Monday, October 8, 2012

There's A Lot At Steak In Philly

Philly.  The city of brotherly love.  A hard scrabble, blue collar town that takes its sports very seriously, infamously so.  A beautifully gritty place with a rich food culture: Tastykakes, soft pretzels, Frank's sodas, hoagies, water ice and, of course, cheesesteaks.  Ask anyone from Philly where to get the best steak sandwich and you will get a variety of answers.  A lot will respond based on their own neighborhoods and around the way spots.  In fact, almost every good steak spot is located in some type of 'hood.  So when my friend from New York came two summers ago and asked me where to find the best steak, I offered to take him to Max's in the Germantown section of Philly.

My sister lives in this part of the city and when she took me to Max's for the first time, I was in love.  Soft bread, bread that was filled to the brim with copious amounts of thinly sliced and diced steak, melted Provolone, salt, pepper and ketchup... OMG, delicious!  As good as the steaks are there, I was more impressed with the size of the sandwich; a half sandwich is nearly double the size of a half in a lot of other places.  I was like, 'Whoa'.

Cheesesteak from Max's

Needless to say, my friend couldn't wait to dig in.

So since Max's is more of a take-out than an eat-in establishment, we went downtown to the famous Reading Terminal (an indoor farmers' market) and ate.  And he loved it.  And I proudly popped my collar.

Okay, fast forward to the next day.  My friend said that he wanted to hit up another spot.  This time he wanted to go to the tourist-y spot that he had heard so much about - Pat's steaks in South Philly.  Now, believe it or not, I am a true native from Philly (born and raised) but have NEVER been to Pat's nor Geno's, which is located within a stone's throw from Pat's, right across the street.  These two places have had a higher profile because of the various mentions in newspapers, on TV food shows, and music videos (Boyz II Men, anyone?), but I never felt compelled to go there.  So I told my friend that I would be down to go since this would be a first-time adventure for the both of us.

And imagine what thoughts ran through my head when my friend sat down to eat their version of the Philly staple.

Cheesesteak from Pat's
Umm... well, the bread looks good.  I mean, I felt like pulling a Clara Peller and yelling, "Where's the beef?!"  Seriously, I saw more bread than steak.  I mean, look for yourself!  And look at the small clearing of meat that you can see; it looks like a SteakUm!  You know - the processed, rectangular beef-sicles they sell in the grocery store?  Yeah, those.  And look at that poor cheese, not a melt in sight.  It's standing just as stiff and rigid as the steak below it.  I couldn't believe it.  And Geno's steaks look exactly identical.  We didn't dare order one from them, but were able to see their patrons eating them outside.  Are you kidding me?  I had to laugh.  Being a good host, I really didn't want to heckle my friend's sandwich too badly, so I tried to keep my comments to a minimum.  But he quickly told me after finishing the small, meat barren victual that he was disappointed and that it was not as good as the one he had yesterday. 

It just goes to show you that not all tourist spots are the ones tourists should visit.  In fact, I hear that about every city/country.  Sometimes you have to go where only the well-versed natives tread... and especially in a city where stakes are high (pun intended) when it comes to finding a good, official Philly cheesesteak.  You don't want one that's too tough or chewy, or dry, or one that's so greasy that the bread falls apart before you even get a chance to bite it, or one where you have to send a search party out just to find the meat in the sandwich...or so small that you can finish it in two bites.

So, yes, you may get a lot of answers as to where to find a good one, but you're more likely to find it via a native's tongue than from a write up in a paper or segment on a show done by someone who has only visited the city once or twice.  I'm just sayin'. 

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