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Lewie the Fewdie's Guide to Cheesesteaks
My rankings of Philadelphia's best cheesesteaks, plus honorable mentions and notes on famous places to avoid
The thing about cheesesteaks is that they’re almost always good: The combination of griddled meat, melty cheese, and quality bread is hard to screw up. But not all cheesesteaks are great, and only a handful are so good as to legitimately change your life. Everyone in Philadelphia has their opinions about which those are, but it just so happens that mine are objectively correct.
I’m not a native Philadelphian. I don’t claim to have tried every good deli in the area, and I’m not a stickler for traditional definitions of what a cheesesteak should be. Rather, I’m a humble transplant who arrived in this great city with an open mind, an eager stomach, and a penchant for documenting my memorable meals. My preferences are based purely on taste, not reputation or neighborhood loyalty — which is why my list probably doesn’t resemble anyone else’s. Given my family’s history of high cholesterol I know that there is a finite number of cheesesteaks I can eat in my lifetime, so I save room for only the best ones. Here’s what those are.
The Top Ten
It’s worth planning a trip to Philadelphia to visit…
1. Tony & Nick’s
There’s a moment when you’re eating a great cheesesteak and the whole transcends the sum of the parts. The juices from the meat meld with the gooey cheese, get kissed by the sweet onions, and soak into (but not through) a fluffy Italian roll. It’s like when all the motifs in an orchestral suite come together in the finale. And no other deli I’ve been to provides this sensation as consistently as Tony & Nick’s (formerly called The Original Tony Luke’s, recently renamed to distinguish it from the separately owned Tony Luke’s franchises).
Their whiz with — the traditional way to order a cheesesteak is “[type of cheese] [with/without fried onions],” i.e. “American with” or “provolone without”; cheese whiz with onions is my general preference — is huge, it’s greasy, and you’ll probably need a nap afterwards. Yet it’s one of the true culinary wonders of the world, and you owe it to yourself to try it. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
2. Sonny’s Famous Steaks
In many ways, Sonny’s is the opposite of Tony Luke’s. It’s a posh storefront near the Liberty Bell, not a glorified shack under a South Philly overpass. The meat is cooked only in its own juices, so it’s not very greasy — in fact, they’re light enough that I actually sometimes order mine with extra cheese. They’re manageably sized, so while I wouldn’t suggest eating there before a run, you can have a cheesesteak for lunch and still go about your day.
What it has in common with Tony Luke’s is that it’s an absolutely delicious sandwich that will instantly make you understand why Philadelphia is known for its cheesesteaks. It doesn’t quite reach the highs of Tony Luke’s for me, but it’s a 1-and-1A situation, and I actually go there more often because it’s within walking distance, (at least in pre-pandemic times) it was open on weekends until after the nearby bars closed, and it’s only a marginal step down from the best steak in the city. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
3. Famous 4th Street Delicatessen
Who the hell goes to a Jewish deli to get a cheesesteak? Famous is, well, famous throughout the city for its gigantic breakfasts, towering pastrami sandwiches, and cookies the size of your head. (It’s also where I got the most-important order of corned beef of my life.) So it took me years before I indulged my curiosity and tried their cheesesteak, and boy had I been missing out.
