One night a few years ago, I had my friend Devin over for dinner. It was an NFL Sunday and I was making cheesesteaks. I prepared one for him and myself and afterwards I asked him how he liked it. “It was very good”, he said. He then asked “so why do I have to go all the way to philly just to have this same thing?”. My answer wasn’t one I put much thought in to, as it was a difficult one to make. On the one hand I’m not about to sit here and discredit the fine work I had just done, but I’m the other I wasn’t about to put my replica on the same pedestal as the definitive dish of my birth town. All I could come up with was:
“Because, you just do”.
His question was a valid one, although I haven’t thought about it for years. Why SHOULD he, a Long Islander, hop in his car and drive 200 miles through treacherous roads like the LIE and the Belt Parkway, before inching across the Verrazano and Goethals bridges, fight through the hell that is the Jersey Turnpike, to eventually arrive in Philadelphia, frazzled from the war on the roads, just to eat what, at its core, is simply minced meat and cheese whiz on an Italian hoagie roll?
To answer the question I’m going to have to take you on a journey with me to South 9th street and East Passyunk Avenue in Philadelphia. The two streets intersect with one another and at its center, the two landmarks of Philadelphia cuisine. On one side, you’re surrounded by the orgy of neon lights that is Geno’s. With its enormous sign and walls lined with photos of famous customers and badges honoring police officers in and around Philadelphia, the restaurant is a true homage to the city. Across the street on the Passyunk side, a much less ostentatious and less frilled spot. Although it’s appearance is more modest, Pats King of Steaks seems to know exactly what it is.
Okay so now we’re at Pats and Genos. If you’re from the Philadelphia area you’ve on multiple occasions been asked which one you prefer. If you’re not from the area, let me save you the time of bothering someone and just tell you the differences. Aside from the appearance of both spots as I just described, Pats has red tables and benches out front and Geno’s tables and benches are orange. Also Pats meat seems to me like it’s a little more finely chopped and Geno’s has a softer roll. But that’s just me.
Alright. So back to the question. WHY have I taken you here. Now that we’re here let’s plop ourselves in the month of January. It’s a freezing cold night and there’s no reason for you to be out waiting outside on line for a sandwich, and yet it makes all the sense in the world. It’s January and it’s a late night, you’ve had a few drinks and so have the groups or people coming from the Sixers game that just ended. Most likely they’re celebrating a win, and the whole street is excited. Someone in a Brian Westbrook jersey is yelling obscenities at you and your friends and families all around, but that’s all part of the charm. After waiting your turn you get to the window, “one whiz with” you ask. Quick side note, this is how you order. You simply say what you want on it. They only sell cheesesteaks, you don’t need to let them know that’s what you came for. So by going up to the window and saying “whiz with”, you’re saying “Hello Sir/Madam, I’d like one of your finest cheesesteaks with cheese whiz and grilled onions on it”. Very Simple. Anyway, you order your sandwich and in no time it’s in your hands. You head over to your table, sit, and open the wrap. And there it is. You’re greeted by a foot of finely minced beef, cascaded by liquid gold and all hugged together in a soft, squishy hoagie roll. You take your first bite and for a moment, the chill of the night is washed away. You’ve got a smudge of whiz on your upper lip, and a stream of cheese and grease begins to flow on your fingers and down to the paper from which the sandwich came. “Oh no!” you think as you see this puddle grow, “Im losing all my cheese!”. Fear not, because as you get to about the half way point of your cheesesteak you’ll realize this puddle is your ally, and you will dip your next bite in to it for even more gluttonous flavor. In the midst of all this you may notice a playground next to you. During the day, this park is filled with the young minds of the city as they swing, slide and shoot hoops. But this is the night time, and you realize that whatever activities going on in there are probably that of Philadelphia’s prosperous.. uhm… “off the books” economy. But guess who doesn’t care? You. You’ve got your cheesesteak and thats all that matters in the world.
If you’re still wondering what I’m getting at, you’re probably a New Yorker. Let me put this in terms you may understand. While Philadelphia is my birth town, I did grow up on Long Island. I live in Queens. I know a good slice of pizza from a bad one. You may have heard me on my podcast talk about how you can find a good slice anywhere (if you have not, go ahead and download and subscribe to The O Show on iTunes), and I was right, you can! But why is a slice from New York so highly regarded? because there’s an experience to it. Mozzarella, tomato sauce and bread put together is good wether its from 7/11 or from the best spot in Manhattan. You’re gonna like it. What you chase after is the experience, which is what going to Philly for a cheesesteak is. Cheese whiz, chopped beef and a hoagie roll is going to be good every time. If you get too food critic-y about it you’re gonna miss the point. Here let me explain, for this past super bowl, which was won by the Philadelphia Eagles, I again made cheesesteaks for my girlfriend and I. She said they were very good, but it was nothing like the steaks we had as Genos this past weekend when we travelled down there. Not because of the taste, but because there’s something about waiting in that line, having it made for you by a native Philadelphian, sitting at those tables and going through the exact journey I took you on before. This is a city that is proud of its food. Its proud of it’s people. So by having me make you a cheesesteak you may get to taste a little bit of what that is like, but to feel that, to feel that pride and like you’re a part of this, you have to go there.
So to answer your question Dev, why do you have to go all the way to Philly just to try this?
Because, you just do.