Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Food, Philly Style

By Paul Gerald

JANUARY 25, 1999:  I was dining with several Philadelphians when I said I wanted some real Philly-style food. This would, of course, entail having a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich, and we got into a discussion that reminded me of Memphians talking about barbecue.

First, where to go. Pat’s is where the legendary original of the species was served. Pat ran a hot-dog stand but made himself a grilled steak with cheese and onion sandwich one day. Before he could eat it, he sold it to a hungry cabbie for a dime, and when the cabbie brought friends back the next day, a tradition was born.

Pat’s biggest competition is Geno’s Steaks, right across the street. Everybody in Philadelphia seems to know the subtle differences between the two sandwiches and has an opinion as to which one an out-of-towner should have, given only one day in town.

Next, what kind of cheese would I get on my sandwich? Provolone was on the original, but believe it or not, Cheez Whiz has become the standard. Even when faced with the obvious health hazard that is Cheez Whiz, a native told me, “Ya gotta get it wit da Whiz.”

So I went out on my cheese steak quest. My first piece of advice regarding Philadelphia is easy: Don’t go in January. I was visiting my brother after the holidays, so I performed my quest in freezing rain and 20 m.p.h. winds.

I walked down South Street, the heart of South Philly, past numerous Caribbean places touting their jerk chicken. Among them there were stores offering African imports and “spiritual necessities.” The leading convenience store in Philly is called Wawa, which makes the locals sound like Elmer Fudd. I walked all the way down to Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River. Down there South Street becomes quite the fashionable scene, with hip clothing stores and coffee shops and whatnot.

I looped back to 9th Street because my map said there was an Italian market down there. One famous restaurant is Ralph’s; it claims to be the oldest family-owned Italian restaurant in America. The Dispignos have run it since 1900, and all the locals said it serves classic southern-Italian fare. It was plastered with “Best of Philly” titles, but it had white tablecloths, which meant it was out of my budget for the day.

The Italian market is a happening place: Vendors have their produce and clothes and fish and meat right out on the street. A popular item was “water ice,” which the locals told me is neither a sno-cone nor shaved ice, but a Philly Thing. Since water and ice were falling from the sky that day, I passed. The strangest thing I saw in the Italian Market was the place with all the wild game available. I’ve seen emu and ostrich in restaurants before, but this place sold camel. They also had musk ox and kangaroo and reindeer; all of it, they pointed out, from farms. Like anybody’s out there hunting kangaroo for meat.

As I moved along, I asked people which place – Geno’s or Pat’s – I should go to. The prevailing word was Geno’s. A place called Jim’s, on South Street, got some mention, but I ruled it out because its front was covered with chrome, like some kind of ’50s-style diner.

The soft pretzel got a lot of mention. Here again, people argued about where to get it. Since the Phillies weren’t playing, Veterans Stadium was out, so the most kudos went to the Mennonite stands in the Reading Terminal Market. That’s a former train station filled with food stalls, and the Mennonites come down from the Dutch Country to sell their wonderful baked goods.

Other folks said I should go to Restaurant Row, by the convention center. I did go by there, and those people obviously didn’t realize they were talking to a freelance writer. Philadelphia landed the 2000 Republican Convention, you see, so many fancy restaurants have sprung up, places in the neighborhood of $150 a head.

I had neither the time nor the money for such foolishness. I was on a cheese steak quest. And when I had made it down 9th as far as Federal Street, it was obvious I was in the right place.

Missing Geno’s would be like missing The Peabody. It’s orange, for one thing, and it fills an entire block. Its walls are covered with photos of famous people who ate there; it seems to be popular among professional wrestlers (King Kong Bundy) and bad musicians (the Back Street Boys). I chose Geno’s because it had more celebrity pictures and more customers. When in doubt, go with the locals.

In a questionable nod to good eating, I got my sandwich with provolone instead of “da Whiz.” The cost was “fie dollas,” and I ate it right there on the street. Neither Pat’s nor Geno’s has seating, much less white tablecloths.

I can say this after my quest was done: If this was the best cheese steak Philly has to offer, then the whole city needs to re-evaluate. Kudzu’s has a better one. But there’s a lot to be said about living in the moment, and standing there watching the freezing rain come down, listening to screaming Italians, smearing mustard all over the cheese and onions and washing it down with black coffee. I felt like I had bonded with the city of Philadelphia.

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