The steak itself is the tastiest I’ve ever had on a sandwich. It’s immaculately seasoned, and it somehow achieves both the tenderness of a perfect-medium cook and the umami of a perfect sear. The sliced American cheese doesn’t quite coat every morsel of meat the way whiz does, but it’s generously portioned and mixed well enough that it hardly matters. And you get latkes and a pickle! [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
Once you’re in town, it’s worth planning your day around…
4. Mama’s Pizzeria
You have to drive out to the suburbs, navigate their limited hours, and bring some Lactaid pills to handle Mama’s, a common dark-horse choice for the best steak in the city — but it’s worth it. The cheesiest steak in town comes absolutely covered in their secret blend (I tasted provolone, American, and mozzarella), but the cheese doesn’t totally steal the show from the tender, thinly sliced ribeye beneath. [Full Philadelphia Inquirer review]
5. Lillo’s Tomato Pies
How do you make a cheesesteak even more indulgent? Two words: Garlic bread. The well-cooked meat, generous portions of well-mixed-in Cooper Sharp American, and a crusty seeded roll alone are enough to make this a special sandwich, but the extra creaminess and umami kick of the garlic aioli take it to another level. Just don’t plan on doing anything besides lying on the couch for a while afterwards. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
6. Curly’s Comfort Foods
Head out to Levittown for another shop that’s known for making steaks extra cheesy. I don’t think I’ve ever had a non‑whiz cheesesteak where the cheese was better‑mixed and ‑melted into the meat as Curly’s achieves with their Cooper Sharp American. It’s huge, but it’s not particularly greasy, so you might have the stomach for their great mac and cheese too. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
I generally don’t put specialty cheesesteaks on my rankings, not because I’m a hardcore traditionalist but because it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. But Tabachoy’s Bistek Chistek technically has all the right ingredients — ribeye, cheese sauce, alliums, and bread — and it’s just so damn delicious. Most of the flavor here comes from the soy-marinated beef, flavorful enough to eat in a sandwich on its own. The creamy homemade “chili-vin whiz” helps cleanse your palate, and replacing the typical onions with fried shallots is an inspired touch. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
These may not be life-changingly good, but if you’re in the neighborhood, make sure to try…
8. Cockadoodle Dan’s
You’ve probably inferred by now that I like my steaks cheesy. Cockadoodle Dan’s is the biggest exception. They don’t use heaping portions of Cooper Sharp American, but they’re up there with Curly’s in how well it’s melted and distributed throughout the sandwich. And given how well the ribeye is seasoned, it doesn’t need much cheese to be packed with flavor. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
9. Mama’s Meatballs and Pizzeria
Mama’s Meatballs makes the third-best cheesesteak I’ve had outside of Pennsylvania — and the second-best from a place called Mama’s. Make the trip over the bridge to New Jersey (the reverse Dr. Oz, if you will) and you’ll be rewarded with an amazing pile of tender meat, melty cheese, and sweet onions. Their meatball hoagies are terrific, too. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
10. Pizza Plus
Here’s a lesson in second chances: The first time I went to Pizza Plus, the ribeye was almost inedibly gristly. It happens to the best of them — I’ve had similar issues at places higher on this list on occasion — and it wasn’t a problem I’d heard other people having there, so I made a point to give them another time. And boy am I glad I did! Melty Cooper Sharp, thick-cut onions, and (if you don’t catch them on a bad day) legitimately tender beef make this a high-quality neighborhood spot. [Full @LewieTheFewdie review]
In no particular order, these cheesesteaks don’t crack my Top 10 list, but are good enough to have been considered…
A common theme among the previous descriptions is my internal struggle between the superior taste of Cooper Sharp and the ubiquitous gooeyness of whiz. The BB Banger steak at Brynn Bradley dares to ask: Why not both? The meat is a little underseasoned and gristly, which is why it’s not in the Top 10, but this is a top-notch cheesiness experience. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
