Philadelphia, PA, USA
Every city with a good nightlife is only as good as its greasy late night snacks after a night of clubbing and barhopping. London has its kebabs and New York has its hot dogs. Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, has the sandwich it made famous, the Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich. When you’re trying to sober up at 3 a.m., nothing beats the culinary delicacy of an Italian roll bursting with piles of sliced ribeye, melted cheese and enough grease to lube a small airplane.
There are many claims to the originator of the best Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich, and the most popular rivalry involves two competing establishments across the street from each other in South Philadelphia: “Geno’s Steaks” and “Pat’s King of Steaks.” Geno’s Steaks, founded not by a guy named Geno but by a man by the name of Joe Vento, has been serving steak sandwiches since 1966. It was named after a neighborhood kid who had written his name in graffiti on the back door. Geno’s Steaks has attracted many a carnivore over the years, including Bill Clinton, and Boyz II Men, who featured the sandwich stand in one of their videos.
Pat’s King of Steaks, just across the way, is situated in an old wooden building at the base of the Italian Market. Founded by its namesake Pat Olivieri in 1930, the cheese steak stand is still operated by the Olivieri family today, providing their famous greasy fare to hundreds of patrons per day, including Larry King and members of N’Sync. Pat’s building, the “dingier” of the two establishments, gave Pat’s an authentic edge not found in Geno’s bright orange storefront with neon signs, which attracted my business. However, I discovered that my business would not be taken if I did not follow “the rules.”
“You have to know how to order,” said my brother and city guide Mark, who was a student a Philadelphia’s Drexel University, and no stranger to the usual late night lines of drunk, hungry people. “If you don’t know how to order, they’ll send you to the back of the line.”
“Huh? I can’t just say I want a cheese steak?” I asked.
“No, you have to order it a special way. I’m gonna get a Whiz Wit.”
“A Whiz what?”
“A Whiz Wit,” he explained. “First you tell them what kind of cheese you want. If you just want Cheez Whiz, you say ‘Whiz.’ If you want it with mozzarella as a Pizza Steak, you say ‘Pizza.’ You can get provolone too, but that’s ‘Provi’.”
“Yeah. Then you either say ‘wit’ or ‘widdout’ depending if you want onions or not,” he said, using a thick Philly accent for the jargon.
“But what if I want mushrooms? Is it ‘Whiz Wit Mushrooms?'”
“No, you just say ‘mushroom,’ but before the cheese and the onion part.”
It was all too confusing to me, and I contemplated just getting a slice of pizza down the block. I had no idea ordering a sandwich could be so complicated. I seemed to be the only out-of-towner in line and I thought perhaps everyone would point fingers at me and laugh. Would the regulars laugh at my fake-Philly accent when I ordered onions? I hoped they were still too drunk to care.
I practiced in my head over and over what to say at the counter as I waddled down the line. I wasn’t even sure I knew what I wanted to eat with my head swimming in all that vernacular. And I had to decide quickly too, because I read a nearby sign that read, “If we have to read your mind, it’s fifty cents extra.”
In no time, we got to the window. Mark ordered his Whiz Wit, and just so I wouldn’t be ridiculed, I followed suit and ordered the same. “Lemme get a Whiz Wit,” I said like Rocky Balboa.
“WHIZ WIT!” the cashier called to the guy in the back, who slapped slices of steak sizzling from the grill to a roll in about three seconds before smearing it with Cheez Whiz in one quick sweep of a long knife. It was that simple, and as fast as greased lightning. With newly found confidence, I felt like I could be a regular there…that is, until I ordered a soda.
“End of the line, other window!” the cashier scolded me. “NEXT!”
No one told me that side orders and drinks were to be ordered on a separate window altogether. I hung my head in shame.
I eventually got my soda and used it to wash down the greasy masterpiece. As I bit into the soft chewy bread and then into the layers of salty cheese and beef, I knew that I was probably halfway to coronary bypass surgery – but it was just so good when it hit my lips. Heart attack, schmeart attack – at three in the morning, it just doesn’t get any better than this.
Pat’s King of Steaks
I have traveled to Philadelphia and its cheese steak district several times since, each time tasting more variations of the classic sandwich, including the American Widdout and the Mushroom Provi Wit. I’ve tried the competition at Geno’s Steaks across the street, and it wasn’t much different; all the same ingredients for a cheese steak sandwich were there, including the attitude and the rules of ordering. However, my allegiance will always go to my original choice, and I’ll always be a Pat’s Man.
One day I decided to drive down from New York with my buddy Terence, who was a virgin to the Philly Cheese Steak Experience. While waiting hungrily in line, I told him what I was going to order.
“A Whiz what?”
I smiled, and asked him to order me a soda.