When I crave a cheese steak in Philly I always order a cheese steak hoagie with mayo, fried onions, provolone, lettuce, and tomato. The ketchup goes on last, by me. Lee’s, which started out at 19th & Cheltenham when I was a kid and grew to a huge franchise, still makes the best Philly cheese steaks. It has since downsized, with one location in West Philly.
In South Philly, Franco & Luigi’s is my go to. Sure there’s Pat’s and Geno’s, but having been born in 19130, I’m no tourist. Besides, I want to see my steak sizzled in front of me, not glopped on a roll from a mound of graying meat sitting on the grill. And I want the steak to be hot enough to MELT the cheese on the sandwich. You don’t get that at Pat’s or Geno’s.
That’s why Whiz came into play. They figured out that the warm goop of oil product would seem as if it had melted onto the sandwich and it wouldn’t matter if the meat wasn’t hot from the grill. You are always taking a chance on a food-born illness when you go to a place that doesn’t cook the meat to order.
Moreover, Joey Vento, Geno’s owner, is a rampant racist who thinks freedom of speech allows him to decree that his product be ordered in “English Only.” These signs on his establishment are in direct response to the influx of Mexican kitchen workers who fled New York’s crackdown on illegal workers in its kitchens. They came to Philadelphia over the last ten years in droves, filling necessary jobs in Philadelphia’s always brilliantly bustling restaurant scene and opened wonderful Mexican restaurants of their own.
The Washington Avenue corridor that used to be dominated by Vietnamese restaurants, now shares the neighborhood with great Mexican foods. So Vento was feeling the competition and annoyed by his Mexican and Asian customers who could not always order in English. It didn’t matter that Vento’s own mother barely spoke English. Wonder if he ever said, “Yo Ma, This is America. Speak English. Cabish?”
Still the corner is a scene in any season, especially after 2 am, when the bars close. White and black stretches belly up to SUVs, VWs, whatever, and the fluorescent and neon-lit line of shit-faced people looking for some sobering protein, stretches around Passyunk and down Wharton in this micro Steak Square.
My favorite steaks come from a place with no scene at all and which has recently borne scandal as racially-colored as Geno’s due to its name: Chink’s. Chink’s has been up on Torresdale an easy off from I-95 for about half a century but the name was never objected to until a few years ago.
Somehow they held onto the name, but the scandal didn’t increase their fame as much as it did Joey Vento’s. What they do have over Vento is the best steak in Philly. I zip up the highway to Chink’s with visitors so they can try the best, and then test all the rest. Chink’s always wins.
Back here in Phoenix there is no choice. As far as I’m concerned Corleone’s is the ONLY steak shop in town. It’s a “Family” run biz with three locations in the Valley. Fortunately the “Family” is from Philly, owner Joe Bobbie’s family ran Denofio’s at Castor and Hunting Park, not too far from Chink’s until they sold out seven years ago to come out to Phoenix.
The steak is cooked right there before your very eyes. It is deeply authentic. The meat never has any gristle, the rolls fresh with a good bite to them. They are not like having a steak on a hotdog bun as Seth Chadwick (in his 2006 Feasting in Phoenix piece) seemed to think they should be served. He kept raving about the “soft roll.” But his barometer was Jim’s Steaks at 4th and South Streets in Philly, much better than Pat’s and Geno’s but yet just another tourist haven. Corleone’s rolls are almost as they ought to be: hefty enough to absorb the meat juices, yet crusty enough to provide a nice contrasting crunch to the squishy meat and cheeses. Since I get them as take out, I ask them to toast them a bit so they hold the ten minutes to my house. They always smilingly oblige.
The only thing I would want to change is perhaps a sharper provolone. Because despite the menu’s description of a sandwich called the “Philly Original Whiz, Wit,” sharp provolone gives a better counterpoint to the sweet meat and fried onions. And Philly natives who aren’t knuckle-draggers don’t actually ask for a cheese steak “Whiz, Wit.” If you want a steak with Whiz, you just say “Steak, wit.” If you don’t like Whiz, you supply your own wit.
Many years ago I pitched the Arizona Republic’s food editor a pre-Thanksgiving story. She said “Oh you’re from Philly. What do you know beyond cheese steaks?”
I said “Well, in Philly we only put Cheese Whiz on our steaks, not on our Thanksgiving tables like you do here.”