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A Tale of Two Sandwiches
Celebrating my last National Cheesesteak Day in Philadelphia
A month ago this week, I had one of the most over-the-top lunches of my life.
On one side of my plate was a Whiz With from Tony & Nick’s in South Philadelphia. On the other was a Keough’s Kaos from Geoff’s Superlative Sandwiches in Providence, Rhode Island. Either alone would have been a very filling lunch; it took me all day to finish them both. But I have a well-documented tendency to commemorate major life events with special sandwiches, and in this case the pairing was symbolic — of the close of one chapter and the start of another.
Today is one of the true great American holidays: National Cheesesteak Day.
As someone who’s eaten many of them both in eight years in Philadelphia area and in over two decades living elsewhere before then, I can attest that National Cheesesteak Day is an oxymoron. Sure, you can get a solid cheesesteak anywhere. At the end of the day, putting ribeye and cheese on bread is hard to screw up.1 Yet the baseline quality in the greater Philadelphia area is miles beyond anywhere else in the country. I don’t know why that’s the case, except perhaps that, like Plato’s cave-dwellers, people who haven’t been here don’t understand that their versions are but mere shadows of the real thing.
Last week, a friend who lives a few states away ordered a cheesesteak for lunch and sent a picture for me to assess. Even through a screen, I could tell from a glance that it wasn’t up to par.
The first tell was the cheese. The stringy topping, seemingly melted onto the meat rather than mixed into it, betrays the signature white and fluorescent yellow coloring of plastic-bag shreds of cheddar jack. If any self-respecting Philadelphia deli offered such an option on its steaks, they certainly wouldn’t use the pre-shredded kind.2 Slivers of red pepper like those poking through the cheese above aren’t verboten here, but their inclusion is generally a sign of inauthenticity. Even the texture of the bread was visibly wrong, as the bottom isn’t sagging the way a properly fluffy roll’s innards would under the weight of the beef. Most importantly, they called it a “Philly” — a clear indication that no one involved had ever been to the Delaware Valley, where you’d learn that “cheesesteak” is sufficient. (He assured me that it was tasty nonetheless, which I don’t doubt.)
When I moved to South Philadelphia in 2015, I was in awe of cheesesteak culture. Asking people for their favorite spots turned out to be both a great conversation-starter and an impetus for me to explore the city. It also revealed a broader array of opinions than I’d heard about the regional specialty food anywhere else I’d lived or even visited. Talk to enough locals and you’ll hear a few places get mentioned more than others — Angelo’s, Jim’s, Dalessandro’s — but unlike, say, asking people in Chicago where to go for deep-dish pizza, you'll hear too many opinions to easily narrow it down to a couple consensus frontrunners.3
The impetus for my now-yearslong project of building my own cheesesteak rankings wasn’t just giving into my instincts for completism and culinary optimization, nor was it as simple as wanting to eat a bunch of delicious hoagies. It felt like a rite of initiation. If I developed informed opinions about our signature sandwich, I would earn my place as an adopted Philadelphian. That’s why getting my first freelance story published in the Inquirer last month was such an honor. This Cleveland kid will hold the achievement of “professional cheesesteak writer” with pride for the rest of my life.
One of the first cheesesteaks I tried after moving here was a Whiz With — following the traditional ordering format of “[cheese type] [with or without onions]” — in a glorified shack under a South Philly overpass, now known as Tony & Nick’s. None of the dozens I’ve subsequently tried elsewhere since then have matched it. The thinly shaved ribeye is tasty and just the right level of greasy. The generously portioned whiz seeps into every nook and cranny of the sandwich. (If you can’t bring yourself to order whiz, Tony & Nick’s also excels at the difficult task of melting and mixing solid sliced American into the meat to replicate the consistency of cheese sauce.) The finished-in-house Liscio’s Bakery roll is pillowy on the inside and chewy on the outside, flavorful enough to hold its own against its contents but not so much that it overpowers them.
