The Best Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia
Behold the Cheesesteak
Who’s got the best cheesesteak? It is a question that nags many a native Philadelphian, particularly when out-of-towners visit. After all, the elemental combo of griddle-cooked beef, gooey cheese and onions (gotta get onions), stuffed into a long roll, is our most-famous culinary export. Attempting to answer, beyond a shadow of a grease-dripping doubt, is a good way to drive yourself crazy, to say nothing of the damage to your waistline. Instead, let’s look at 10 of the area’s most-distinctive cheesesteak makers, all of whom provide a serious napkins-so-necessary experience.
(Note: For the purposes of this feature, we’ve decided to relegate Pat’s and Geno’s, South Philly’s world-famous dueling cheesesteak specialists, to “Hall of Fame” status. Sure, you should try them — but try these, too.)
John's Roast Pork
There’s a reason locals are so quick to recommend John’s to cheesy thrill-seekers. It’s not the location of this humble 85-year-old operation — next to some rusty old railroad tracks and across the street from an IHOP. And it’s certainly not the decor, though the humble layout of this friendly grill does exude a certain deep-South-Philly charm. It’s all about the sandwiches — monstrous ’steaks, stuffed with 12 ounces of cooked-to-order meat, prepared beautifully and served with genuine warmth. This is a real Philly cheesesteak place.
Dalessandro's Steaks & Hoagies
Another frequently cited pick among connoisseurs — including Jimmy Fallon — this Roxborough institution pleases fans with its specific take on the ’steak — the meat’s finely chopped on the grill, as opposed to served in thicker strips as it is with some competitors. Counter service sets this tiny neighborhood spot apart, as does its surprisingly extensive craft beer selection — primo pilsners pair very well with pizza ’steaks.
Joe's Steaks + Soda Shop
Even vegetarians can find something to love at this Fishtown offshoot of the original Joe’s. Aiming to find fans beyond the classic meat-and-cheese lovers, this Joe’s even appeals to those who don’t actually eat meat, thanks to its vegetarian cheesesteaks, plus a number of other non-meaty options. But the sandwich that made Joe Groh’s grill famous is still the main thrust of this spick-and-span shop that's a soda-jerk-style throwback — the hand-cut rib eye on their sandwiches goes incredibly well with briny goodies from the stocked pepper and pickle bar.
Photo: Neff Associates
Though some consider this no-frills sandwich stand one of the city’s more under-the-radar ’steak slingers, you wouldn’t know it judging by its lunchtime and late-night lines on West Passyunk Avenue. Philip’s hoagies have a following in their own right, but the stand seriously holds its own in the ’steak department — quick, cheap and consistent, which is exactly how food purchased from a walk-up window ought to be.
A cheesesteak institution on par with the Pat’s and Geno’s of the world, Jim’s earns a slot on this list for its prime location — out-of-towners always want to check out South Street — and unmistakable atmosphere. The lively, funny staff knows how to work it from every angle, quickly cranking out food and keeping customers chuckling as they rip through their orders. The steaks are reliably great, but the cheesesteak making is even better. With just a thin pane of glass separating you from some of the quickest griddle jocks in the game, the spectacle is the cheesesteak equivalent of courtside seats.
Steve's Prince of Steaks
Self-appointed cheesesteak royalty (”one bite and you’ll be a loyal subject for life!”), Steve Iliescu is a sandwich don with multiple holdings across the kingdom — he’s got two busy shops in Northeast Philly, one in the suburb of Langhorne and a fourth in primo Center City real estate. The purest Steve’s experience, however, can be had at the Bustleton Avenue original, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when they crank it till 3 in the morning. A proponent of large, uncut hunks of rib eye that envelop the Whiz and onions like a fire blanket, Iliescu offers a cheesesteak style that is distinctly his.
Located in West Philly’s leafy Little Lebanon, Saad’s has long been a go-to for the area’s Middle Eastern community, as well as the thousands of college students who populate this part of town. But fast-talking owner Saad Alrayes, who can usually be found announcing orders into the microphone at the register, serves much more than the requisite falafel and shawarma. His menu also dips into American tradition, including a solid chopped-style cheesesteak using all halal ingredients. Where else are you going to be able to order an "American-mushroom-wit" alongside a little tabbouleh and baba ganoush?
Since South Philly is the ancestral home of the cheesesteak, it comes as little surprise that even its humble delis can crank out an excellent rendition. Just take Cosmi’s, which has been feeding the neighborhood since 1932. This unassuming corner space, a historic Italian grocery turned sandwich shop, does big, beefy ’steaks with the best of them, cooked to order on your choice of roll (a regular spring hoagie or a chewy seeded loaf). They even venture into specialty varieties like the “Mexicano,” dressed Tex-Mex style with spicy peppers, salsa, hot sauce and pepper Jack.
Directly across the Delaware River, Camden, N.J., doesn’t typically get much attention from Philadelphians for its culinary offerings. One exception is the historic Donkey’s, a true cheesesteak destination for area sandwich Sherpas who pride themselves on knowing the best out-of-the-way places. How does this place distinguish itself from its many Pennsylvania cohorts? By being bold with the bread: Here, round, poppy-crusted kaiser buns take the place of the requisite elongated Italian roll. Though many purists would consider this unorthodox move sacrilege, they’re probably just sorry that they didn’t think of it first.
Of the many Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants dotting the landscape of West Philadelphia, none embrace the commingling of East African and Philadelphian quite like Gojjo. Yes, the bar and restaurant serves excellent renditions of classic Ethiopian dishes like doro wat and zilzil tibs, but the kitchen also shouts out at its adopted hometown with a unique signature sandwich. Berbere, the alluring, sneaky-hot spice mix so vital to Ethiopian cooking, seasons the requisite sliced beef, which is topped with melted cheese and grilled onions for a steak-eating experience you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.