South Philadelphia sandwich tour

Pat’s King of Steaks

Man may not live on bread alone, but bread stuffed with steak and Cheez Whiz – that's a different story. In Philadelphia, from the eponymous cheese steaks to hearty hoagies named after Italian-American icons, all the people are living well indeed. The City of Brotherly Love is America's great sandwich mecca, and nowhere in the city is the sandwich maker's art more evident than in the boisterous working-class neighbourhood of South Philly. Historical Philadelphia, with its tour guides in tricorn hats and ye olde pubs, is nice enough, but for those looking for something more to bite into, South Philly will unfailingly provide delicious opportunities.

Geno's Steaks

The true sandwich lover starts at the corner of South 9th Street and East Passyunk Avenue, where the two great shrines of the Philly cheese steak, Geno's Steaks and Pat's King of Steaks, face each other like rival cathedrals. Their “steaks” are both excellent and, as far as I can tell, identical. Rib-eye steak is shaved into thin slices, fried on a grill, stuffed into a white sub roll and topped with melted cheese. Still, the locals, who arrive at all hours to join a constantly replenishing lineup, swear by one or the other in sectarian fashion, evoking some miniscule difference as proof of their favourite's superiority: One has a certain kind of chili pepper, the other doesn't; one has a certain kind of soda pop, the other doesn't; one was greatly preferred over the other by Oprah when she visited Philadelphia in her less thin days… that kind of thing. Frankly, they're both so good, I don't know how people can choose between the two.

Ordering up a cheese steak is also a local point of pride, and as the sandwich is whipped up so quickly (almost as fast as it takes to say, “Yo, Adrian!”), you want to get it right. Simply order a “steak whiz with,” which means you'll get yours as most locals have it: smeared in processed cheese and loaded with caramelized onions. The correct ordering is such a matter of Philly insiderism, some have gone so far as to suggest the last U.S. election was determined at Pat's when John Kerry stepped up to the counter and ordered his steak with the unheard of “Swiss cheese.” He might as well have asked to see the wine list.

Geno's Steaks: 1219 S. 9th St., 215-389-0659
Pat's King of Steaks: 1237 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-468-1546

Citizens Bank Park

At the other end of South Philly is Tony Luke’s Old Philly Style Sandwiches, a classic steak hut that also features quality sandwiches of roast pork and side orders of broccoli rabe (pronounced “rob”) – sort of like Italian-American collard greens. While the 9th Street Italian Market certainly infuses much of the character of Philadelphia as the city stretches southward, there are many ethnic communities present in the area. You're now just as likely to find a tasty Vietnamese banh mi sub as a Sinatra Special hoagie like the one found at Sancone’s Bakery. Either would be perfect fare to stuff into a backpack or to bring along to a ball game. Not that you'll go wanting for sandwich options at the ballpark. At Philadelphia's new Citizens Bank Park, I was intrepidly led to a stand behind section 139 to indulge in a deli sandwich innovation with the rather unfortunate name of the Schmitter. This hot sandwich topped with tomato and “homemade special dressing” may evoke the name of great Phillies slugger Mike Schmidt, but it was named after a patron at McNally’s Tavern, where the sandwich was invented.

Tony Luke’s Old Philly Style Sandwiches: 39 E. Oregon Ave., 215-551-5725
Sarcone’s Deli: 734 S. 9th St., 215-922-1717
Citizens Bank Park: 1 Citizens Bank Way
McNally’s Tavern: 8634 Germantown Ave., 215-247-9736

A place with great sandwiches, after all, is more than a restaurant. It is a neighbourhood institution where you can learn, incrementally, local custom and how to fit in. For example, at Shank's & Evelyn's Luncheonette, a tiny but classic grill in the heart of the Italian Market, I picked up some valuable information: Marinara sauce is still called “red gravy” in South Philly, and ordering a “combo” usually means you want your sandwich with cheese – as long as it's not Swiss cheese.

Shank’s & Evelyn’s Luncheonette: 932 S. 10th St., 215-629-1093

(David McGimpsey’s latest book is the collection of comedic fiction Certifiable. His bimonthly sandwich column debuts in the November enRoute.)

Getting There

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November 2005