Torresdale and Fishtown
Steaks and shakes in a vintage soda fountain
Joe’s is time travel served on an Italian roll, from its hand-pumped chocolate Cokes to its wooden booths to the steaks themselves, which are sliced in-shop rather than unwrapped and defrosted on the grill. Their egg creams, malteds, and shakes, made with real milk and Turkey Hill ice cream, are both unusually good and unusual for a steak shop -- a vestige of Joe's origins as a soda fountain. The Happy Days-set-looking Fishtown location opened on Frankford Avenue's restaurant row in 2015, and serves equally good food in addition to being much easier to get to on public transportation, but the original Torresdale Avenue spot (opened in 1949) offers the more interesting, authentic experience.
The non-franchise original serving a sublime, slab-style cheesesteak
Tony Luke Jr. is a Philly cheesesteak star. Appearing in cable TV ads for the shop (and later, in multiple Food Network shows and promotional videos for his franchise stores), he became a worthy successor to the steak-shop-owner-as-colorful-celebrity tradition started by Pat Olivieri. The Luke family (actual name: Lucidonio) also began to mimic the Olivieris' habit of airing their dirty laundry in the courts, and the upshot of a 2016 lawsuit and counter-lawsuit is that Tony Jr. no longer has direct involvement with this, the family's original Oregon Avenue stand. Its Tony Luke Jr. media gallery decor is also no more.
Drama aside, this stand's slab-style "American with" was actually my favorite of more than a dozen cheesesteaks I recently tried (or retried) at local shops. (Their Steak Italian -- with greens and cheese -- is a specialty, but I believe in comparing American withs to American withs.) Despite its near quarter-inch thickness, the meat is uniformly tender and infused with warm cheese and sweet onions. And the roll's crust gives a satisfying crackle when you bite, likely a result of the way Tony Luke’s completes baking of their Liscio rolls on-site.
Slow-roasted onion specialist in a tiny former grocery
Dalessandro's should be on the short list of every lover of steaks "with." Their onions are hand-sliced, then sautéed in an olive/vegetable oil blend and left to simmer on the grill in a mound for hours. The result is a glistening stew of sweetness, made even more delicious when leavened by Dalessandro’s almost equally famous house-roasted long hot peppers. The meat base is finely chopped rib eye, cooked up in an eccentrically adapted former corner grocery. There's a sink where customers can wash their hands in lieu of a loo. Folding chairs and tables along two big plate-glass windows lend their occupants a prime view of the butts of the people eating at the small counter or, during busy times, the butts of the people standing in line.
Yes, lines. It's definitely because of the food.
All-in-the-family, award-winning beef and pork until 7 five days a week
John’s is an exception to my rule about only considering stands that self-identify as steak shops. One, because great cheesesteak and great roast pork places are often one in the same and two, because John Bucci Jr.’s finely sliced and chopped steak sandwich is exceptional. The walls of his cinder block shack in deep South Philly are lined with awards and articles from people who agree.
Why all the fuss? It's because of the care John's lavishes on every sandwich: grilling the beef loin to order, scooping out the center of the hefty Carangi rolls so all 12 ounces will fit, protecting their customers from the Whiz.
It's also because this business is more than just a business -- it’s a family inheritance, dating back to 1930, when John’s grandfather, Domenico Bucci, began selling roast pork from this same bleak spot by some railroad tracks. John Jr. introduced the cheesesteak in 1978 and now runs the place with family members who add their own spice to the John's experience in the form of shouted instructions to those not familiar with their paying and ordering ways.
Oxford Circle, Torresdale, Center City and West Philly/University City
Northeast Philly stalwart serving brawny, slab-style sandwiches
Steve Iliescu has been the Prince of Steaks in Northeast Philly since he opened his first stand near the Roosevelt Mall in 1980 -- the name was both in tribute to Pat's King of Steaks, and his claim to successorship. In recent years he's made moves to expand his kingdom into Center City, and most recently, West Philly. The 16th Street shop, run by Steve’s daughter Abbe Arno, recreates his original Northeast stand in a generic downtown storefront down to the patterned diner steel. The sandwich is also an exact clone of Bustleton Avenue’s brawny combination of slightly chewy (but not tough) thick-cut meat, a fresh roll, and Steve's unique melted American that blends with the meat juice to create a delicious drip.
