When I started planning to open a food cart a number of years ago, I knew I wanted to do a Philly Cheesesteak. Philadelphia Cheesesteak History is here. I had eaten a number of good cheesesteaks since moving to the Portland area but had never really satisfied the craving I had for the flavors that I had grown up with. Maybe it’s the water, as some had suggested, the bread, ingredients traveling across the country…whatever the case, I just couldn’t quite hit the flavor profiles I loved the most. Cheesesteak purest will tell you that mine is not traditional…this is somewhat true (more on that later).
According to WhatsCookingAmerica.net, if you are more than an hour outside of Philly you can’t get a true Philly Cheesesteak. Evidently, VisitPhilly.com agrees saying, “Often imitated around the world, the cheesesteak is rarely duplicated successfully outside of Philadelphia.” So, if this is true, what constitutes the iconic, traditional Philly Cheesesteak? Well, that’s where things get a little complicated because the “original” Philly Cheesesteak, wasn’t a CHEESEsteak at all. The very first [cheese] steak was created in 1930 by Pat Olivieri and his brother Harry and consisted of thinly sliced ribeye steak, “frizzled” (fried) on a flattop with onions and served on a hot dog bun. But let’s back up a for a minute.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Italian population in the United States had some MAJOR growth due to political issues in Italy during that time. Immigrants from Italy, like many others, traveled away from Ellis Island in search of a place to settle and find a bit of the American Dream as well as other immigrants that might be from their particular region or country of origin. Many of these Italian immigrants landed not all that far from Ellis Island, in Philadelphia. Most choosing South Philly. In this area, hardworking laborers needed quick meals and the community responded with tons of push-cart style food carts that sold cheap food to laborers.
One such pushcart was owned by a local named Pat Olivieri and his brother Harry. Pat and his brother had set up shop on the corner of 9th & Passyunk selling hot dogs and fish cakes in the 1930s. As the story goes (all iconic regional foods have their own story), one day in 1933, Pat was bored of eating hot dogs and fish cakes and told his brother to run down to the local butcher and bring back some beef they could cook up quick for lunch. Harry obliged and returned with some thinly-sliced ribeye, Pat proceeded to cook it up on the flattop (“frizzle”) with some onions , and crammed it into a bun. The original Philly steak sandwich is born. Notice though…no cheese.
As the story continues, it was on that same day, a regular customer, a cab driver, happened by the cart and was enticed by the smell of the beef and onions and asked for this new menu item for himself. After taking a few bites he informed the brothers that they should forget about the fish cakes and serve these instead. He then proceeded to tell all of the other cabbies about this new sandwich….and a legend was born.
BUT WAIT!! Where’s the cheese!!?? Just hold your horses…we’re getting there.
By 1940, Pat and Harry had saved enough money to turn their cart into a brick-and-mortar restaurant on the same corner (Pat’s King of Steaks).
The original version of Pat’s sandwich in their new brick-and-mortar restaurant was the thin-sliced beef and onions, now being served on a crusty Italian roll from a nearby bakery (a step up from the hot dog buns of the pushcart version). Legend says that Pat’s went decades without ever serving their steak sandwiches with cheese and some of Philly’s oldest sandwich vendors signs still read “steak shop” instead of “cheesesteak.” GAH….BUT WHERE’S THE CHEESE???
Ok…ok…the cheese…phew, this is tough one. The question asked to me most often at the cart – which is more traditional/authentic. The idea of which cheese in a cheesesteak is most traditional or the “original” is MUCH debated. A number of stories surround this and it is the topic of much debate and even more family feuds. Your loyalty to one steak shop over another in Philly usually decides your cheese preference and, unless you move from the Philly area to other parts of the country, you are never to be seen eating anything else. It is a matter of pride.
So, one story goes that Joe Lorenzo, an employee at Pat’s in the 40s, used to put provolone cheese on his personal sandwiches when he would eat them…thus inventing the cheesesteak as we know it today making provolone the “traditional” way to eat a cheesesteak. A second version is that Joe used Cheez Whiz not provolone which means cheese wasn’t introduced until the 50s when Whiz was created by Kraft (1952) and thus making whiz the traditional A third version goes that it was a steak sandwich until the 60s when, Joey Vento opened Geno’s Steaks directly across the street from Pat’s with an almost identical menu except he offered the option of adding cheese (this story originated by Joey himself…soooo…ya’ know…). Whether you believe Joey Vento’s story or Joe Lorenzo’s story, it is pretty clear that traditional…well, it’s left open to interpretation. These days though, in Philly, you can get provolone, whiz, or American cheese, a hoagie version (add lettuce, tomato and mayo), or the pizza version (add Italian pizza sauce) and a long list of various other toppings and condiments. There has also been the invent of other styles, for instance, the chicken cheesesteak which was introduced in the 80s by Bill Schultz. Or the veggie option introduced in 2004 by the vegan and vegetarian conscious Vegadelphia.
Which brings us back to my “traditional” version of the Philly Cheesesteak. My meat is Italian seasoned and slow roasted, but not frizzled because I never liked how it dried the meat out. My veggies are sauteed and I liked the addition of green bell peppers when I was back east. I used to love to add mushrooms to mine when I was younger because they were always sauteed in butter and garlic (unfortunately, I’m allergic to mushrooms so I had to forego the actual mushrooms) and that garlicky deliciousness would end up running down my arms to my elbows as I ate. Later, I ate at a place that served theirs with mayo like on the hoagie style sandwiches and I thought that added creaminess was something that my sandwiches had always been missing. So, when I opened City Slickers, I decided to combine all of the things I loved about the cheesesteaks I had eaten over the years into one delicious sandwich. Some may feel this is not traditional. I’m okay with that because ultimately, I’ll likely never sell my meat frizzled with onions on a hot dog bun.
So, next time you are feeling like a “traditional” Philly steak sandwich, remember…there really isn’t such a thing unless it’s frizzled ribeye and onions on a hot dog bun. Everything else is open to interpretation and your personal preferences….at least until someone finds the true story behind the cheese. Feel free to order mine to your liking as well, otherwise, you’ll get my liking – steak, cheese, onions, peppers and garlic aioli.
As a side note, it should be mentioned that in Philly it isn’t a “Philly” cheesesteak…it’s just a cheesesteak or a steak sandwich or a hoagie. Also, when you order, there is a entire mode of delivery you must become accustomed to. Once mastered, it rolls off the tongue easily enough but first-timers can become flustered and end up being forced to the back of the line. Learn the lingo and practice before going to a joint in Philly…you’ll thank me later.
PS: Over the years, it has become normal to reverse Steps 1 and 2 below (ie: American wit, or Whiz wit-out vs. Wit Whiz). Either way is acceptable and will produce the sandwich you are looking for.