There’s a magical moment when the juice from the beef melds with the melty cheese, takes on a hint of the sweet onion residue, and soaks into the bread. There are other delis that use fancier ingredients or offer terrific modern twists on the traditional formula, but no cheesesteak I’ve tried delivers that perfect bite more consistently than Tony & Nick’s. So it was only fitting that I ordered one on the day we signed our lease to leave Philadelphia.
Providence, Rhode Island is not known as a sandwich city.4 One of the best delis I tried in my four years of college there was so obviously a mob front that they were shocked when a customer walked in. Another of my former favorites went out of business shortly after getting busted for both curfew violations and massive wage theft. Sure, we college kids in search of cheap late-night bites and hangover cures had no shortage of perfectly cromulent grinders near campus, but it didn't hold a candle to what you'd find in an average three-block radius in South Philly.
The one very large exception was Geoff’s Superlative Sandwiches.
Many restaurants excel at executing simple dishes well. Still more try to compensate for unexceptional quality with creativity and extravagance. (See for example the recent arms race of stunt stadium foods.) Geoff’s is in the rare class of food establishments that are truly both imaginative and high-quality. The walls are lined with scores of whimsically named and constructed selections. Take the Albuquerque Turkey, featuring the eyebrow-raising but delicious combination of sliced turkey, chili, muenster, and chive cream cheese. Their onetime weekly Two-for-Tuesday special got you a whole day’s worth of food for a college-kid-friendly price, and don’t forget their free famous ultra-garlicky pickles.
My regular rotation of Geoff’s orders evolved over the years, from the Don Carcieri with roast beef and pastrami to the Embryonic Journey with egg salad, bacon, and melted cheddar. My first and most-enduring favorite was the Keough’s Kaos. It starts with a triple pile of corned beef, turkey, and bacon. Such a combination of proteins doesn’t need much extra flavor, so it’s topped with mild melted Swiss cheese. A pocket of wilted spinach keeps the sandwich from feeling too heavy, and an added schmear of Shedd’s sauce (a horseradish mayonnaise) keeps your palate on edge. It’s all nestled into one of Geoff’s eponymous Superlative-sized soft snowflake rolls, and it is fantastic.
We had made a point to stay away from College Hill last month when we visited Providence to look at houses and apartments — the better to make this feel like starting a new chapter in our lives, not revisiting an old one. Still, I insisted on swinging by Geoff’s before we left to pick up some sandwiches for the road. And as we officially signed on to become residents of the Ocean State, there was only one sandwich befitting my return to Rhode Island.
This is the last time I’ll spend National Cheesesteak Day in Philadelphia for the foreseeable future. My prospects for future celebrations in Rhode Island look pretty bleak (let alone the odds of satisfactorily sating the cravings for less-famous Delaware Valley hoagie specialties like roast pork and chicken cutlets). The only Providence cheesesteak place I remember trying in college was unimpressive, even by my pre-Philadelphian standards. In some cursory research, I’ve found a few pizza shops near our soon-to-be apartment that offer a “Philly” sandwich or, even worse, a “steak and cheese sub.” There’s a very real chance that on March 24, 2024 I’ll either be attempting to make a cheesesteak myself or having lunch at Jersey Mike’s.
Providence is a great city with its own special charm. I loved living there as a student and I’m looking forward to discovering it anew at a different stage of life. I’m excited for New England autumns, the day trips to Tree House, and especially the opportunities that this move opens up for us. But I’m going to miss the hell out of the wonderful city that I’ve called home for the last eight years — and not just because of the hoagies. National Cheesesteak Day seemed like the right time to say something cheesy like that.
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To be fair, I got a truly inedible one last week from a spot that people online have been raving about. A good reminder that even the best places have bad days!
I understand that such snobbery sounds rich coming from a guy who likes Cheez Whiz on his steaks. The difference is that whiz is a specialized product whose distinct balance of creaminess and viscosity are well suited to the textural needs of a cheesesteak, while the preservatives in packaged pre-shredded cheese actually inhibit its meltiness.
The questions of if deep-dish should really be considered pizza and whether it really has a stronger claim to be Chicago’s signature variety than tavern-style, by contrast, are far more contentious.