Thursday, June 12, 2008

Philadelphia Dining: Pat's and Geno's

I finally made it to Philadelphia to try the two most famous cheesesteaks from the City of Brotherly Love. I speak of course of Pat's and Geno's and before I receive a flaming from indignant Philadelphians accusing me of being a tourist and succumbing to hype lets me just plead guilty to both charges right off the bat. I know many fine folks from Philadelphia who all have their personal favorite cheesesteak and none of them name either Pat's or Geno's as their favorite so I can accept that there may indeed be finer examples of the breed than the big two. However, given their geographical proximity and their national renown I thought I would weigh in on the great cheesesteak debate.

I will admit that I have never been a big fan of the cheesesteak sandwich until I tried it at the source of its origin. There was simply no comparison between what I sampled Philadelphia and anything that is on offer in NYC. While there are a plethora of cheesesteak spots in NYC such as Carl's Steaks and 99 Mile to Philly they are not honorable homages to the archetype. This was brought in to stark contrast when I recently walked by the latter and witnessed a Sysco truck delivering pre shredded beef in cardboard boxes. Never has 99 miles seemed such a great distance.
My first stop was Pat's King of Steaks which claims to be have originated the steak sandwich back in 1930 and which also added Cheez Wiz to the recipe in 1952. The building, located on Passyunk, is the original location and even beyond the smell of onions and beef it reeks of history. There is nothing fancy here just a Colonial style building flanked by two large signs and a hungry crowd wolfing down cheesesteaks.

One thing I noticed about the workers, both at Pat's and Geno's, is that they are all grown men, unlike the teenagers that often populate this type of business. They are all burly, often tattooed and they are serious about their work. Fortunately I read the warning signs as I approached the counter at Pat's and gave my order succinctly and in a timely manner. Quite unlike the hapless couple behind me who received a verbal haranguing from the counter man "!.... NEXT!, I axed you'se tree times!" Clearly these guys are busy and they don't like to be kept waiting, even if there is no one else in line.

My cheesesteak was ready almost as soon as my order crossed my lips. The large, foot long sandwich, oozing Cheez Wiz and dripping with onions and grill grease was soon sitting in front of me, steaming invitingly. As I picked up the sandwich I was surprised at how light and airy it was. Especially the bread, whose delicate properties locals proudly claim is the result of the high alkaline content in the drinking supply that has been dubbed "Schuylkill Punch." The bread really was superb but the rib-eye that topped it was equally captivating, having a hearty flavor and a generous amount of fat. Despite being cooked through it was very tender, aided and abetted by the molten Wiz.

I am not a big fan of synthetic, highly processed foods but I have to admit that even beyond the authenticity of the ingredient it added a certain je no sais quois to the sandwich. I had a similar reaction when I ate at Louis Lunch in CT, while I would never countenance the use of a processed cheese on any other burger I cannot argue with a recipe that is older than I am. Same with Pat's, the Wiz just seems right here.

I ate my sandwich in front of the grildle and marveled at both its taste and the spectacle of cheesesteak assembly. While it was doubtful that this is the original cooking surface it was none the less clearly well seasoned and worn being massively concaved with a large indentation in the middle. Facing the grill from the counter the raw, thinly sliced slivers of rib eye are layered on the left and allowed to cook.

As they become cooked through they are moved towards the depressed center. It is here that the onions and steak come together in a gooey, bubbling cauldron before being scooped up and deposited into the loving embrace of the bread. The quick flick of a large flat knife smears the beef with Wiz and the whole contraption is either served open on a piece of wax paper or expertly wrapped for take out.

My first bite was one of those eureka moments when you realize what all the fuss is about, this really is a superb sandwich, everything in perfect proportion. While locals often site the bread as being what differentiates a true Philly from out of town impostors I don't think one can discount the beef which was expertly cooked and very flavorful. The tangy Wiz is of course the easiest facet of the sandwich to replicate but at Pat's it is applied in quantities that accentuate the beef rather than mask it.

Next up was Geno's situated diametrically opposite from Pat's both geographically, it is a few hundred yards on the other side of Passyunk street, and aesthetically. While Pat's is a fairly run down, understated bare bones operation Geno's is a bright shiny temple of tacky ostentation. A massive photo of a cheesesteak looms over the building which is brightly colored in orange with an American and Geno's flag fluttering in the breeze and gaudy neon signs piping through the structure.

Although Geno's was opened by Joey Vento in 1966, several decades after Pat's, Vento's father was the founder of Jim's, another Philadelphia staple and thus he does bring to the table some serious cheesesteak pedigree. Geno's was featured in the news recently for a somewhat controversial sign that Vento posted on his restaurant insisting that all ordering be done in the English language. While I agree to a degree with the sentiment, having been educated in England I am not sure that I would necessarily consider Vento, with his thick Philly accent and questionable diction, the most obvious champion of the language. Lou Dobb's might love him but I find his posturing a thinly veiled publicity stunt. Never the less I vowed to keep an open mind when trying the cheesesteak here.

