The Dental Nachos Guide to the Best Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia

by Branden Hill Branden Hill | May 25, 2023 5:15:12 PM

When you realize that you are going to Philadelphia, one of the first words that come to your mind is probably "cheesesteak"!


Yes, I know there are many more important aspects of the City of Brotherly Love, probably starting with its robust history as the birthplace of America.  Still, if you are even a fraction of the foodie that I am, the first thing you want to check out in any city will be their signature foods!


So, the question I always get asked by my out-of-town friends is, you guessed it, "Where do I go to get the best cheesesteak?"

In fairness, if you ask that question to multiple Philadelphians, you will get many different answers.  I will do my best to highlight some of the usual suspects that make it to many people's lists of favorites, as well as explain why some prefer one place over another.  I will also share some dos and don'ts about how to order or even eat a cheesesteak!



Part 1: HISTORY 


Philly loves controversy (Just ask our sports fans), and there is even controversy around when the cheesesteak became a "cheese"-steak.


  • The cheesesteak was invented in Philadelphia in the 1930s when a hotdog cart vendor named Pat Olivieri grilled some thinly sliced beef and put it on a hotdog roll. Legend has it that a passing cab driver smelled the steak sandwich and asked to try it. Pat shared his steak with the cab driver, who loved it.

Do you notice how a particular ingredient was not mentioned in that story?  Right, cheese!


Yes, Pat Olivieri, the owner of the famous Pat's did invent the sandwich as stated above. An employee of his introduced provolone cheese to the sandwich several years later. The problem is Pat didn't want to sell the sandwich with the cheese because he wanted to keep it kosher for his friends and customers who were Jewish. Tony, who was the employee who wanted to use the provolone cheese, but couldn't store cheese to use discreetly, decided that he could secretly hide a can of Cheez Whiz where the boss wouldn't see it. Hence the tradition for some Philadelphians to eat their cheesesteaks with Whiz.

Meanwhile, a rival shop named Geno's started making and marketing their steak sandwiches with provolone cheese, and American cheese. For this reason, some people credit Geno's with providing the actual cheese to the cheesesteak. Technically, they were the first to publicly advertise the cheese. Pat's was still the first place you could actually buy one.




The Roll

What makes cheesesteak delicious is primarily the roll.  The original hoagie roll used in cheesesteaks and still most often used today comes from a local bakery called Amoroso's.  The second most frequent roll used is from a South Philly Bakery called Sarcone's.  I personally prefer Sarcone's rolls, but they only deliver to South Philly restaurants. D' Ambrosio is another brand that is like an Amoroso.  


All these rolls have the quality of being slightly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with enough substance to soak up the juices of the sandwich.  Sarcone's is known for also having a good, seeded roll option as well.  The reason I prefer Sarcone's is that it can hold the ingredients better than the others.


The Meat

The next thing is the quality and cut of the meat.  It should be ribeye steak cut thinly against the grain to give the proper combination of juiciness due to the marbled fat in the ribeye as well as the texture when eating.  Some places keep the steak in large flat slabs of pieces, some chop them into smaller pieces.  I will always choose places with finely chopped pieces.  Obviously, the meat should also be well seasoned.


The Cheese

The cheese is where you will find many arguments. There are two types of people in Philadelphia, those who swear by Cheez Whiz at all times, and those who despise Cheez-Whiz and want real cheese. I am the latter and I am very passionate about it! I almost always get cheesesteaks with sharp provolone or regular provolone if no sharp provolone is available. 

There is also the very popular Cooper Sharp cheese, which is a top-tier higher-quality American Cheese. The only time I do regular American cheese is when I am in the mood for a chicken cheesesteak since sharp provolone or Cooper Sharp may overwhelm the flavor of the chicken. Yes, chicken is a very good option for those who don't eat beef or are cutting back from red meat. Most places offer a chicken version and even some now have a vegetarian or vegan meat option as well.



Onions are a must on my cheesesteaks.  Some people choose not to have them, but they are almost always standard so if you don't say with (wit' in Philly lingo) or without (witout') onions, they will usually ask you if you want them.

They are referred to as fried onions, but they are not literally fried, they are cooked on the grill next to your cheesesteak meat and added on top at the end or sometimes mixed in the meat.


