When eating a cheesesteak, the roll should not "spring back" like a sponge, rather, it should yield to each bite, and invite you to focus on the balance of cheese, steak, and grease within. All right... you think I’m nuts now, but believe me, the roll is the most important part of a steak. Every other element listed below could be executed with perfection, but if it’s delivered via a stale, hard roll, it will be ruined. Yes, some places do use harder rolls (as a cheat to contain the grease in my opinion), and steak shops can vary their rolls drastically and still be considered authentic — hell, Donkey’s Place in Camden, N.J., makes a great cheesesteak on a poppy seed kaiser roll — but the best places trust their steaks to the chamber of a classic, fresh soft roll.
Rib-eye seems to be the predominant cut in Philly and Philip’s on Passyunk Avenue is one of the best. Their rib-eye is fresh-sliced a little thicker than many shops, but it is prepared with an oil blend on the grill, and cooked to a perfect medium tenderness. Many places serve a standard sirloin, and although Jim’s Steaks on South Street uses a leaner top round (with the added oil blend and Whiz,) it is perhaps the best-balanced steak in the city.
The other major steak variation that you’ll find among the steak places in Philly is slab-cut or chopped. Slab-cut steaks are sliced, cooked on the grill, and thrown onto the roll folded and whole. You may even be able to see the ribbons of fat coursing through the beef on a slab-cut steak. On the other hand, you’ll know you’re about to have a chopped steak when you hear the unmistakable clanking of a metal spatula on the grill while ordering. There is an entire spectrum of chopped steaks, from "slightly pulled apart" to "pulverized," and the typical chopped steak is somewhere in the middle.
Dalessandro’s out in Manyunk, Penn., serves one of the wettest steaks I’ve ever had — they use a blend of oil and water on their grill. So how do they make it work? Well, their rib-eye is chopped very fine and piled high on Amoroso’s rolls. The steak arrives in a puddle of its own juices and every bite knocks a couple of drops from the icicle of Whiz and liquid grease hanging form the far end of the roll. The density of their finely chopped rib eye is reminiscent of a Texas chili, with Whiz infused throughout instead of chili spices. The mass of steak along with the sturdy, soft roll manages to hold in all of the moisture, but it’s a tenuous balance, one that takes some steak shops years to get right.
Most of the better places in Philly chop their onions up and grill them with the steak. Some places precook the onions, but it’s generally frowned upon to have onions that are too caramelized and soupy. But that’s just what I’ve noticed from a lifetime of gawking over grills and observing the steaks of friends. Although I like onions as a condiment (a few rings of a red onion slice are often the only vegetables that find their way to my cheeseburger), I find they throw off the balance of flavors and textures in my steak. Same goes for peppers — "long hots," as one variety served in Philly is referred to. I cannot claim any authority regarding what makes a good cheesesteak onion other than to say that once in a while, a single slice of onion sneaks into my steak and, well… I get it. It’s delicious. But for my taste, I like my steak "straight," as some shops call it, and I say that wit’out any shame.
At least one cheesesteak in Philly really goes out on a limb cheese-wise, and the gamble pays off. The Grey Lodge Pub in Northeast Philly makes homemade cheese sauce that is spectacular. It’s a house-made blend of melted white American cheese and whole milk that complements their slab-cut rib-eye perfectly. I’ve seen places get creative with rolls and steak cuts and spices, but Grey Lodge is the only place I’ve been to that has the guts to take a crack at trying to improve Cheez Whiz. And to give credit where it’s due, they do a very admirable job.
One other thing about Whiz — this is important — order the Whiz on the roll. I have yet to have a steak with the Whiz slopped on top that also tasted like all of the elements blended correctly. My preference is for the Whiz to be applied (not too heavily) with a spatula on both sides of the roll. Lots of places dip into their industrial cans of Whiz with small ladles and slap some whiz into one face of the cut roll, but this technique can lead to uneven coverage and pooling as you work your way through the steak. Regardless of what cheese you pick for your steak, balance and proportion remains the key.
As you may have gleaned from this guide, the word that comes up over and over when discussing the perfect cheesesteak is "balance." The drip is perhaps the final exam, if you will, to determine whether the steak in front of you gets it right. Cheesesteak lovers start going down the rabbit hole with this, reading the drips on the waxed paper like tea leaves to determine how much joy they should be experiencing. I’m not that bad, but when I’m torn on the quality of a ‘steak, I do find myself occasionally staring at the pattern of yellow splotches on the wax paper thinking, "AFFIRMATIVE. THAT IS AN APPROPRIATE AMOUNT OF DRIP." Seriously, don’t get too hung up on the drip.