apparently it makes a difference when the food is ordered; in the morning if the meat has been laying for a bit the sandwich is less tasty, and this may have been the case. After doing some research I also discovered that Geno’s posted a xenophobic sign recently saying: “This is America: When Ordering, Speak English.” This has since been taken down, but only after six months of protests, and the owner made tshirts with the saying and still hands them out (and the sticker below remains). This apparently turned a lot of people off, and they switched to Pat’s, but since any publicity is good publicity, it actually helped Geno’s in the long run. Had I known this, maybe I wouldn’t have gone to Geno’s in the first place, but oh well…

There are other places in Philly to get cheesesteaks, and many argue that Jim’s Steaks and Steve’s Prince of Steaks are superior. And just as I tend to enjoy cheesesteaks that are a little less “fast food” tasting, I am sure varying preferences and opinions abound for what should be the considered the best cheesesteak in town. But you can’t really go wrong with Pat’s or Geno’s, the originals.

For the best cheesesteaks in your area, check out this site.

2 responses to “Streets of Philadelphia

  1. Is it wrong that, upon reading “Geno’s” all I could think of was “MotownPhilly/Back-a-gain”?

  2. Nope, I was thinking the same thing 🙂 …

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