*Cooking technique matters as much as ingredient quality.  When using Provolone or American cheese some places add the cheese to the meat earlier or later in the cooking process.  Some allow the cheese to be somewhat mixed into the meat before placing it on the roll and some places put the cheese on the meat right before the end.  I prefer it later in the cooking process but not at the very end.  There is an art to getting it just right.


So as a newbie, I would stick to onions as your only topping.  Getting too creative will not necessarily make your cheesesteak better and I think you should always go standard the first time you try something.  With that said, the next most popular topping is mushrooms, and then peppers would come next.



I always get ketchup on my cheesesteaks.  There are a few places that have a very good "marinara sauce" or "red gravy" that can be used instead of ketchup for a different flavor experience.  It can be put on the sandwich or given on the side and added to the sandwich yourself.


Some people will put mayo on theirs.  I am not a huge fan of that, but I don't hate it either.  To me, good cheese and ketchup are enough.





First things first, DO NOT call it a "Philly Cheesesteak''.  It is simply, a cheesesteak.  You can differentiate your cheesesteak by what you put on it, but saying Philly Cheesesteak seems redundant.  It feels like you are saying Greek Baklava or Mexican Enchilada.  


Ordering includes the type of meat, the type of cheese, whether there are onions, and the condiment.  

Notice you don't have to say beef, it's assumed.  You do obviously have to tell them if it's chicken.  Mushrooms if you like them get mentioned upfront because they are cooked with onions.


Here are some examples of cheesesteak orders and how the sandwich shop staff will communicate them to each other in parenthesis:


A cheesesteak with sharp provolone cheese and onions (Sharp provolone Wit')

A cheesesteak with sharp provolone cheese and no onions (Sharp provolone Witout')

A cheesesteak with Cheese Whiz and onions (Whiz Wit')

A chicken cheesesteak with American cheese and onions (American chicken Wit')

A mushroom cheesesteak with sharp provolone cheese and onions and peppers (Mushroom Sharp provolone Wit', add peppers)


Here is my typical order:

A mushroom cheesesteak with sharp provolone cheese, onions, and ketchup (Sharp provolone Mushroom Wit', add ketchup)





So this is the part you have been waiting for.  Where are the best places to get one?  I am obviously giving my option, but I promise you that at least with my top 3, you will not find many people who won't consider one of those 3 as their favorite.


John's Roast Pork  

Yes, the number 1 place is originally known for their Roast Pork sandwiches, which is an amazing experience if you are a person who eats pork.  The classic Italian Roast Pork sandwich is usually on a seeded Sarcone's roll, and the roast pork slices are topped with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe.  


Their cheesesteaks hit everything right, from the Sarcone roll, perfectly seasoned and chopped up high-quality meat, and great sharp provolone.

They have very difficult hours.  They open at like 5 AM and close at 4 PM.  This is because they originally were opened to service longshoremen who work the docks early in the morning.  


Angelo's Pizza

Some will argue they could be better than John's above, and I may even like their flavor better.  John's may give a little more meat but Angelos is amazing.  Better hours than John's but super busy and you have to order on the phone ahead of time.  


Dalessandro's Steaks

Because the other two are in South Philly, if you live on the other side of town or in the suburbs like me, Dalessandro’s is the place you will most likely pick.  So I patronize them way more than John's or Angelo's and I am never disappointed.  They use an Amoroso roll because as I mentioned earlier, Sarcone's only delivers rolls to South Philly.  What they do better than everyone though is their onions.  You know I am an onion guy, and they master the art of cooking them to the right consistency.


Here are some other places you will enjoy in no particular order.  If you see an asterisk next to their name it means they do a creative spin on the cheesesteak, so if you are a first-timer I would not recommend that being your authentic experience.  Some use creative cheeses or a totally different type of roll (I know that's a sin, but t works on very rare occasions):


Part 4-B:  OTHER QUALITY PLACES (In no particular order)

Cafe Carmela







Gooey Louie's



Cosmi's Deli

Oh Brother Philly




*Woodrow Sandwich Shop

*Donkey Place


*Mike's BBQ

*Barclay Prime


The names below are very popular but are not included because they are just not good, despite them being tourist traps.  Do not go to these places.  If you just have to do the tourist thing and go to Pat's and Geno's (They are across the street from each other) go ahead and take pics.  Yes, that's where the cheesesteaks were invented so, have the photo op.


Tony Luke's




I hope this was educational and remember, neither I nor Dental Nachos is responsible for any weight gain you experience eating in Philadelphia! 

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