As I mentioned last week in a post on this blog, l have been laboring under an intense craving for cheesesteaks during roughly the past month-and-a-half. I’ve loved cheesesteaks for many years, but I’m fairly sure I’ve never eaten as many in the span of a couple months as I have since July. Actually, the intense craving started in August, but I visited a legendary cheesesteak joint for the first time a few weeks earlier and will include commentary and photos on that experience here.
I’m posting on this now because the craving finally seems to have passed, or at least the intensity of it has lessened. For a while, it took a lot of self control to limit myself to one or two cheesesteaks per week out of a desire to avoid serious weight gain. I thought and read about them online daily, spending hours researching and planning where else I should try, just as I do when I plan where to eat on vacation. But these places were all near me. I live outside of Philadelphia after living in the city for many years.
Those of you who don’t live in this area probably call the sandwich a ‘Philly Cheesesteak’ or even a ‘Philly.’ But in Philly and the surrounding area, as well as on this blog, they are just called cheesesteaks.
With apologies for rehashing some of my earlier post on the topic, I started to become more obsessed with and crave cheesesteaks after discovering a blog called Philadelphia Cheesesteak Adventure. It includes a link to a chart with reviews of nearly a thousand cheesesteaks in the extended Philly region that the blogger – Jim Pappas – has tried the past few years.
I also joined a Facebook group called Cheesesteak Gurus that has over 50,000 members. Seeing a steady flow of cheesesteak photos from that group on your Facebook scroll does something to you. Let’s just say I was thinking about cheesesteaks more than I should have been.
All eight of the establishments I visited during this period were in the Philadelphia suburbs and all were in Pennsylvania. I’ve already been to a number of the better sandwich shops in the city and will cross the Delaware River at some point – not for a sneak attack on Hessian mercenaries – but to sample the best cheesesteaks of the Garden State. I’m pretty sure they didn’t have cheesesteaks in George Washington’s day anyway.
Four of the shops I tried were in Delaware County where I live. While perusing online reviews, I discovered that my home county is something of a cheesesteak hot bed.
But my first stop, which occurred in July, prior to the run I went on during August and September, was Mama’s Pizzeria in Bala Cynwyd, Montgomery County. When the topic of “best cheesesteak” comes up, you can generally count on Mama’s being one of the names that gets tossed about. It was a big favorite on the roadfood message board and also has its fair share of local backers.
Based on the online photos I’ve seen of Mama’s cheesesteaks, I was skeptical that I would like this sandwich. Based on nothing more than those photos, I developed a theory that Mama’s appeals primarily to two types of people: those who did not grow up in the Philly region, so they are conditioned by years of eating other cheesesteaks, and those who grew up right around Mama’s, so that they were conditioned specifically by years of eating Mama’s cheesesteaks. I did not fall into either category and it turned out my hunch was right. I did not enjoy the sandwich from Mama’s. In fact, I disliked it enough to be somewhat shocked that so many people believe this place serves the best cheesesteak in the Philadelphia region.
For one thing, it was wrapped so poorly that it was a complete mess when I got to the cheesesteak. But I also didn’t like its proprietary blend of cheese, which they put on there in very large amounts. Rather than melting into something approaching a liquid consistency and coating most of the meat, as I prefer, there were thick globs of cheese that made it a challenge to pull the sandwich away from the wrapper without doing even further damage. And the roll was considerably softer and more squishy than I like. There was plenty of meat, but that didn’t rescue this cheesesteak for me.
Next up, and the first cheesesteak I ate after what I will call the official start of my craving, was Delco Steaks in Broomall, Delaware County. I saw this place had received a high rating on Philadelphia Cheesesteak Adventure and it’s only 15 minutes from me. The worst thing I have to say about Delco Steaks is that they need a much better parking situation. It’s on a busy road and there were only three or four spots in front. If you don’t get one, I have no idea what you would do. I didn’t see any other options. But I got lucky, in part because I went after the height of the lunch hour. Delco Steaks will be opening two more locations near me soon. I expect them to have more parking spaces than the Broomall original.
They have a takeout window and the very friendly guy who took my order brought it out to my car when it was ready. I took the sandwich home to eat. It was a nearly rapturous experience.
This was one fantastic cheesesteak. I had it with fried onions and Cooper Sharp cheese, which is becoming more popular on cheesesteaks in the Philly region and is now used at some of the elite cheesesteak joints. It adds a bit more flavor than regular American cheese. The seeded roll was outstanding; there was a lot of well-seasoned meat, and the cheese melted beautifully throughout, coating most of the well-chopped meat.
