Philly Cheesesteak Golf Weekend

A wiz wit from Tony Luke's

Weekend Itinerary by Fat Guy (a Philly-area resident since 1994)

Ask ten Philadelphians which shop serves their favorite cheesesteak in town, and you'll get 16 different answers... partially dependent on what neighborhood or suburb they're from, and whether the question was posed by a tourist or a local.  Present the same question to two Philadelphians simultaneously, and a debate will almost surely ensue.  All Philly locals have a stated preference between Pat's and Geno's, but true aficionados rarely name either as their favorite in town.  We'll explore Philly's cheesesteak scene from top to bottom over a long weekend, from touristy to the local's joints, and all paired with some beefy Philly-area golf by Fat Guy.  This is a flavor-of-Philly kinda weekend.

First, a little history on the cheesesteak.  Philadelphians Pat and Harry Olivieri are credited with inventing the sandwich by serving chopped-up steak on hoagie rolls in the early 1930s from their hot dog stand near South Philadelphia's Italian Market. The sandwiches became so popular that Pat opened up his own restaurant, which still operates today as Pat's King of Steaks. The sandwich was originally prepared without cheese. Olivieri claims cheese was first added by a manager named "Cocky" Joe Lorenza at Pat's Ridge Avenue location, and the first cheese he added was provolone. [Wikipedia]

Second, a lesson in ordering the real thing in Cheesesteak City, PA:  First off, true Philadelphians don't call it a cheesesteak.  It's a steak sandwich, with (insert your cheese of preference here ).  Know exactly what you want when you get to the front of the line, and order it in as few words as possible; Philadelphians work fast and don't have much patience for the contrarian.  And at Geno's, you'd better speak English too; they also have little patience for immigrants who haven't learned the unofficial language of America either.  Break any of these rules, and you'll find yourself at the back of the line again... which can mean another hour or two of your life at some popular shops after the bars close on a Friday or Saturday night.

Although most cheesesteak shops offer a few cheeses to choose from, the most authentic preparation is using Cheez Whiz, with fried onions.  By now, even people in Nebraska know this as a "Wiz wit'...", or a Cheez Whiz steak wit' fried onions.

It's an accepted practice to order a cheesesteak with Provolone or American cheese if you're just not a Cheez Whiz kinda guy, but be careful how far off the reservation you go when it comes to cheeses.  During his presidential campaign in 2003, John Kerry was ridiculed for attempting to order the sandwich with Swiss cheese. A food critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer explained: "In Philadelphia, that’s an alternative lifestyle."  [Wikipedia].

Other toppings and variations are available as your palate develops though the weekend...  sautee'd mushrooms, hot peppers, sweet peppers, the chicken cheesesteak (for those of you who need a false sense of eating healthy to appease your conscience), or the pizza steak, topped with tomato sauce.  Some local folks go so far as to slather the roll in mayo and add a couple hoagie toppings like lettuce and tomato.  I've also heard semi-serious arguments about whether or not ketchup is an acceptable condiment for a real cheesesteak, though my wife is a born-&-bred Philly gal and always gets ketchup on hers.  Personally, Fat Guy digs his mushroom Whiz wit', with a good dousing of hot sauce.

In addition to Cheez Whiz, there are two things that differentiate a real Philly cheesesteak from that barely-appetizing distant cousin they serve at your local course's grill room:  First and foremost is the roll.  Most Philly cheesesteak shops get them fresh-baked daily from local Italian bakeries like Amoroso's or Lisio's.  The second major difference is that serious cheesesteak joints in Philly use fresh rib-eye or top round beef that's sliced right there at the shop before it's thrown on the grill.  That greasy joke they throw on the bar with pickle-soaked chips at your golf club is almost guaranteed to be frozen Steak-Ums on a three-day old mass-produced French roll that's been toasted to hide how stale it is.

Long Weekend Itinerary

Book a room at the Comfort Inn on Delaware Avenue ( Tip : request for a room on the river side for better views and less I-95 noise) to be cabbing distance to nightlife and some of Philly's best cheesesteak joints, although you'll have to rent a car to get to the golf course.

