The two most iconic steak shops in Philly are unquestionably Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks. They sit across the street from each other and have been rivals for many years. Pat’s was founded in 1930 by Pat Olivieri, who is credited as being the man who created the cheesesteak. Geno’s goes back to 1966. Its neon lights are among Philadelphia’s most recognized landmarks, having gotten major airtime most recently via a Geico TV ad.
I had steaks from both when I was much younger, but would need to revisit them if I wanted to comment on how good they are now. Yet I was hesitant to do so. They are routinely smashed as being tourist traps that don’t serve a good product by the Cheesesteak Gurus on Facebook, while online photos of their steaks do nothing to dissuade me from thinking that charge is accurate.
In the end, their fame won out. I thought that people might wonder why I didn’t go to Pat’s and Geno’s if I failed to do so. And if they were as bad as I’ve read, I can pass that along to my readers. But as always, I hoped the naysayers were wrong and that at least one of the two would be good.
While it may be more scenic and exciting to go to these two places at night, when their neons are on, I’ve probably mentioned my aversion to crowds. I decided to beat the lines by showing up early and found a spot on the street a few blocks from the famous intersection of 9th and Federal Streets a little after 10 a.m. today. – Tuesday. I had no plan as far as which shop to try first, but Pat’s was closer to where I parked and was walking, so they won the honor.
While I didn’t anticipate long lines at 10:15 in the morning, I was surprised to see none at all. I was able to walk right up to the window to place my order. The customers in the photo below arrived after I had my steak in hand.
Pat’s has one of the odd ordering systems you see at outdoor cheesesteak stands in South Philly. There is one window that is only for ordering and purchasing steaks and another one to get drinks and sides.
Part of their schtick is the emphasis they place on how to order. Customers are supposed to utter two words; their cheese (American, Provolone or Whiz) and wit’ or wit’-out, to signify whether they want fried onions on their steak. If you go beyond those two words, it’s possible they’ll give you a hard time – but not too hard.
I believe Whiz is their most popular order, but I didn’t feel up to it at that hour and went with American wit’.
After quickly receiving my steak – probably a bad sign since there was no line – and grabbing a seat at one of their tables along South 9th Street, the first thing I noticed was how small Pat’s steaks are. I didn’t measure it, but I would guess it was 8”-9” – compared to the usual foot or just under – and not very hefty. Unwrapping it didn’t help.
There have been very few steaks that I wasn’t able to say were at least mediocre during the past year of blogging about them – perhaps one or two very early on, before I started seeking out only highly rated steak shops. But the quality of the fried onions is the one positive I was able to take away from this sandwich. And even they were thrown on top instead of being mixed in with the meat.
The roll was only marginally better than the bagged steak rolls available at Philadelphia-region supermarkets. There wasn’t a whole lot of very coarsely chopped meat, and what was there was lacking in flavor and a little chewy in spots.
The slices of American cheese were on the roll, underneath the meat, and they did not fully melt. There isn’t much worse than unmelted slices of cheese on a cheesesteak.
I ate a little over half and wrapped the rest to take home before walking over to Geno’s. My hopes for having a much better experience there were not high. They are generally spoken of in the same tone as Pat’s online and their steak photos are also not particularly appealing.
I knew before arriving that Pat’s is cash-only. I thought Geno’s took credit cards, but was disappointed to see a cash-only sign at their window. I know it’s silly, but while I probably would have forked over my card to them, I just could not bring myself to give up another $14 in cash for a small and probably not-very-good cheesesteak. So I skipped it and walked off to my car to head home.
I consider it a display of good sense rather than a cop-out.
After writing very negatively about Pat’s and not even trying Geno’s, I will say that anyone who wants a quintessential Philadelphia experience should probably try them at some point. It’s better to go at night or at least when it’s a little busier than it was this morning. You may not be impressed by the food; so maximize the fun.
For a similar – albeit slightly less atmospheric – South Philly experience that will end with a much better cheesesteak, try this place.