Plenty of cities in America proudly boast a signature dish or food. Philadelphia has the greatest of them all: the cheesesteak. In one of America’s most historically and culturally relevant cities, this simple sandwich attracts tourists in its own right.
With every step I took closer to the top, Bill Conti’s iconic theme tune for the Rocky films swelled to crescendo. I was being a shameless tourist and I didn’t care one iota. Leaping two steps at a time – the sweat beading at my forehead as I dodged selfie sticks, bikers who had somehow ridden their unwieldy beasts to the top and a tour group all wearing yellow baseball caps – I turned to face the urban majesty and thrust two fists into the crisp air.
It is a rite of passage for any film lover on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It felt good. What I lacked in the boxing skills and slurred speech of Rocky Balboa I made up for in enthusiasm. There has always been something gratifying about punching the air, as though you have truly accomplished something. Then I looked around and saw 24 other fellow tourists doing the same thing.
I am not even ashamed to say it: I was not drawn to Philadelphia for the Liberty Bell, The Franklin museum or even Rocky. I was drawn to Philly primarily by a bunch of steak, stuffed into a bun, coated in chemical cheese and possibly onions if you want to delude yourself that it has any nutritional value.
In many ways both Rocky and the song Gonna Fly Now are synonymous with overcoming adversity, rising up to the challenge of our rivals. Or in my case, to the challenge of eating as many cheesesteaks as possible in the two days I had in the city. Running up so many steps had quickly become necessary if I wanted to avoid returning home a zeppelin. I had managed two in my first morning and had not yet come to regret that decision.
Cheese and Steak
I was hoping to try everything unique to Philadelphia: the hoagies and soft pretzels, perhaps with helpings of Philadelphia cream cheese. There is funnel cake that looks like brains covered in icing sugar. Even a thing called scrapple, which is basically every bit of the pig people willfully choose not to eat smushed together.
The mighty cheesesteak is the proudest edible invention in Philadelphia however. Much like the uniting of garlic with bread, apple and pie or bacon on anything, cheese with steak was one of the more enlightened moments of edible exploration.
Earlier that day I wandered down to the corner of East Passyunk and 9th Street, South Philadelphia, to where it all began. For anybody needing help with their geography, that is one point on the compass away from where the Fresh Prince was born and raised.
Glaring at one another across the intersection were the two most iconic cheesesteak purveyors in the world. Pat’s King of Steaks claims to have invented the cheesesteak in 1933. Little did they know their invention would take off, leading to their biggest rival, Geno’s Steaks, moving in across the road three decades later.
Geno’s had adopted the pizzazz approach, their bright orange sign and huge letters a garish affront to the more classically understated Pat’s red and white sign around a golden crown proclaiming itself the ‘originator’, which I assume is a food purveyor’s most coveted claim.
The ordering process is just as intense as the cross-street rivalry. A fast moving queue drags you past walls of signed photographs from notable fans of Pat’s like Frank Stallone and Joan Jett. Before I knew it I was being asked what I wanted. “Well duh! What else is there?”
“Whiz wit?” asked the man serving me.
“Yes please” I said, hoping he was going to tell me a fast joke; it turned out that he actually meant ‘with Cheez Whiz and onions?’
Then there is was. My first Philly cheesesteak, laden with mushrooms and some peppers on the side for good measure. Was it good? It was heavenly. It was everything I had hoped it would be.
Comedam Lardo Ergo Sum
The evil food wizards of America have a ceaseless ability to spawn some of the most bizarrely unhealthy food concoctions known to humanity. They somehow manage to whip up increasingly unhealthy, unappealing and yet incredibly delicious meals. It is possible to buy a thing called a pizza burger, which is the unhealthiest version of what it sounds like. Plus bacon.
Another such culinary abomination is the hot beef sundae. I will let your imagination do the rest of the work there. The KFC Double Down is a bacon and cheese sandwich where the bread has been replaced by fried chicken fillets. There is also something called a cronut, which I have been assured does not contain any reproductive organs of an actual crow.
I imagine there to be some top secret evil lair where all of the fast food figureheads congregate once a year. There they scheme and plan their next devilish food creation.
“Myahahahaaa, we’ll just add bacon to it” says one of them. In fact that is probably their catchphrase, spelled out in Latin on their secret fast food organisation’s livery in bacon strips: Comedam lardo ergo sum.
Yummy, yummy, yummy I’ve got steak in my tummy
In Philly there are over a thousand places selling cheesesteaks, and most aficionados will tell you that Pat’s and Geno’s are most certainly not the best. But most people visit the two stalwarts for their rivalry. Geno’s employees have been known to refer to Pat’s as “the Court Jester of steaks”. Trash talk is regularly flung, like a ladle full of Cheez Whiz, across the intersection.
Having washed down the first cheesesteak with a tankard of soda, I nipped across the road to Geno’s. My opinion: not all that different to their perennial rival. It came down to the bread and preference for provolone over Cheez Whiz, but Pat’s had the edge for me.
Not far from Pat’s and Geno’s is Little Italy. I regressed back there after my bout with Rocky for cheesesteaks number three and four. When that ordeal was over I went rapidly back to my hotel to lie down. I had gone four rounds with the cheesesteak and been defeated.
One thing was certain, while Rocky’s motivation to train hard to Seventies music may have ostensibly been down to a desire to be the best, I would like to proffer another theory: he liked to eat, and he trained hard so that he could eat what he wanted without the consequences. ‘The cheesesteak: champion maker’, I thought as I passed a long queue outside Sonny’s Famous Steaks. I was not in any mood to go in today, but I knew one day I would be back for a rematch.