Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Slather me in cheez and onion: The Philly Cheesesteak Challenge

I’m not sure where I initially heard about the the Philly Cheesesteak Challange, but the idea stuck in my head like chewed up gum on the bottom of my shoe in the grocery store parking lot today. After all, nothing says culinary genius like fake cheese on bread. With meat. All in excessively excessive excess. So what is it?

Geno’s and Pat’s are two long-standing Philly institutions, cranking out cheesesteaks directly across the street from one another. In my head, the relationship between the pair is much like that of Cheers vs. Gary’s Olde Town Tavern, a heated rivalry that involves much fist-shaking and I’ll-get-you’s.

Over the years I’ve researched the challenge, pouring over write-ups and verifying the locations, talking to people who’d done it and learning the history of the establishments. Yes, I’d heard that both venues have declined through the years, rejected by Philly elders and Old Pharts for the newer, prettier offerings around town. But there festering away was a challenge too captivating to pass up: a Cheez Whiz’d hoagie at Pat’s, followed by a comparative second one from Geno’s across the street.

How. Barbarically. Awesome.

My annual baseball trip this year provided the right opportunity for such an inane feat. Not only would I be a bean toss away in Baltimore, but I’d be with a ragtag group that’s just lackadaisical enough to go along with the plan. I could taste the Yellow-5 already. So last week we sped off from Baltimore in our rented Chevy Equinox, passing through Delaware for the tiniest moment, arriving in Philly at the lunch hour.

First stop? Pat’s. Pat’s touts itself as the King of Steaks… And asks you not to make a “misteak” by going to somewhere else. Like Geno’s across the street. Pat’s, which opened in 1930, has history on its side; it’s in an old-school white building with a classic set-up. Thankfully, the folks who run the place have included a primer on the vernacular of placing your order because it’s that complicated.

I arrive at the front and spout my order with the feigned wisdom of a thousand Philly Phanatics: “Wit whiz,” I say. I rule at this.

The cheesesteak wit whiz at Pat’s looked exactly as you’d expect: A long hoagie roll, filled with iPad-thin sliced ribeye, then topped with diced onions and gluey-orange cheese. Just looking at it was magnificent—but biting into it was brilliance. The white bread was soft and welcoming; it has a velvety feel. The meat was cheesy, and the cheese was meaty. We licked the paper wrapping afterward. Nothing, it seems, could top this greatness. Except, maybe, a repeat performance.

Bread: 5 barbells
Meat: 3 barbells
cheese: 4 barbells
Overall ooze: 4.5 barbells
(All rankings out of 5 barbells)

Second stop? Geno’s. In contrast to its rival, Geno’s opened in 1966 in a neon-orange building; it’s covered in police paraphernalia and offers mostly standing/counter eating. The crowd at Geno’s was noticeably thinner. (That’s to say that there were fewer people there.) In fact, we skipped right up to the window, placed our order, and walked away with gut bomb in hand in under a minute.

Even wrapped in paper this thing looks large. (Side note: it also weighs slightly less than a V2 missile—but like the German at Pearl Harbor, I will not be defeated.) We unwrap and notice a few differences immediately. The bread at Geno’s was harder and dry—more like French bread than a loafy roll—and the cheese was thinner and scant. But less cheese meant we had a firmer grasp on the meat, which was sliced dollah-bill thin. And while the meat held tremendous flavor and polish, the bread and cheese fails left Geno’s far back, wallowing in the Philadelphia philth.

Bread: 3 barbells
Meat: 4 barbells
cheese: 2 barbells
Overall ooze: 2.5 barbells
(All rankings out of 5 barbells)

In sum, Pat’s was awesome, totally smoking the competition from Geno's. While I don’t generally seek out IBS, Pat’s is a sandwich I’d go back for.

(And with that, I hope Geno is shaking his grandpa fist somewhere.)

Finally, I now know that Houston’s newest cheesesteak place – Pappa Geno’s – offers a pretty authentic take on the sandwich. But ironically, it’s more akin to Pat’s than to its namesake. Perhaps they should have called it Pappa Patrick’s, butwhatdoiknow.