Oh, and you may want to invest in a pocket difibulator.

Friday after an early morning flight, take a quick hop down 95 South from the airport to Glen Mills Golf Club. Cut out of the forested grounds of a school for troubled boys (who serve as cart and bag boys and give great service) by Bobby Weed.  Weed likes to leave the natural edges of the terrain intact when he builds a golf hole, and it makes for a picturesque day of some challenging but really fun golf.  It's the second best public near Philly, but the downer here is that after being named to many Best New Course lists when it debuted in '01, the green fees are still ballooned at around $90 weekend prime time.

For lunch, let's head for Cheesesteak Central, South Philly.  Back in 2002, a group of four local high school seniors conned their teacher into letting them determine the Best Cheesesteak In Philly for their Senior class project, and they were mentored by a respected local food critic.  They sampled 23 of Philly's best steak joints, and came out with a unanimous decision:  Old school but little-known John's Roast Pork , established in 1930 and wedged between a train track and a chemical plant off Snyder Avenue near Columbus Boulevard, won their competition hands down.  John's namesake pork sandwiches are also juice-drenched and deftly seasoned, and even their chicken cheesesteaks rock.  But get there early;  they cater to the working man so they're only open on weekdays, and they sell so many sandwiches that they often run out of rolls by 2:30 in the afternoon.

We'll go with the theory that you're combating all these calories by playing 36 holes a day. For your afternoon round today, it's a quick hop over the bridge to Jersey for Riverwinds GC . Three holes border the Delaware River, including a short downhill island par-3 in the river, with Philly skyline views in the distance.

After your round at Riverwinds, head back to South Philly for a dinner stop at Tony Luke's (Front & Oregon).  Part of the experience of eating a real Philly cheesesteak is standing in line outdoors, grabbing your piping hot sandwich off the chrome counter, and snagging an ou t door table or a spot standing at the storefront counter to wolf it down out in the elements under an overhang (so resist the temptation to pop across the street to Tony Luke's sit-down restaurant, even if it's pouring rain).  Tony Luke's is consistently men tioned as one of Philly's top cheesesteaks, as we build your palate towards cheesesteak nirvana.

Saturday , start with a morning round at Walnut Lane GC , a p ar 62 c ity muni wedged into an old school Philly neighborhood. OK, so it's kind of a dogtrack and everyone out there is a hack. But if you're looking for the closest halfway decent public to Center City, this is it. Some serious course critic s at gave it a surprisingly good review (it's a bit of a shock that they'd review it a t all, let alone have mostly positive things to say). Super tight, super short, some hills, leave the driver in the trunk, play conservative, hit putts hard on the longish greens. A good place to learn how to play off a dirt patch or how to work a ball, as mature overhanging trees require both draws or fades on certain holes.

Most of the reason to play Walnut Lane is to grab a steak at nearby Dellasandro's Steaks (@ corner on Henry, on the far right corner of football field next to parking lot) afterwards. They serve a cold can of beer and one of Philly's best cheesesteaks. If the seats are all taken, Chubby's across the street is almost as good.

This afternoon, make your way over the bridge to Jersey for a twilight round at Fat Guy's favorite public in the area, Scotland Run .  This sandy course was dug out of the New Jersey pine barrens and a former sand quarry site.  Diabolical architect Stephen Kay gives his usual omage to Old Tom Morris' quirk y British Isles style, with more than a cursory nod to Prestwick, site of the first British Open. The routing is more X-Box golf than traditional links, featuring pot bunkers, railroad tie walls as crossing hazards, nasty carries over old sand quarry pits 3 stories deep (don't worry-- there's a staircase if you don't clear the carry), dual greens, a rusted-out steam shovel next to a fairway, an old airplane in a sand pit, lots of doglegs, buried-elephant greens, fescue everywhere, and cart paths which spill randomly into acres of flashed-up waste bunkers (how's needing directional signs for carts in a bunker for unique?).  This is golf as an adventure, and the most grin-inducing 18 holes in the Philly area.

