Intro to cheesesteaks 101

by Brian Clarey

Philadelphia is a big, wonderful East Coast city with culture and traditions – and an accent – all its own. It is also a spectacular food town. I could go on a week-long food tour of Philly, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in a different restaurant each day and still just scratch the surface of the culinary scene here.

But that would be difficult, because I would have a hard time staying away from cheesesteaks, which, along with soft pretzels and scrapple, is the city’s most iconic dish.

Not that you can’t get cheesesteaks everywhere these days, even right here in Greensboro, but nobody makes ’em like they do in Philly. And whenever I find myself here I feel obligated to have at least one a day.

I avoid the notorious tourist joints, Pat’s and Geno’s, because they kind of suck. On this trip I find my steak at Rick’s, right next to my hotel in the Reading Terminal Market.

The cheesesteak was born in 1932 when hot dog stand owner Pasquale “Pat” Olivieri, sick of tubesteaks, grilled up some beef with onions and piled it on a hot dog bun. A passing cabbie smelled it, coveted it and bought it for a dime. Word spread. The rest is legend.

Rick Olivieri, grandson of the inventor, keeps up the tradition here in this giant market with rows of great eateries, butchers, farmers’ produce, candies. There are Mennonites cutting meat, women in overalls serving scrapple with poached eggs, delis that make their own salamis and prosciutto. But there’s just no way I’m not gonna get a steak.

Philly steaks are different. They use thinly sliced minute steaks – not a chopped and pre-formed product. They use provolone (sometimes American cheese, sometimes Cheez Whiz, but both are inferior). The bread is important: an Amoroso hero roll, with a thick crust and insides like spun cotton that soak up juices and keep them there. A foil wrap is important, too, connoisseurs say, because it allows the ingredients to meld together from the insulation. Some places chop the steak with a spatula on the grill while it cooks; others roll it together with the onions and cheese. There is something to be said for all these methods.

Within a couple hours of landing in Philadelphia I have a cheesesteak in my hand. I go straight up: onions and provolone, a little ketchup. There are variations. A pizza steak has tomato sauce and mozzarella. A cheesesteak hoagie has lettuce and tomato. Some choose to scoop out the insides of the roll. Others like mushrooms, peppers, pickles or hot sauce folded into the mix. You can get a chicken cheesesteak or (gasp!) a vegetarian version.

Not me.

I get my sandwich, and I tear off the ends of the roll, not unlike a hand-rolled cigarette. I hunker down over the plate and tear into it. I make yummy noises as I chew.

“You likin’ that steak?” a young man behind an Italian deli counter asks me. I tell him I am. He’s got a Philadelphia accent, which is similar to the hoi toide patois spoken on the North Carolina Outer Banks.

His name, he says, is “Moike,” And he maintains that the best steaks in Philly are actually in the South Street neighborhood.

“These guys,” he says, gesturing towards Rick’s, “they cook their steaks in water.” He pronounces it “wudder.”

“You got to cook the steaks in their own juices,” he says. “That’s how you do it.”

I don’t argue, I finish my steak, wipe the grease and ketchup from my mouth, and thank Moike for his knowledge. And I know I’ll be back tomorrow.

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