Folks, I think is it: The single cheesiest steak in the Delaware Valley. The tender meat and onions come swimming in a veritable river of cheese, delivering creamy sharpness in every bite. This is the only steak I’ve ever had that I thought is a little too cheesy, but that’s certainly better than the alternative. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
When you arrive at the corner of 4th and South, you’ll see a line out the door at the famous Jim’s Steaks. Ignore this, cross the street, and head to Ishkabibble’s for a shorter wait and a much better sandwich. They make them cheesy here, with just enough whiz to soak the meat and onions without drowning them. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
Formerly known as Charlie’s Roast Pork, they quickly became known for their cheesesteaks and have rebranded accordingly. The beef is well-spiced, and you’ll get notes of garlic, peppercorn, and an almost wok-like level of browning. I’m normally a liquid-cheese guy when I have the choice, but at Jaxx I’d recommend getting American (well-mixed into the meat, if moderately portioned) over whiz (I’m not a fan of the kind they use). [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
There are delis that do the basics really well, and those that take the art of cheesesteaks to new levels. Then there’s MasterPeace, which does both. Their whiz with is really solid, but I’d try the Tiger Steak, an unholy amalgamation of beef, chicken, and bacon smothered in American cheese. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
True to its name, your head will be full of meat when you bite into this enormous cheesesteak in Lawrence Township. They’re also one of the cheesiest steaks around, which (as you can probably tell) is among my top criteria. Definitely go for Cooper Sharp cheese here instead of whiz. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
In my early 20s, Morgan’s Pier was where I’d go with friends to drink cheap beer and pretend we were hard-partiers. I didn’t even know they had a real kitchen, let alone a legitimately really good cheesesteak. The Cooper Sharp is generously portioned and super gooey, the onions are soft and sweet, and a Liscio’s roll is always great. If my meat had been less gristly (I’m assuming the one I had was a fluke in this regard, but it’s all I have to go on) it would be in the Top 10. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
You go to Nifty Fifty’s for their deluxe, super‑creamy milkshakes. But they also serve the best of the sub‑genre that I call burger steaks — whether it’s the cut of meat, the way it’s griddled, or the other juices it cooks in, it tastes a lot like a burger — which I don’t normally love, but in this case it’s juicy and cheesy enough to work well. (I’ve gotten a lot of flack for putting a chain that’s not known for cheesesteaks in my Top 20 while some better-reputed places don’t make the cut. All I can go by is what I’ve tasted.) [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
The second‑best steak shop in Old City, Oh Brother serves up super juicy, tender meat, to the point where it almost tastes like it was braised after being griddled. The melty Cooper Sharp cheese is terrific…when you can taste it. If this steak were cheesier and better mixed into the sandwich, it would be elite. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
Raceway Bagels by B-Uno’s
One of the best cheesesteaks in the Delaware Valley comes from…a bagel shop? You’d better believe it. My first bite of Raceway’s Cooper Sharp With would rival the very best spots on this list in terms of how the flavors meld, with the solid cheese so gooey that it coated every crevice of the paper-thin ribeye. If the rest of the sandwich were as cheesy and balanced as that, it would be in my top tier. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
The Backup Plan
There’s a concept in sports analytics called “replacement level,” a threshold of quality production that a waiver claim or minor-league call-up could be expected to provide. The implication that such a player can be easily acquired means that teams should never be satisfied with less than that level of performance. Oregon Steaks is not the best cheesesteak on its namesake Oregon Avenue (Tony & Nick’s is a mile down the road), or even at its intersection (Nifty Fifty’s is across the street). But they’re pretty good, and they’re almost always available — 24 hours a day, including delivery until late until the night. So if you’re in South Philly and you’re eating a cheesesteak that’s not at least as good as Oregon, you’re doing something wrong.