Tonight, we'll hit the other end of the cheesesteak spectrum.  From sitting on ancient chrome murshroom barstools among the potato chip boxes and extra cases of soda at Dellesandro's, it's off to the sexy, library-ish 4-star vibe of Barclay Prime , done by famed Philly restauranteur Stephen Starr.  Barclay Prime is home to the $100 Kobe beef cheesesteak.  It's not something I'd want to--or could afford to--get used to, and it's certainly got it's own panache, but it's no friggin' Dellesandro's either .

From there, it's back into Center City Philly for some great nightlife.  Staples include time-warp Colonial back alley pub McGillin’s (1310 Drury Ln, ) , circa 1860, where actors from nearby theaters pop in the back door for a quick belt between acts.  Old City’s original Continental Lounge is a martini lounge in an old silver diner, with a retro-futuristic vibe, or the uptown location is THE happy hour staple of the business district, with a sexy roof deck.  Continental's Old City neighbor Cuba Libre serves Philly’s best mojito with a side of salsa-dancing and Cuban/Caribbean cuisine.  Ooze into the ultra-lounge scene at 32 Degrees .  The Philly outpost of Hollywood's Lucky Strike Lanes , a bowling alley cum nightclub, brings in big name DJs and features an appetizer-laden Americana menu. Check out Philly's exploding microbrew scene at Gre y Lodge Pub ( they serve a mean cheesesteak too if you get hungry late-night) .

The popular tourist strip of bars, restaurants, and eclectic boutiques on South Street (below 6th) is still recovering from the economic downturn , but it's worth a visit.  If you do get to South Street, another popular cheesesteak joint is Jim's .  Local opinions on Jim's seem to be fairly divided; some consider Jim's cheesesteaks to be among Philly's top 3 if not the best, while others think of Jim's as a somewhat touristy version of the hometown favorite sandwich (for reasons I've never quite been able to put my finger on, other than possibly it's touristy location on South Street).  Another South Street shop that makes many local's favorite lists is Ishkabibble's ( ), named after a a Yiddish expression meaning something like “Do I look like I care?”.

Late night, grab a cab to the world epicenter of cheesesteaks, 9th & Passyunk in South Philly.  There you'll find Pat's King of Steaks , and Geno's Steaks , t he two most famous cheesest eak joints on the planet .  Preference between the two is an endless source of local debate (I'm a Pat's man myself, while my wife is a Geno's disciple), though out-of-towners need not sweat the difference (basically Pat's chops their steak, and Geno's doesn't).  Don't sweat the long lines when the cabbie pulls up either; riffing with the half-loaded Philadelphians in line is more than half the experience.  A steak from either Pat's or Geno's defines the Philly cheesesteak experience, if not the sandwich itself .  (If you'd like to try both to compare, don't show up late night on a weekend.)

There you have it. In 48 hours, you've sampled the best cheesesteaks in the world and become an educated cheesesteak connisseur. Now go hit the gym every night and eat salads for a week to recover.  Or don't.

The 10 Best Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia
By Alan Richman, GQ , 1/14

Five of us rode out. All of us returned. That wasn’t guaranteed, which is why our traveling party included Dr. Benjamin Abella, an emergency room physician from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. We tried 23 different cheesesteaks in one afternoon at ten spots generally considered the best in Philadelphia. (Crazy, I know, but there wasn’t room in the car for a psychiatrist.)

So many cheesesteaks, so much to learn, even for a Philadelphia native, which I am. Who makes the best, a debate that has consumed the city for decades? Which is the best cheese, sliced provolone or Cheez Whiz, the legendary goop invented by Kraft in the early fifties? (American cheese, a third option, is too feeble to be a viable choice.) Which establishment chops, caramelizes, and adds the correct quantity of onions, which is my particular passion, given that the grilled beef in these sandwiches tends to be bland? And, finally, just how good is the bread, a judgment we tended to leave to Maria Gallagher, a former restaurant critic for Philadelphia magazine?