Cash-only, no-seating locals choice on Passyunk
Tourists eat at Pat’s or Geno’s; locals who know better drive five minutes southwest on Passyunk Avenue to hit up Philip’s. This place has the same outdoor stand design, traffic island setting, 24/7 schedule, and slab-style rib eye of the famous East Passyunk cheesesteak triangle, but without the long lines (and with better-quality meat). The old-fashioned -- a pizza steak with fresh tomatoes instead of tomato sauce -- is a favorite here. Philip’s also has some street cred: namesake Philip Narducci spent decades in federal prison for racketeering, and is now facing new charges of extortion and conspiracy.
Proof that quality steaks can be found in a comfortable, modern place
I'll confess to an eyeroll upon first seeing Cleaver’s website and its “artisanal ingredients” and “gourmet sandwich” boasts. As previously discussed, cheesesteaks are proud street food. Some of the menu options here are also highly nontraditional, like a buffalo chicken sandwich with blue cheese dressing, or an all-veggie option featuring raw baby spinach with balsamic glaze. Then you've got Cleavers’ sleek Center City digs in the former home of an upscale burger joint, complete with bar, flat-screen TVs and loud contemporary music soundtrack. Old fashioned, this is not.
And yet… Sibling co-owners Electra and Dimitri Poulimenos are the second generation of one of the families behind Astra Foods, an Upper Darby company that supplies steak meat to food service operators. So, as Electra says, “We know meat.” Electra backs up that statement with a domestic rib eye steak filling that's halfway between slab and chopped, 100% tender and wholly satisfying. Electra and her brother also know rolls, judging by their choice of Conshohocken Bakery, which produces a wonderfully firm and flavorful roll that's rarely seen outside its own Montgomery County. Call me a Cleavers convert.
Center City/Old City
South Philly steak tradition transplanted to the Old City tourist/club scene
Walk across Sonny’s creaking wood floor to glimpse the shop’s stainless steel open kitchen and simple menu, and you might believe it dates back to Pat and Jim days. It’s actually a 17-year-old re-creation/tribute to those stands from Ellen Mogell (of Honey's Sit N Eat upscale diner fame). There is no Sonny, either; Mogell was just looking for a name that sounded Italian. That said, this is a case of a student outperforming their teacher, with tender, flavorful ribeye slabs on soft rolls, and slices of American or provolone melted on the meat. Sonny's prime location and late weekend hours make it a popular stop post-clubbing in Old City -- your call as to whether that's a good or bad thing.
Center City/South Street
The only high-volume shop with chopped steak that's worth the wait
Pat's and Geno's may have the neon glitz, but Jim's is the only one of the big cheesesteak three that has the sandwich goods. It's is one of the few shops in town to make their cheesesteaks with top round -- rib eye is generally the cheesesteak meat of choice, but rib eye can be as fatty, gristly and tough as it is flavorful. Top round doesn't have those same problems, at least not the way it's served at Jim's: finely chopped and blended in with big chunks of caramelized onions and without a hint of sinew. There was also, for whatever reason, not much of a hint of my American cheese, so Whiz might actually be the better choice here.
West Oak Lane
Cash-only neighborhood favorite for large, chopped-style steaks
A cameo in Creed put Max’s on the map of cheesesteak fans across the city, but it’s not the only popular or good old steak shop in North Philly. Pagano’s is a takeout-only storefront, marked by a classic old moving neon sign and famous for its large sandwiches. The steak is chopped and, unless specified otherwise, automatically dressed with ketchup as per North Philly's neighborhood preference; ketchup also helps cut down on this meat’s slight dryness. Keep an eye out for the framed pictures of past and current employees here, which sit alongside the expected ones of celebrity patrons (like Joe Frazier, Ving Rhames, and former Mayor Michael Nutter).
Lunchtime everyday value option right off I-95
Cheesesteak connoisseurs don’t blink at spending $9-12 (and waiting up to an hour) to get one of the town’s premiere examples, but if you’re among the 4% (of previously mentioned daily cheesesteak eaters), time and money matters. And by those standards, Little Pete’s $6-and-change cheesesteak shines.
This is a chopped-style steak, cooked to order with your choice of cheese, and placed on a fresh roll with quarter-sized onions while you wait (in a very short-to-nonexistent line) at the enclosed walk-up counter. Though not as flavorful as the pricier competition, Little Pete’s is also not tough or chewy, and doesn't taste like hamburger (the telltale sign of a steak made from low-cost meat potpourri). Little Pete’s red-and-white low-slung building is also a beacon of cuteness in the industrial wasteland just off I-95/Cottman. More than that I cannot say -- because in this era of endless self-promotion, Little Pete isn't really interested in publicity.