Had I not eaten Pat's moments earlier Geno's might have been love at first bite. Clearly it was superior to any other cheesesteak I had eaten, except Pat's. A side by side comparison did not favor Geno's. While the bread was comparable on both sandwiches the steak at Pat's had far more depth of flavor and the onions were cooked through, at Genos they came out al dente. I noticed that the griddle at Geno's looked brand spanking new and did not have the wear and seasoning that Pat's had. I feel that the difference here is the cooking surface since everything else - steak, cheese and bread were congruent.

The onions at Geno's were not cooked through

So there you have it, my 2 cents on the cheesesteak debate. While I found the ingredients on both sandwiches comparable I preferred Pat's steak as well as the look of the place. I found Geno's to be horribly gaudy and their steak to be less flavorful than the competition. I would be interested in tasting Geno's again in a few months to see if the griddle benefits from wear and seasoning but I would certainly recommend Pat's over Geno's. Of course the geographic proximity of both institutions make for easy comparison.

Pat's King of Steak
corners of 9th Street, Wharton and Passyunk Avenues
Philadelphia PA 19147

1219 South 9th St
Philadelphia PA 19147


Sonny from Mountain Home said...

Looks like it makes the heart attack worth it!

chiff0nade said...

Sonny Garrett, buddy! How are you? I have REALLY missed you since we crossed paths there in Mountain Home, Arkansas . . . you remember, at the Baxter Bulletin's picnic.

Buddy (sonny from mountain home), I agree that the steak sandwiches at Pat's and Geno's just look delicious, but, personally I don't want to ruin my 50-year-old, hour-glass figure with these sandwiches no matter HOW great they taste.

Of course, now that I am stranded in Clearwater, Florida,(thanks to my fourth ex-husband) I guess the problem is moot.

HEY!, give my regards to your boss Betty Barker Smith!


NineteenaChiffOnade said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NineteenaChiffOnade said...

Sonny from Mountain Home,

Do you remember me? My mother Louise ("chiff0nade") brought me to Mountain Home, Arkansas, just after I got out of jail here in Florida, to meet you.

After you won all of those journalism awards there in Mountain Home, Arkansas, and after you put that terrible criminal stalker in jail for so many years, I have been having dreams about you, Sonny Garrett.

Now that we are back home in Clearwater, Florida, my mother Louise ("chiff0nade") has promised that she and "Big Bear" are going to take me to Philly to eat some of these wonderful cheese-steak sandwiches.

Thanks to this blog and to "sonny from mountain home" for making my day.

Ken Doll said...

Yet more garbage from DocChuck (Charles Treuter).

Why do you let him trash your site like this?

d0cchuck said...


I happened to visit one of my favorite (well, once favorite) blogs . . . and I see that it has been inundated with strange and weird posts from people with whom I would prefer NOT to associate.

I will resume reading your blog when you have the time to moderate and to eliminate posters with their weird personal agenda.



d0cchuck said...

Hate to be a nuisance, but I REALLY grow weary of Louise's ("chiff0nade") juvenile attempts to embarrass me and my wife.

Here is the link for "sonny from mountain home" link:

Here is Louise's ("chiff0nade" AND now, "ken doll") link:

And every reputable BLOG operator knows how to reach DocChuck since he ALWAYS provides a legitimate email address, unlike Louise, down in her Clearwater, Florida, trailer park.


Du said...

Sorry to see you still have some comment trolls. Anyway, if I were in Philly I woulda done the same thing! And with the same disclaimer you had no doubt. You just have to try those places, it's obligatory. I've had cheesesteaks in places outside philly but they've all had either swiss or provologne. I'd love to try it with Wizz. In my opinion it's got a special saltiness that the other cheeses don't have.

Tir na n'Og said...

It is well known that Charles Treuter (aka "DocChuck") also posts as Chiff0nade, Big Bear, nineteena, BrotherChiff)nade and other related aliases.

He does this on dozens of food blogs. Every day. To amuse himself.

His is a long and sad story of internet mayhem.

Maillard said...


Check this out:

danny said...

so Pat's over Gino's huh? Maybe a trip to Philly is in order. So no places in NY for a cheesesteak that is even enjoyable? There was a place in Brooklyn that had a gaudy sign and they were plain yuck. This is an elusive thing...

DocChuck said...

Well, Nick, I will avoid being tempted to respond to a couple of the imbecilic, uninformed, obviously 'planted' comments preceding me.

Having said that, I will make one more, and hopefully, my final comment on your post.

If my wife and I had visited the above photographed establishment when you had, and had witnessed the tattooed fellow serving up the food . . . we would have beat a hasty retreat from the esteemed Philadelphia food establishment, with NO apologies for following HIS "ordering rules".

We have walked OUT of several restaurants, during some of our travel adventures, when a server, a cook, or anyone else in our sight sported body-piercings and/or tattoos.

Sorry if I offend any of your readers, but we do NOT desire to risk exposure to HepC, to infectious herpes, or to any STDs.

NOW, we would invite you (or anyone else) to check out our rather lengthy credentials as "maillard" suggested . . . just be certain that the "checker" is intelligent enough to understand what the "checker" is checking.

"Maillard" is a rather thinly-disguised friend of Serious Eat's spokeswoman "chiff0nade".

smithmargareth01 said...

Great.!!Love your blog,no doubt.!!Looks that you really enjoyed your dining at Pat's steak and Geno's steak..I just wish that I could also visit the two places and try their steaks..!!

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