Philadelphia does not have the best cheesesteak, but people won't say it.
The City of Brotherly Love and cheesesteaks go together like cereal and milk. The tradition goes back to the Olivieri brothers, Pat and Harry. They ran a hot dog stand close to South Philadelphia's Italian Market.
Hungry to increase revenue, the two entrepreneurs started experimenting with brand new sandwiches in the 1930s, where the idea of grilled beef and onions on the toasted roll was born. Legend has it that the cheese concept wasn't introduced into the 40s and the rest of this sub-history. I'm not sure when adding Cheese Wiz, which is the spam of cheese, came into the mix. Still, I speak for many when I say abolish it, trash it, throw it away, forget about it; we don't need you anymore.
As a loyal sub connoisseur, I acknowledge the innovation of the Oliveri brothers. Still, we have become too comfortable accepting Philly as the end-all-be-all for cheesesteaks, mainly because no one ever challenges it. If I rank cities solely based on cheesesteaks, Philly is not in my top-two.
"Try the chicken steak," Mr. Kim from the corner said to me and my friend DI back in Baltimore the 90s. "Come on, try."
The store was closed. DI and I were 10 and innocent and ashy. The two of us were practicing crossovers and in-and-out dribbles under the streetlight. Mr. Kim typically wasn't into handing out free food — so something was up, but our young, always starving preteen bodies left little room for investigation.
"Hurry!" Kim said, waving us into the store, and latching the door.
We knew Mr. Kim; he unofficially helped raise us. Everyone called his wife Ma Ma. As little kids, we'd hit his store up for Now, Laters and penny candy and to buy soap, Lotto tickets for grandma, and chicken boxes and mozzarella sticks for the dudes who hustled on the corner across the street from the carryout.
Mr. Kim, and his wife, had everything you would need to run a household inside the store from Ajax to pancake mix — with the more expensive and easily sellable items like soap and shampoo all secured behind the bulletproof glass. His cook station was behind the glass as well.
"What do you take on your sub?" Mr. Kim asked.
"Everything!" DI yelled.
"Everything?" I asked, "Yo, it's gonna be so spicy and nasty."
"Nah my muva let me bite her sub, she always gets everything, and it's good."
DI was right — it wasn't only good, but it was the best sub I ever had in my life and set the criteria for what a great cheesesteak or chicken cheesesteak should be. In Baltimore, "add everything" means a toasted roll, enough steak to fall off of that toasted roll, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, fried onions, and instead of big awkward peppers, you get "hots," a vinegary spread of chopped peppers. And provolone cheese. Not cheddar, not Swiss, damn sure not American, but provolone.
Mr. Kim was up to something all right — because after trying that chicken cheesesteak, DI and I flooded the neighborhood as unpaid, unofficial sales reps telling the other kids that they have not lived a life unless they tried a chicken cheese steak from the corner store. They followed in our footsteps.
"Chicken cheesesteak?" People questioned, "Really? I like steak!"
"The steak is still good, but chicken cheesesteaks are their own thing!" We shot back over and over again.
Decades later, I'm still in love with the sub — the aroma still makes me drool, and I still get doe-eyed at the sight of the meat being scooped off the grill and placed onto the bread.
In honor of the great American sandwich, I will rank some of the best spots I visited multiple times on the East Coast and hope you get a chance to enjoy them:
4) New York
The Big Apple is making this list because their version, which is often called a chopped cheese, is delicious — mainly because you can grab one from almost any bodega around 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. just in time to soak up the liquor, put you to sleep and have you energized and ready for that 9:00 a.m. Zoom call.
Many pedestrians will try to point you to Geno's or Pats in South Philly. Pedestrians are typically wrong — the best place to get a cheesesteak in Philly is Max's in North Philly. There is no debate and nothing to talk about. This place is unique, one-of-a-kind, and never missed. Think I'm lying? Then roll up to this place on a Friday night in the spring, and I bet you that line will be hanging out the door because real Philadelphians know that Max's runs that town. And please, Jesus, tell them to hold the Cheese Wiz.
2) Washington, D.C.
Yum's on 14th in The District deserves a medal from the president — I'm not sure why Joe Biden doesn't hold his press conferences in front of that spot, because if he did his approval ratings would shortly go up. The Chinese food at Yum's is A1 — but the steaks are God-level. Too often, I'm in DC on fancy business at fancy restaurants. Still, when I get to sneak away and eat something salty and greasy that I know I shouldn't be eating, I slide to Yums, cop a cheesesteak, make sure they drench it in Mumbo because that's a DC thing and proceed to enjoy dinner for one in my car.
Baltimore, Maryland, has the best cheesesteaks in America for one reason and one reason only: many residents risk their lives for them.
"D, where are you were going?" It's something that has been asked of me around 2:00 AM on too many occasions. Causing me to pause, puff out my chest, look the person who asked the question in the eye, and say, "I'm headed to Jimmy's."
"But D, someone was just shot on that block!"
I zip my coat, grit my teeth, position my eyebrow like Dwayne Johnson when playing "The Rock," and respond, "If something happens to me, make sure you tell my story."
Okay, so it never really happened like that. Still, I had made that trip plenty of times against my better judgment and a better assessment of others — but damn, those steaks are good. And it's not just Jimmy's on Huffman–– there is also Dino's on Orleans Street, JJ's on Monument Street, Mama Mia's or Broadway, and Café 1908 on Preston.
All of these places are not in dangerous neighborhoods. However, many people found themselves in trouble creeping out of Jimmy's at 2:00 in the morning.
The sandwiches made at these establishments are golden. Many may think I'm giving Baltimore the number-one slot because it's my hometown. However, that couldn't be farther from the truth; the honest answer lies in greasiness. Baltimore cheesesteaks, chicken cheesesteaks, or fish buns are not greasy. The bag isn't soaked in oil when the cashier passes it to you don't need a roll of paper towels to dry your arms, forearms, neck, and chin after taking a few bites. A lack of grease allows you to hear the crunch of the letters and taste the tomato. It allows you to see how well the chef seasoned the meat and feel the texture of those fried onions — a lack of grease will enable you to experience the sandwich. Baltimore does that.
Appropriate grease distribution is what makes Baltimore the best.