The Philadelphia Cheesesteak is Philly’s most famous food. Almost as famous is the rivalry between two local cheesesteak stands located right across the street from each other: Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks. On a short weekend trip to Philly we decided to see who had the best. Pat’s? Geno’s? Or someplace else?
Pat’s King of Steaks
Pat’s has the honor of inventing the steak sandwich in 1930. Pat Olivieri was originally a hot dog vendor near an Italian Market in South Philadelphia. One day, he wanted something different for lunch. He cooked some chopped steak on his hot dog grill and put it in an Italian roll. A cabbie saw the sandwich and insisted on having one. Word spread and the legend was born. At some point later cheese was added to the sandwich.
Pat’s has a reputation for being finicky about how you order. As the story goes, if you don’t use the proper terms like “wit” (meaning with onions), you get sent to the back of the line. I did not find such “Soup Nazi” like behavior. I placed my order in plain English and the clerk did translate translated my order into the proper jargon. It came out practically immediately.
In 1966, Joey Vento opened up his cheesesteak shop, right across the street from Pat’s. Originally called Joey’s, Vento changed the name to Geno’s after his son was born. Geno’s claims to have put cheese on the sandwich first. Whoever did, the ingredient has become so associated with the sandwich that it now is called cheesesteak. Like Pat’s, ordering food at Geno’s was quick and easy. You place your order at the window and seconds later, out comes your steak sandwich.
Pat’s vs Geno’s
The rivalry between the two restaurants is famous. Legend has it that it started after the first Rocky movie came out and Stallone’s character had a cheesesteak from Pat’s. Urban legend or not, the two places do have a friendly rivalry. You would be hard pressed to find much of a difference between the two, as their menus are practically identical. The rolls are similar and the condiments are exactly the same, down to the cheese options and bins full of hot cherry peppers. The only difference is that Geno’s slices the steak in thin strips, while Pat’s steak is chopped (the traditional way the sandwich is served).
Which is better? I found Pat’s sandwich a little dry. It appeared that the steak had been sitting out on the grill for a while, so it had probably dried out. One of my companions felt the same. So I found myself preferring the thicker cut at Geno’s. However, Pat’s had more Cheez Whiz on it. So there are pluses and minuses to both. Only one of my companions had both Pat’s and Geno’s, and his preference was Pat’s.
In terms of atmosphere, both restaurants have the same layout and type of service. Orders are placed at one of the service windows and there are plenty of tables outside for eating. Geno’s is more colorful, brightly lit up with neon signs. The tables also have a brighter color scheme making the place look newer and more modern, while Pat’s look like it is straight out of the 50s. But these differences are minor; the dining experience is largely the same.
Talk to any native Philadelphian and they will tell you that Pat’s and Geno’s are for tourists and that neither has the best cheesesteak in Philly. So who does? We went to a place that was recommended by a local (whose name, coincidentally enough, is also Jim) called Joe’s Steaks.
Their menu proudly proclaims that Joe’s has been around for more that six decades. That sells them a bit short, as it opened in Northeast Philadelphia in 1949. Started by Samuel “Chink” Sherman, the original name was “Chink’s”. Joe Grogh, who bought the restaurant in 1999, renamed it in 2013 as people were offended by the old name. Grogh has had a long association with the restaurant, having worked there since he was a teenager. In addition to its first location, Joey’s has a second one in Fishtown. The original is only open for take out at the moment, so we went to Fishtown.
This location has the look of a classic diner. Unlike Pat’s and Geno’s, it took awhile for our order to come out. But the freshly made cheesesteaks made a difference. We all preferred Joey’s. The meat is more substantial and the buns are fresher.
Pickles and sliced banana peppers are served with their sandwiches. The pickles are a bit spicy, although not has hot as the cherry peppers served at Pat’s and Geno’s. I like both cherry peppers and the banana peppers, although the latter are easier to put on the sandwich.
We also ordered some cheese fries. I was a little surprised that the cheese was served on the side, but that did accommodate our party’s dietary preferences. The fries are fairly standard. However, I did like that they came out piping hot. The cheese sauce is a great accompaniment.
Not all of our group ordered cheesesteaks though. One friend ordered the cheese dog. And my vergetarian friend ordered the vegan cheesesteak: made with mushrooms, some sort of textured soy protein, and vegan cheese. It looked delicious. She said it was fantastic. The hot dog also got a positive review, noting that it was seasoning that made it stand out. The menu also include burgers and grilled cheese, but the item that caught my attention was the Buffalo Chicken fries. Someone at an adjacent table ordered them and they looked to die for.
But Joe’s is famous for more than just their cheesesteaks. They also have amazing shakes.
Regular offerings include vanilla, chocolate, Oreo, and black and white. They also have specialty offerings. I had one, a Twix shake. Two of my companions had another special: blueberry. The Twix shake was made with vanilla ice cream with chocolate and caramel syrup twirled in, topped with a candy bar. Absolutely fabulous. In addition to the shakes, Joe’s also has ice cream sundaes.
One of my friends got the Chocolate Sundae. A sundae made with chocolate ice cream and covered with chocolate syrup, glazed walnuts, and plenty of whipped cream. My friend reported that it was as good as it looked.
While Joe’s was universally our favorite, almost everyone like all three cheesesteak places. The cheesesteak sandwich has become an iconic American dish, and recommend having an authentic one if you ever are in Philadelphia.