If you ask a question to the Philadelphia locals about famous local food to try, very likely the answer is the Philly cheesesteak sandwich. The Philly cheesesteak sandwich consists of thinly-sliced steak meats with melted cheese served in a long roll. There could be variations on toppings, including different kinds of cheese, or the addition of sauteed onions.
While it’s likely the locals suggest that you try Philly cheesesteak sandwich, it’s not as obvious which place they would recommend to go to for the best Philly cheesesteak in town. Everyone has their own favorite place. The four popular places that are often mentioned are Geno’s, Pat’s, Jim’s, and Tony Luke’s. In some of these places, you would also be expected to know how to order your cheesesteak. There might be long lines of people waiting to order, so you need to know what you want by the time you get to the order window. And there is a particular syntax you need to follow.. you only need to say three words. First, how many sandwich you want. Second, what kind of cheese you want on it. And third, whether you want sauteed onion on it or not. So, if you want one Philly cheesesteak sandwich, with Cheese Whiz and with sauteed onion, you would order “one, whiz, with.” Or if you want one with provolone cheese and without the onion, you would order “one, provolone, without.” If you pause to try to decide, or worse, ask them questions or recommendations, the order taker might lose patience and tell you to step aside and go back to the back of the line while you’re trying to decide.
My first experience trying out authentic Philly cheesesteak sandwich was when I was on a road trip between Washington, DC, and New York City with my family, and we decided to stop in Philadelphia for lunch. We went to Geno’s and I had the orders down before going to the order window. The cheesesteak sandwich was quite good, though I remember more about driving through narrow roads of South Philly to find the restaurant (this was pre-GPS era), then finding parking on the street, and after the quick ordering, we quickly went back to the car fearing that it might be unsafe neighborhood (the surroundings near where we parked looked kind of shady). We ended up taking some time to navigate through downtown Philly with a road atlas, and then once we got out to the suburb, found a parking area at a fast food restaurant and had our cheesesteaks there.
The photo below was taken several years later when I went to Tony Luke’s. I found out about Tony Luke’s from watching this place featured on some TV shows (Throwdown with Bobby Flay and Man vs. Food). The location is also closer to the Interstate, so it’s not much of a detour to go there when I’m on the way to get elsewhere. They also have good number of parking spots across the street at the restaurant/bar owned also by Tony Luke. The sandwiches were quite good, you can tell many folks eating there are locals, and the order takers were not as strict in expecting you to follow the ordering ‘protocol’..