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What Makes a Cheesesteak Special?
An ode to Philadelphia's signature sandwich
Today is a holy day in Philadelphia, when we celebrate our most important local custom, and maybe my favorite thing about my adopted city. That’s right, it’s National Cheesesteak Day!
There’s something special about having a cheesesteak in Philadelphia. Sure, you can get a cheesesteak at just about any diner or mall food court anywhere in the country, and the truth is that most of them are pretty good — at the end of the day, it’s still griddled beef and melted cheese on a roll. I was skeptical when I moved here that they would really be that different. But the average cheesesteak in Philly is legitimately better than what you’ll find just about anywhere else.
Almost as important as the quality in my eyes is the Cheesesteak Discourse. Many cities have long-standing debates about who makes the best version of a regional speciality — New Yorkers for pizza, Chicagoans for Italian beef, I’ve even had some Clevelanders reprimand me for being sarcastic about the quality of suburban Ohio Jewish delis — but Philly’s is the most-fun one I’ve ever experienced. I love that everyone in the city has a favorite, I love that seemingly every corner bodega has a respectable entry, and most of all I love that a food as inelegant as a cheesesteak lends itself so well to thoughtful comparisons and critiques.
When I moved to Philadelphia, I dove head-first into the cheesesteak culture. I’m no Jim Pappas, but I like to think that I have the ingredients of a reliable cheesesteak guide: I love to think deeply about food, I didn’t grow up here so I’m not biased by nostalgia, and I have a demonstrated passion for carbs and cheese.
So what is it that makes a cheesesteak special?
The core of a cheesesteak is the steak itself. Most places use ribeye for its fattiness and beefy flavor. Some are shaved, some are sliced, some are chopped. I generally prefer smaller cuts that give you more surface area for Maillard browning and melting cheese, but there’s something to be said for bigger chunks of high-quality meat. You want the steak to be juicy and just a little greasy (otherwise it can be dry and bland), but you don’t want to taste the cooking oil. A common characteristic among mediocre steaks is under-seasoning the meat, trusting the cheese alone to complement the beefiness, but you want a baseline level of salt and ideally other spices imbued in the ribeye.
A top-tier purveyor can make a great cheesesteak with any type of cheese. One of my favorite steaks comes with plain old American. I generally don’t go for provolone on a cheesesteak, but I respect the complex sharpness it brings (and love it on other hoagies). I’ve even enjoyed them with nontraditional cheeses like mozzarella or jalapeño cheddar. But, as they say, there’s no zealot like a convert, and this Ohio boy is now firmly on Team Cheez Whiz.
When you order, say, Cooper Sharp American on your steak, you know you’re getting high-quality cheese. What you don’t know is whether you’ll be able to taste it. Solid cheese is has a pesky structural integrity to it. Some delis will simply melt it on top of the meat, I guess assuming that you will take perfectly vertical bites to get the correct proportions in each mouthful; others will do their best to mix the cheese in as it’s cooking, but there’s only so much you can do to make sure every morsel of meat gets the gooey coating it needs. Then there’s the congealing factor — you risk the cheese solidifying if you don’t eat it fresh off the grill.
When you use whiz, those worries melt away. It seeps into every nook and cranny of the sandwich. It maintains its enviable gooeyness after it leaves the kitchen. And if you close your eyes and forget that what you’re eating may or may not actually have dairy content, it tastes really good too. It has some saltiness, a little sharpness, and — however artificial it may be — legitimate cheesiness. The bold, fluorescent taste holds up against the ribeye, helping to compensate when it’s under-seasoned and complementing the flavor when it is. That’s why I almost always order whiz, and why I badger reluctant (until they try it) visitors into doing the same.
There’s a Goldilocks element to the roll. Good cheesesteak bread has to be soft in the middle, with fluffy innards to absorb the meat juice and cheese, but you also want a little bit of crust or crunch or chew on the outside. It has to be thick enough to hold the hefty portions within but thin enough not to become the defining feature in each bite. It has to have some flavor on its own so as not to be wasted space, but it has to be mild and complementary, not competing for your palate’s attention.
There’s a piece of musical wisdom that I must have heard in high school band class, attributed to John Philip Sousa: if the audience is thinking about the cymbals, something is wrong. The percussive crashes should sound so natural as to basically bypass cognition and go straight to your heart. You notice them only if the volume or timing is wrong. That’s how it is for cheesesteak rolls. Many delis pride themselves on making delicious homemade rolls, but there’s a difference between really good bread and what you want to serve a cheesesteak on.
The only thing that traditionally goes on a cheesesteak besides cheese and steak is onion. Usually chopped into small pieces and fried on the grill, good alliums add little pops of sweet umami flavor amidst the heaviness of the sandwich. You won’t offend anyone if you order one without onions, but unless you’re at a place that doesn’t fully season or cook them, I recommend it.
Beyond that, you get into controversial territory. Outside of Philly, it’s common to see sautéed mushrooms and peppers added to cheesesteaks by default, which some hardliners here would tell you is sacrilege. I consider myself a topping agnostic. It’s my belief that a great cheesesteak should be able to stand alone — it shouldn’t need additional features to be delicious, and in fact other ingredients might throw off the flavor balance. Having said that, sometimes adding mushrooms, hot sauce, or bacon is just what the doctor ordered (not a cardiologist though).
The only thing I’ll put my foot down on is ketchup. If you’re putting ketchup on your cheesesteak, it means either you or your sandwich has no taste.
At the end of the day, a cheesesteak isn’t about the meat, or the cheese, or the bread, or the other accoutrements. It’s about how they all come together. It’s a cliché to say that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but for a really special cheesesteak it’s genuinely true. The cheese melts into the meat, and the ribeye is almost tender enough to reciprocate. The beefy jus mixes with the cheesy goo and they soak into — but not through — the roll. The flavors and textures don’t just go well together but they harmonize with each other, blending into a meaty cheesy symphony.
So where do you go for a cheesesteak? I’m glad you asked! You can find my full, ever-updating @LewieTheFewdie Guide to Cheesesteaks here, including detailed descriptions on my Top 10 steaks, a handful of honorable mentions, and even notes on famous places where you should order something else, or skip altogether. But barring a major new entrant in the local scene or a very-well-kept secret spot I haven’t tried yet, it’s hard to imagine anywhere dethroning The Original Tony Luke’s as the #1 steak in the city.
Happy National Cheesesteak Day! See you all at Tony Luke’s.