In ancient times travelers would seek answers to the eternal questions from the Oracle at Delphi. Recently, we sought food wisdom on an Odyssey in Phila-Delphi-a, but these questions were of far greater import than the Riddle of the Sphinx at Thebes:
1. Which cheesesteak is better— Pat’s or Geno’s?
2. What the hell is an Italian “hoagie” and is it better than a New York hero?
3. Is the Philly Roast Pork sandwich truly the greatest sandwich in the universe?
When it comes to cheesesteaks, Pat’s Steaks is the creator, the originator. 1237 East Passyunk Avenue is the holy shrine. The way to order? “Whiz, Wit, Whiz, Wit,” meaning Cheez Whiz with onions, an alliteration my brother and I used to rehearse in the backseat of the car on the drive to Philly (this quest was in memory of our dad, an epic eater/adventurer). As for condiments, the only acceptable ones are hot peppers or hot sauce. Pat’s has cherry peppers and dried red peppers, but no hot sauce.
Across the street is Geno’s. Loud, orange, neon, motorcycles, Geno’s is the Upstart. The New Kid. The Noisy Neighbor. The Innovator. Geno’s offers hot sauce and hot cherry peppers as condiments. Again, the order? Whiz and onions.
Steak: Pat’s steak, though chopped, was superior to Geno’s.
Cheese: The Whiz at Geno’s is slightly more diluted.
Bread: Supposedly, both Pat’s and Geno’s use the same bread (“The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book,” Carolyn Wyman), but the diluted whiz at Geno’s renders the roll soggier.
Onions: Geno’s gets points for slicing, not chopping, but the onions were not as translucent as Pat’s.
Décor: Geno’s Vegas-neon décor is cooler, but Pat’s non-descript, clapboard siding has aged gracefully.
: Tough call, and a subjective one. On any given day, they’re equals. Forced to choose, it’s Pat’s— their overall meld is better. But, neither approached Steve’s Prince of Steaks in Langhorne.
The sesame seeded Italian loaves at Sarcone’s Bakery were invented for the “hoagie,” the Philadelphian term for “hero” sandwich. The word “hoagie” supposedly comes from an area of Philly originally called Hog Island (where the airport is). As befits their name, Hog Island residents enjoyed antipasto on long loaves of bread. These sandwiches came to be known as “Hoggies,” and in turn, “Hoagies.”
The slogan at Sarcone’s Deli sums up their philosophy: “It’s All About the Bread.” The menu features hundreds of “kick-ass” hoagies, but we opted for the Italian Hoagie: prosciutto, capicola, salami, provolone and peppers with oil and vinegar. The cold cuts were from Dietz and Watson, Philly’s answer to Boar’s Head. While they don’t compare to anything you’ll sample at Di Bruno, the bread is the Platonic ideal of an Italian loaf. Airy, yeasty, crusty, just perfect— the bread would’ve made shoe leather taste great as a sandwich filler.
: The Yankees aren’t the only ones kicking Phillie ass. Alidoro’s Pinocchio, Big Mike’s Combo at Mike’s Deli, and Mama’s Special at Leo’s, they’re all superior to the best hoagies in Philly.
If you haven’t been, Reading Terminal Market is like Seattle’s Pike Place Market, a place with a variety of food vendors from Amish bakeries to soul food. But the don’t-miss stall is DiNic’s, and the order is the Roast Pork Sandwich with green peppers and garlic sautéed broccoli rabe. The thin-sliced pork seems like it has been marinated in drippings for forever. Those juices are absorbed by that crusty Philly bread, their warmth melting the aged, hand-cut, sharp slivers of provolone lining the bottom of the roll.
: Cheesesteaks and hoagies are for tourists. The Philly sandwich cognoscenti keep DiNic’s Roast Pork Sandwich all for themselves.