I’ve been to Philly a lot. No, seriously, a lot. And each time I go, I MUST have a cheesesteak. I mean, I think it’s an unofficial tradition of mine. Let’s get right to the chase. I’m going to walk you through a few of my faves…in no particular order.
First, you should know that Max’s is located on Broad & Erie. If you say it any other way, that’s a key indication that you’re a tourist. I learned the hard way. It’s also in North Philly, not too far from the campus of Temple University. If you go after dark, you do so at your own risk. First, they take cash. Second, there’s an ATM. Third, there’s always a line. So, bring your cash with you. And, while they serve other types of hoagies, it’s clear their number 1 seller is a cheesesteak.
Now, along with your appetite, bring your patience. Once you get to the part of the line where you order. Make it simple and make it fast. Mine is always a regular sized cheese steak, salt, pepper, cheese, onions, hot peppers, mayo and ketchup. Don’t turn your nose up at me on the ketchup, either. It’s good that way. I’ve heard lots of folks order with mushrooms and mustard too. Don’t expect fresh mushrooms, either. They’re the kind sitting in brine in a can. And, for as long as I can remember, there’s the same guy there taking orders. He’s a dark skinned Black guy with a few teeth missing. I recall him saying he’s been working there well over 20 years. See, this is the kind of person I want making my cheesesteak.
Grab it to go. Or, do what I do. I go to the back part of the restaurant that turns into a tavern and grab a seat. I eat there and soak up some Philly flavor…literally.
I have such a love/hate relationship with Ishkibibbles. I want to love everything they serve, but the truth is, only the cheesesteaks are good. Stay away from the chicken cheesesteaks. They’re dry as the Sahara desert. I usually order mine with salt, pepper, hot pepper, ketchup, Provolone, and bacon! Oh, and if you get fries, share them. And a Gremlin is a must. It’s half grape and half lemonade. Get extra ice, it tends to be a bit sweet. Oh, and another thing to note, their hot sauce is amazing. I don’t know what brand it is, but it’s vinegary and I love it. There are two locations about 3 block apart from each other on South Street. They both taste the same. But the original location has seating for about 5 people. While the new one has a lot more.
Stay away. They have rats. Their steaks gave me the runs for 3 days. I lost 12 pounds after eating from there.
4. Pat’s & Geno’s
These are two separate restaurants near each other on the corners of 9th & Passyunk in Philly. To be honest, the cheesesteaks aren’t terrible. There are just better choices. Any local knows to stay away. But, if you’re a tourist and you’re trying to get your feet wet in the cheesesteak culture, give them a try. Just know, this can’t be your last.
Okay, now listen. Don’t sleep on Carmen’s. They’re located in Reading Terminal Market.
(Sidebar: grab some white chocolate chip cookies for 4th Street Cookie Company while you’re in the market.)
Okay, back to cheesesteaks. This place is also a decent alternative if you’re in Center City. There’s a huge lunch time rush – so go around 2PM. You’ll be able to get in and get out. Also, I’d avoid it on the weekends. The line can be pretty long. They do some weird order taking where they give you a playing card and then call your order by the card they gave you. So, your order might be 7 of diamonds or something like that. It’s interesting. Also, if you go when it’s crowded, seating is pretty limited. Just know that. Ehhhh, not a bad choice if you’re in the joint and in the mood for a cheesesteak.
I know soooooooo many people that hyped this joint up to me. I was so excited to try it. It’s definitely old school, for real. It feels like you stepped into the 1960’s when you walk in. As much as I wanted to enjoy my cheesesteak from there, I just didn’t. It was just okay. I thought it also lacked LOTS of seasoning. I know locals who rave over the joint. Me? Not so much.
**Here’s an honorable mention! Shorty’s in NYC. There are two locations. One is near Port Authority and the other is near Madison Square Park – both in Manhattan. Listen, if you’re there – this is as close to the real thing as you’d get. Pretty good. I used to go on my lunch break many many many many many times – lol.