Also with us was an outsider, Jeff Ruby, restaurant critic for Chicago magazine and cheesesteak novice, although he was pretty cocky for a man with so much to learn. After eating his first on this trip, he cruelly remarked, “It’s the Billy Joel of beef, tender but no taste.” Our final eater was Ray Didinger, member of the writers’ wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a current Philadelphia sportscaster, and the most devoted cheesesteak eater I know. I’ve eaten cheesesteaks with him in each of the last six decades (1969-present), starting when we sat at adjoining desks in the sports department of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. He is a celebrity in Philadelphia, and I figured that with him along, superb service was guaranteed.

I love cheesesteaks, but until this trip I considered them little more than a local phenomenon, not to be taken seriously. After all, with most cheesesteaks, the bread is insubstantial, the meat overcooked, the onions undercooked, and the cheese tasteless or drippy (your choice). What I learned on our excursion changed my mind about almost everything.

We all learned to appreciate Cheez Whiz, which Didinger had never tried, believing it a useless, artificial product. Yet it does have appeal, providing it is applied properly: It must not be slopped on, as is usually done, but instead artfully blended with the meat, in much the same way that the great barbeque restaurants of North Carolina apply sauce to their chopped pork.

We also learned of the existence of an almost-extinct style of cheesesteak that turned out to have a lot in common with the hoagie, Philly’s given name for a sub.

Here are our top ten, in order.

I cannot say the list is entirely democratic. Although all five of us voted, and all votes were counted, I tinkered a little, moving some places up a notch, some down. We were unanimous in our choice of the best and the worst.

1. Sonny’s Famous Steaks
Located near the Liberty Bell, the very heart of Philadelphia tourism, Sonny’s is ideally situated for visitors hoping to try the best cheesesteak in town. The shop is a few doors away from the more celebrated Campo’s, setting up a potential 21st century competition between the two, much like the classic 20th century duel of Pat’s vs. Geno’s, the fading ex-champs of South Philly. Sonny’s is eerily uncluttered, with a few chrome-rimmed, fifties-style, communal tables. It feels like a small-town meeting space occasionally occupied by the Cub Scouts or the Lions Club. Service is terrific—the folks behind the counter can’t do enough for you. I asked for more onions, and they were brought to our table. Want more napkins or more sauce? Help yourself. The rolls are very soft, the beef juicier and more plentiful than most, the provolone nicely gooey, the Cheez Whiz well integrated into the meat. What a combination—wonderful cheesesteaks and attentive service. That’s almost impossible to find.

2. Philip’s Steaks
You order at a stand much like the kind I remember from family trips to the boardwalk in Atlantic City when I was a kid. At Philip’s, you pick up your cheesesteak, then do an about-face and eat standing up at a long, narrow, metal counter that stretches along the sidewalk. Of course, this style of dining is more fun when you’re facing the ocean, not West Passyunk Avenue. Our first sandwich was nice enough—freshly made, juicy meat, not quite enough onions. Then the manager, Joe Bianchi, recognized Didinger and said to him, “Want me to make you an old-fashioned?” I jumped in and said, “Of course he does,” wondering what this was all about. I’d never heard of it. Bianchi claimed this was the original cheesesteak, the real thing. It consisted of beef, provolone, grilled tomato, fried onions, black pepper, oregano, salt, and a few Italian long hots. It was more like a Massachusetts “steak bomb” than the traditional Philly cheesesteak. It was wonderful. Bianchi, who works at the stand six days a week, says his regulars always want it, and he’ll make one for anyone who asks.

3. Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop (formerly Chink’s)
You can probably guess why the name was changed, but it didn’t happen quickly. More than 60 years passed before political correctness found its way to the Wissinoming neighborhood of Philadelphia. Joe’s is where I had the cheesesteak that made me recognize the virtues of Cheez Whiz. Kudos to the cook, a cute young woman in a tee-shirt, the only female cook I noticed at any of our ten stops. Joe’s is a charming, undersized, old-world luncheonette. It has fantastic milkshakes, no-longer-working jukeboxes in four of the booths, and a wall of photos showing the shop through the decades, back when it was still called Chink’s. Our waitress was another cute young woman in a tee-shirt. For that matter, almost everyone working there is a cute, young woman in a tee-shirt. I wonder if another political correctness crisis looms.