Go, but Not for a Cheesesteak
Absolutely try these places, but get their more-special dishes instead…
In a city where you can’t throw a rock without hitting an Italian deli, as far as I’m concerned, Cosmi’s reigns supreme. They make the best chicken cutlets in Philadelphia — straddling the very fine line of excellence between greasy and dry — plus great roast meats, cold cuts, breakfast, and even cake. Yet their cheesesteaks are just average. Get one here and you won’t appreciate just how amazing either Cosmi’s or a cheesesteak can be. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
It’s sort of cheating to put Donkey’s Place in this category, since they call their signature offering for a cheesesteak. But I think calling their famous sandwich featuring a circular poppyseed roll and highlighting the onions over the cheese and meat — a cheesesteak is like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Whatever term you use, it’s delicious, but I appreciate it more as a way better version of Arby’s or as French onion soup in sandwich form than a cheesesteak. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
John’s Roast Pork
There are some people who will tell you that John’s makes the best cheesesteak in the city. I’ve tried it multiple times, and for the life of me I can’t understand why. Their roast pork sandwich, on the other hand, is truly special. Served sopping wet with gravy, garlicky spinach, and sharp provolone, it’s a magical experience on par with the cheesesteaks in the top tier — and I don’t even really like pork! As far as I’m concerned, going here and getting steak is like walking through the Sistine Chapel and not looking up. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
A bright spot in a city devoid of good barbecue and one of the most socially engaged restaurants in South Philly, Mike’s is locally famous for their brisket cheesesteak. And to be fair, it’s really good. But I find that the signature smoked brisket and creamy gouda sauce are both so flavorful that it’s hard to appreciate them in the same bite. I prefer getting a bunch of meats and sides separately so you can give each amazing thing on your plate the full attention it deserves. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
Rocco's Italian Sausage & Cheese Steaks
No part of the following sentence is an exaggeration: The best sausage sandwich I’ve ever had comes from a shack in the Home Depot parking lot. Meaty, spicy, ultra-savory, and with a satisfying snap — regardless of the setting, it doesn’t get any better than this. Rocco’s also makes cheesesteaks, and they’re pretty good, but like John’s roast pork and Lucky’s burgers they aren’t as special as the dish they’re best-known for. (Unless you’re ready to completely bust your stomach with a chimera hoagie loaded with both sausage and steak — chopped together and mixed with whatever toppings you want from either of the two worlds.) [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
I’ve had a whole lot of other cheesesteaks not mentioned above, and I generally prefer to simply not mention a subpar steak than to write a bad review. But since people are often tempted to try the famous places, I think it’s worth warning you to avoid them. Unless you really like lines and tourist traps, there’s no reason to go to…
Pat’s King of Steaks
The surest place to identify a tourist in Philadelphia isn’t running up the Rocky steps or posing with the LOVE statue. It’s waiting in line at Cheesesteak Corner for a sandwich that pales in comparison to what you’ll get at your average bodega, let alone any of the places mentioned above. If you must get a cheesesteak from one of the famous spots, Pat’s is better than Geno’s, but your taste buds and bowels will both thank you for going elsewhere.
Geno’s is basically the same as Pat’s except the steaks are even worse and the signage is racist. Even if you absolutely must get your cheesesteak from a tourist trap, there is no conceivable reason to go to Geno’s when the marginally less-bad Pat’s is across the street.
Jim's South Street
Jim’s is probably the third-most-famous cheesesteak joint in Philadelphia, and its second-tier status and location on South Street give it some alternative cred: For years it’s been where those in-the-know go when they come to town. And if you’re comparing it to Pat’s and Geno’s, it’s the clear winner. But those who swear by Jim’s also tend not to have been there for a while. Whether it’s gone downhill over the years or the rest of the city has raised its game, now they serve a pretty mediocre steak that isn’t worth the hype or the always-long lines. Take a stroll by Jim’s and get a nose-full of the best-smelling storefront in Philadelphia, but with the far-superior Ishkabibble’s across the street and the elite Famous 4th Street a block away, there’s no reason to eat there.
My sauciest cheesesteak take (cheesetake?) is that the trendiest cheesesteak joint in Philly doesn’t meet the hype. Angelo’s makes a good sandwich with tasty meat, sharp cheese, and homemade bread. But in my experience the steaks aren’t super cheesy, and as delicious as the homemade heavily seeded roll is, the flavor is so strong that it clashes with the cheesesteak. It’s much better than the other shops in this subgroup (they make a mean meatball hoagie too) but given that they’re a constantly busy call-ahead-only joint that doesn’t always answer the phone, it’s not worth the trouble of placing an order. [Full @LewietheFewdie review]
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