I drove to Montgomery County to visit my father the following week, and while there, I picked up my next cheesesteak, from Rock’s Italian Deli in Rockledge. I had driven past Rock’s a number of times over the years, but never stopped there. It’s a classic looking little deli, both inside and out. Unfortunately, their cheesesteak was somewhat underwhelming. The roll was average and the cheese, rather than being melted throughout, as I like, was in a layer on the roll, underneath the meat. If I go back to Rock’s, it will be to try an Italian Hoagie. I suspect that is more of a specialty there.
The next cheesesteak in my survey came from a fairly near-by place called Walt’s Pizza and Grille. For many years, Walt’s was a hole-in-the-wall cheesesteak joint. But at some point in the not-too-distant past, they rebranded as a pizza shop that sells cheesesteaks too. I ate there once during the 90s, when they were still just a steak shop. I can’t recall whether I liked that sandwich, but this one did not do justice to the memory of the original Walt’s. The seeded roll was not fresh and the meat did not strike me as high quality. It had a slightly off texture. Walt’s may be in my neck of the woods, but I don’t see myself returning there.
By this point, my craving was peaking. I had four cheesesteaks during an 11-day period in September. The first was from Heritage Hoagies in Huntingdon Valley, Montgomery County. This is another place I checked out while visiting my father, who lives very close to the shop. I had planned on trying Heritage Hoagies the day I went to Rock’s Deli, but they were closed. Their cheesesteak turned out to be better than the one I had at Rock’s, but it still not one of the elites of this list. There was ample meat and the American cheese melted well throughout the sandwich. But the roll was merely average and the sandwich wasn’t cut all the way through, leading to a bit of disfigurement when I unwrapped it.
Three days later, I visited Johnny Paisano’s of Springfield, Delaware County. Johnny’s is only a few minutes from my house and I had read a very good review of their cheesesteak online. So I was hopeful. It turned out I had good reason to be. This was a stellar sandwich. The seeded roll was great and the meat and American cheese, which was beautifully melted throughout, were perfectly proportioned. There are cheesesteak lovers who think more meat and cheese is always better. I believe there is a point at which there can be too much meat and/or cheese. Johnny Paesano’s got it just right.
Next up was another sandwich from my neck of the woods. Cocco’s Pizzeria is a Delaware County chain that I would not have pegged as a purveyor of high-quality cheesesteaks. But they received a good review on Philadelphia Cheesesteak Adventure, so I decided to give a shot to their Primos location. Boy, was I glad I did. Cocco’s bakes their own rolls and I enjoyed it very much. The crust had some body and the roll wasn’t too doughy. The meat and American cheese were very well proportioned and the cheese was well melted, coating most of the meat. It had an excellent overall flavor.
The following day, I was in Montgomery County and decided to try another steak I had read good things about online. This one was from Tonelli’s Pizza Pub in Horsham. They offer an upgrade to a seeded roll for slightly more money, and I was going to ask for one, but forgot when it came time to order and didn’t realize it until the cheesesteak arrived. Not to worry. The standard unseeded roll turned out to be pretty good in its own right. This sandwich had a lot of meat in it and a pretty good amount of cheese, although perhaps not quite as much in terms of cheese-to-meat ratio as I had received at a few of the above places. Tonelli’s serves a quality cheesesteak, but I thought the overall flavor wasn’t quite as good as my favorites.
After eating cheesesteaks from Cocco’s and Tonelli’s on back-to-back days, I finally felt like I was no longer dying for another one. The craving had broken. That’s not to say that I’m sick of them. But it probably wouldn’t bother me that much if I don’t eat another cheesesteak for a couple weeks.
There are several other cheesesteak shops I’ve been planning to try and will do so in the coming weeks and months. I may add a supplement to this survey at a later date or perhaps just write one-off reviews after each cheesesteak. We’ll see.
In the meantime, here are my rankings of the eight sandwiches I’ve written about here.
- Delco Steaks
- Johnny Paisano’s (it was a very close call between the top two; almost a coin flip)
- Cocco’s Pizzeria
- Tonelli’s Pizza Pub
- Heritage Hoagies (Again, it was a close call between Tonelli’s and Heritage four fourth)
- Rock’s Italian Deli
- Mama’s Pizzeria
- Walt’s Pizza and Grille
What I take away from this binge is that my old impression, which I would think is shared by many, that all or even most of the best cheesesteaks are to be found at the well-known places in Philly was way off-base. There are great cheesesteaks to be found all over the Philadelphia region. In fact, I would take Delco Steaks and Johnny Paisano’s over Pat’s, Geno’s and Jim’s any day of the week.
I’m adding this note almost exactly a year after writing the above post just to point out that I obvious got it wrong about my cheesesteak craving having passed at that point.