4. Campo’s Deli
Often talked about as the reigning cheesesteak champion, Campo’s offers a sandwich with plenty of meat. That’s not the problem. The provolone is insubstantial, almost tasteless, and vanishes into the roll. The chopped onions are way too big, much too clunky, and fatally undercooked. The beverage of choice is Campo’s own name-brand bottled water. The space is overcrowded, with tiny tables and uncomfortable chairs. After the five of us sat down with our sandwiches and drinks, I realized we needed more napkins, and that one of us was without a beverage. I went back and had a chat with the woman manning the cash register.

Me: Can I have a cup of tap water?
Her: We only sell water.

Me: May I have a few more napkins?
Her: There’s napkins in the baskets under the sandwiches.

Me: They’re very messy sandwiches. We need more.
Her: If you need to wash your hands, go to the restroom.

Campo’s has a tip jar on the counter. I passed.

5. John’s Roast Pork
Note the name. While cheesesteaks aren’t the specialty here, they’re still quite good. Inside the cramped shop, two lines form, one for pork and the other for cheesesteaks. The guys behind the counter sound like carnival barkers, one yelling, “Pork here,” the other, “Steak here.” Pick your line, and don’t expect a kind word if you get in the wrong one. The sandwiches are eaten outside on picnic tables while semis and buses roll by. A whiff of exhaust lingers in the air. The sandwiches are big and hearty, less refined than most, and most cheesesteaks aren’t refined at all. The rolls are pleasingly crunchy, although Ruby thought the sesame seeds were unfortunate, muddling the purity of the product. No Cheez Whiz to be had, but two kinds of provolone are available, one mild, the other sharp. Ask for the sharp. Whenever the opportunity arises, always ask for the sharp.

6. Steve’s Prince of Steaks
The inside of Steve’s looks like the outside of an Airstream trailer: sleek, shiny, metallic. Outside, it looks like any neighborhood joint, weary with age. Said Ruby, “It looks like my great-grandmother’s house in St. Joseph, Missouri.” An odd style of cheesesteak that I rather liked: The roll seemed thinner than most, and it was filled with meat cooked flat on the grill and served that way, rather than being chopped into bits. The sandwich was so tender and dainty I felt I was at a tea party. This was our first stop and Ruby was unimpressed, expecting brawny, two-fisted eating. The sandwich with Cheez Whiz was a mess, precisely the way I dislike it. The gooey stuff was plopped on top, where it proceeded to dribble off and behave like glue, adhering to the paper under the sandwich, the napkin holding the sandwich, and, in one case, my shirt. [ Fat Guy Note :  There's a Steve's location in my town, and I didn't think they were anything special.]

7. Pat’s King of Steaks
The one and only. The cheesesteak was created here in 1930 by Pat Olivieri. The stand is situated on a tiny East Passyunk Ave. plaza, across from a mystifying mural— is that Olivieri or W.C. Fields? Seating is outdoors and exposed, which means the occasional panhandler is likely to stroll by while you eat, testing your kindness of heart. Incredibly efficient service. Walk up to the counter and follow the explicit directions posted on the wall when ordering. Do so awkwardly, as I did, and expect a mild rebuke from the counterman. I asked him to cut our sandwiches in half, no problem elsewhere. “No cutting,” he said. Pat’s operates so efficiently your sandwich will be handed to you at the same time as your change. The meat on the grill looked rosy and appealing but came out overcooked and tough. The onions were artfully done, but the roll was chewy and elastic. The provolone never melted, probably due to the speed of preparation, and the Cheez Whiz was slopped on, ending up everywhere but on the meat. A small mystery: “I would like to know more about that ballet slipper nailed to the awning,” Gallagher said.

Editor’s Note: According to owner Frankie Olivieri, the ballet slipper is a souvenir for a Philly scavenger hunt: “A few years ago there was a big scavenger hunt in Phildelphia, and various items were put in different places, and they all were uniquely Philadelphian. I think it’s a ballet slipper from a ballerina in the Nutcracker performed here in Philadelphia. It was in the window for the hunt, and then people were amazed by it and it became legend, so I put it up there next to the old pictures of my uncle Pat.”

