The Makings Of The Perfect Philly Cheesesteak

The Philly cheesesteak is one of the giants of regional cuisine in the U.S. It's widely beloved and, on the surface, it is a very simple sandwich — it's grilled, thin-cut steak with cheese and onions, on a roll. You will find it toward the bottom of many pubs' "Sandwiches" section on their menus. It's just sitting there, next to the grilled chicken sandwich and the turkey club. So it's just a sandwich, right? Well, if you know anyone from Philly, a cheesesteak (or simply a "steak," as we call them), is much more than the sum of its ingredients.

I grew up outside of Philly and I've eaten cheesesteaks for almost my whole life (blame my parents for not throwing one in a blender and serving it to me as a purée as an infant.) And although I have a "perfect" steak style in my head, authenticity is not as formulaic as you might think. There is room for customization within the realm of authentic Philly steaks, but the expanse between the authentic and fake is vast.

So do you want to know what truly distinguishes McWhatever's Saloon's version of the Philly steak from the real deal? Read on...


The Roll: D'Ambrosio. Liscio's. Aversa's. Amoroso's. This may sound to the inexperienced ear like roll call at a South Philly Knights of Columbus gathering, but to devout steak fans, they are the most important building blocks of a proper Philly cheesesteak — these are among the bakeries that provide the rolls for steaks all over the Philadelphia metro area. And for cheesesteak lovers in Philly, loyalty to a bakery often runs just as deep as their loyalty to the joints that serve them. And for this humble reviewer, Amoroso's roll is the one at the top of the pack. So what makes a cheesesteak roll great? Well for one, it absolutely has to be fresh. It should be soft and tender, but a little crusty and chewy on the outside. It should collapse around the steak with every bite, but not soak through or rip at the bottom "seam." In other words, the roll should contain the grease, but not overwhelm the contents with its mass. (Photo above courtesy of Flickr/Barbara L. Hanson)

Click here for more on Philly cheesesteak rolls.


The Steak: There's a bit of variety in the beef cuts used in Philly cheesesteaks. At the lower end of the spectrum, there are "chopped and formed" steaks — pre-formed and sliced "steaks" compiled from a variety of cuts of beef and blended for consistency. These steaks tend to be constituted from leaner bits of beef, making them tougher, and therefore are often marinated. (These "chopped and formed" steaks are much better than accursed frozen patties like Steak-Umms, which are essentially ground beef smashed into thin sheets — they're like the Pringles of meat products, and not suitable for any cheesesteak.) For the best Philly cheesesteak experience, you'll want to search for a whole-muscle steak, preferably thin-cut fresh on the premises. (Photo above courtesy of Flickr/JSpatchwork)

Click here for more on Philly cheesesteak steak. 


The Grill Prep: The steak is not always entirely unadulterated — some shops give their steaks a shot of oil on the grill to add flavor, others add oil and water, and some just use a little water. Cheesesteak pros use everything from Wesson oil to soybean oil to blends of various oils. Salt and pepper are occasionally applied on the grill and in rare cases other spices, such as oregano, may be tossed in. There's no hard-and-fast rule regarding when oil or seasoning is applied, but most often if a leaner cut is used, the cook will use a little oil. (Photo above courtesy of Flickr/Shinya)

Click here for more on Philly cheesesteak grill prep.

The Onions: If you have been to a place outside of Philly that claims to serve "authentic" Philly cheesesteaks, they will almost without fail suggest that you order your steak "wit" or "wit'out" onions. But I'd like to let you in on a secret — if you have the temerity to pronounce "wit" as "with" or request "no onions" you will not be laughed out of the place. Actually, I've been ordering steaks my entire conscious life and I still feel silly affecting a fake Philly accent just to indicate that I... blasphemy alert: I do not want onions on my steaks. It's "wit'out" for me. For those who do want them, as most people seem to, Spanish onions, both white and yellow, are predominant in Philly. (Photo above courtesy of Flickr/JSpatchwork)

Click here for more on Philly cheesesteak onions. 


The Cheese: I'm actually pretty forgiving when it comes to the cheese. Sure, I'm a traditionalist; I like my Whiz. Kraft Cheez Whiz is considered to be the cheese for a true Philly steak. White American and provolone are equally acceptable and actually are most common, especially at places that pride themselves in only serving "real" cheese. But Whiz has the cheesy spirit of the proletariat. (Photo above courtesy of Flickr/Yurilong)

Click here for more on Philly cheesesteak cheese. 


The Drip: This is where the cult of the cheesesteak gets a little precious. You see, when you bite into a cheesesteak, ideally grease and cheese should drip from the other end of the roll onto the paper (like at Dalessandro's). If the drips become a stream, that's bad. "No drips" can be really bad, depending on the cut of steak. Some slab-cut steaks don't have much of a drip at all, which isn't as much of an issue as long as the meat is cooked to a nice medium tenderness. But there's that magical drip mean with most steaks that denotes a true mastery on the part of the grill man. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gshowman)

Click here for more on Philly cheesteak drip.