It only took until April but it does seem like winter might be over in the northeast. Even so, I’ve spent the last month dreaming of traveling anywhere but here, and most of my plans have involved some sort of weekend food-excursion, obviously (food-scursion?) New York might be a cultural mosh pit of authentic foods and cuisines, but I’m a believer that nothing is better than the real thing. My dream trip of eating my way through Asia isn’t quite in the budget yet, so I spent about a week set on the plan for a weekend road trip down to North Carolina to try my first real barbecue (whole hog I might add). Unfortunately, the thought of being in a car for 9 hours dampened my spirits. So, as I muster up the stamina to make that journey, I had to find somewhere else to spend my weekend.
I don’t remember how I settled on my final itinerary, but I do have a secret love for fake cheese. It’s one of those guilty pleasures I don’t talk about often, but I can’t tell you how disgustingly delicious I think that questionably spicy movie theater/state fair/sporting game “cheese” is that comes as nachos with tortilla chips. I am well aware, it’s so gross. So to indulge my inner love of processed cheese, I decided a day trip down to Philadelphia for the ultimate tourist test of cheesesteaks was in order. With maybe a little culture thrown in.
During my pre-trip research I found that as every iconic food goes, there were rivals involved. Pat’s and Geno’s seemed to be the most recommended cheesesteak dives, with the expected lines around the block and the easily accessed locations across the street from each other. Pat’s is considered the original creator of the sandwich, open since 1930, while Geno’s set up shop across the street in 1966. On the outside, they look almost the same. Both have bright signs, both have walk up windows surrounded by picnic tables, and both have walls covered with photos ranging from tributes to local police to famous celebrity visitors. The sandwiches, though, were surprisingly unique to each establishment. Who knew you could make two drastically different sandwiches using the exact same ingredients?
Thankfully, my boyfriend was with me so I didn’t have to eat two cheesesteaks in a day (obviously I had to get one from each!). We started over at Pat’s because the line looked shorter. Apparently, there is a specific way to order your cheesesteak if you want to sound like a regular or non-tourist. First you specify the number of sandwiches, then the type of cheese (Cheez Wiz is the classic, but they also have provolone and American), and whether or not you want it with onions. We got one cheesesteak to share with Cheez Wiz and onions. This all gets shortened into three words “one Wiz with”. Finding a spot to sit at one of the outdoor picnic tables surrounding the shack was easy enough and in absolutely no time we were ready to walk across the street for round #2. Almost like deja vu we had a short wait in line, a “one Wiz with” and another picnic table. What was the verdict?
Pat’s cheesesteak (on the left) layered their sandwich with chopped steak and a few onions on a chewy baguette and smothered in melted fake cheese sauce on top. It was so piping hot, grease burns were almost inevitable with each bite. On the other side (literally), Geno’s started with a smear of melted cheese straight onto the baguette, then topped with a healthy heap of sliced steak and a happier portion of onions. All in all, they both tasted like everything I could expect from those four ingredients, simple but satisfying like only a guilty pleasure can be. If I had to pick one as the best… I wouldn’t. Between my boyfriend and I, we agreed that neither was worthy to win the cheesesteak war. I wanted the oozing cheese and the chewy bread from Pat’s paired with the larger portion of meat and onions from Geno’s. Looks like it’s time for “Dorothy’s” to open up shop kitty corner from both, and see who reigns supreme.
The rest of the day was spent walking around the historic district, visiting the National Constitution Center and Ben Franklin’s house so that I could say I didn’t just drive 2.5 hours each way to eat an authentic Philly cheesesteak when in reality, that is exactly what I did. It was worth it.