8. Steaks On South
A newish place on South Street that’s recently gotten some attention. A major drawback is the absolute absence of ambience. Steaks On South looks like a generic sandwich shop that’s been a bunch of other things before deciding to give cheesesteaks a try. Lots of tables plus a few counter seats. A claw machine for taking quarters from kids. A free Ms. Pac-Man machine on the second floor. The sandwiches meet minimum cheesesteak standards, but lack finesse, style, or an identity. The onions are barely cooked, the beef is ordinary, the rolls unimpressive. The provolone is particularly tasteless, so I suggest Cheez Whiz.

9. Tony Luke’s
A legendary spot in South Philly famous for its Pork Italian, which is roast pork topped with broccoli rabe and sharp provolone. I’ve always loved it. The cheesesteaks were a flop. The rolls had a little crunch but no taste, the meat was oddly pale and unusually bland, and the onions were sparse and undercooked. Choosing sharp provolone instead of mild helped but not enough. Even the Cheez Whiz tasted off, a little mustardy. Once a swell-looking spot, the walls lined with signed photos of local characters who ate there, the place has been transformed into a self-congratulatory shrine to owner Tony Luke Jr. Now photographs of him are everywhere.

10. Geno’s Steaks
Ambience is the best aspect of this famous spot—it’s a riot of bright, neon orange. Pilots on final approach to the Philadelphia airport could utilize the glow as a landing beacon. Lots of photos of Joey Vento, the late founder, with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity. Hundreds of police patches under glass. An infamous welcoming sign: “This is America. When ordering, speak English.” The meat is long, flat, and tasteless. The roll was the worst of all—dry, spongy, and ghostly. The sandwich looks a lot like Pat’s, but it doesn’t measure up, and the bar isn’t set that high. Feels like a place that has stopped trying. No panhandlers here. I suspect any who approach the premises would be met by suppressive fire.

Reminder from Maria Gallagher: Some of these places are outdoors-only, and Philip’s doesn’t even have seating. Campo’s is the only one where you can get a beer. John’s Roast Pork is the only place to shun Cheez Whiz. Pat’s and Geno’s are open 24 hours a day, every day. John’s closes at 3 p.m. (except 4 p.m. on Saturdays). Tony Luke’s and Geno’s tie for most pictures of the owner on the wall.

Milkshake: Joe’s
Cheez Whiz: Sonny’s, Joe’s
Provolone: Sonny’s, John’s
Old-fashioned: Philip’s
Hold the cheese, hold the onions, hold the water, hold the napkins: Campo’s

Philly Sports Radio 94.1 WIP Host Glen Macnow's Best Cheesesteaks in Philly, 4/08

Longtime afternoon drive sports radio co-host Glen Macnow sampled 45 of the Philly area's best cheesesteak joints ("from Atlantic City to West Chester") in 45 days, gained 7 pounds during the quest, and ranked his Top 10:

1.  John's Roast Pork- "One whiff of the aroma wafting from John's had us enticed. And one bite of the $7.76 cheesesteak, and we were in gastronomic heaven. This, my friends, is ecstasy on a toasted Carangi's roll."

2. Steve's Prince of Steaks, Philadelphia

3. Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop (formerly Chink’s), Northeast

4. Talk of the Town, South Philadelphia

5. Grey Lodge Pub, Northeast

6. Slack's Hoagie Shack, Northeast

7. Sonny's Famous Steaks, Old City

8. Tony Luke's, South Philadelphia

9. White House Sub Shop, Atlantic City

10. Dalessandro's, Roxborough

Macnow's most surprising conclusion: Overall, the Northeast has better cheesesteaks than South Philly. The unheralded Grey Lodge Pub was a particularly pleasant discovery, he said.

The Northeast tends to leave its beef sliced, instead of chopping it to bits, which is sometimes a way to cover up inferior meat, Macnow said.

What, no Pat's and Geno's?

Sorry, the touristy spots may show up in politician's photo ops, but they rarely rank high with locals.

Macnow ranked Geno's 35, Pat's a dismal 42.