It’s the iconic sandwich the City of Brotherly Love is known for, and although glaringly cliché’ I wanted to eat a handful of these delightfully greasy gut bombs during my weekend in town. While most visitors are immediately drawn to the vaporous neon glow of Geno’s and Pat’s, I wanted to find something beyond the usual tourist traps. I’d been to of those places before, and while it may be blasphemous to any native Philadelphian, I found them completely underwhelming and substandard. I’d love to hear a counter argument in favor of any dining establishment that espouses the use of “cheese wiz” on anything they serve. So during my quick weekend in Philadelphia, I endeavored to find the real deal.
Three places emerged to the top of my research: Dalessandro’s, Jim’s and Tony Lukes. While each of these may be well known to Philly natives, they are not as familiar to outsiders. In order to give an accurate comparison to the three contenders, I ordered the same sandwich at each – a simple cheesesteak sandwich with American cheese and grilled onions. Why that combo? Because I like it, that’s why. And, it’s simple, and these are simple, working class sandwiches after all.
Tony Lukes – My first stop on Saturday morning. Hustling through the industrial wasteland part of town, I skirted past the beckoning entrance of Ricks Cabaret & Lounge – an adult entertainment club touting “divorce parties” and pulled into the red and white checkered confines of Tony Lukes. A few yellow lights and some flashes of stainless steel trim round out the décor of the simple sandwich stand.
Whatever anticipation I held for the sandwich to come, however, was quickly extinguished by the gruff counterman who could barely be bothered to take my simple order. Conveniently, Tony Lukes also refuses to provide water for customers, so I had to order an overpriced soda. As if the dirtbag service and water miserliness wasn’t enough, Tony Lukes doesn’t have any heating in the dining area (in December) or provide public restroom facilities of any kind. What a complete dump.
Fear not, however, because the sandwiches at Tony Lukes are thoroughly craptastic as well! The french roll is chewy, and instead of being mixed into the steak, the meager cheese allotment is tossed uncaringly onto the top cold. Even the steak itself is lazily sliced (not finely chopped) into lifeless, grey, gristly slabs of rubber that left my jaw feeling like I just went a few rounds with Rocky. I made sure to take a good look around before leaving Tony Lukes, because I’ll never see this place again.
Jim’s – I visited Jim’s late on Saturday night after spending the entire day fighting off the blustering cold mist in Lincoln Financial Field during the Army Navy game. Chilled to the bone, and thoroughly exhausted, I probably could have eaten the ass end of flattened roadkill – an option that still sounded better than a second sandwich from Tony Lukes.
Fortunately, Jims fared much better. Here, you watch the cook through a glass window, deftly whacking away at a pile of steak on the steaming cook top. He chops the steak up finely, lays a few slices of American cheese into the bun, and tops the sandwich with a few caramelized onions. Though I would have liked to see the cheese mixed into and melted across the steak, overall this was a solid sandwich.
If I can think of one drawback to Jim’s, it’s the agonizing lines and wait time for a sandwich. Located in center city Philadelphia, a bustling part of town on a Saturday night, throngs of hungry revelers lined up around the block for upwards of a 30 minute wait for a sandwich. I don’t know if the wait times are always that bad, but it’s something to consider.
Dalessandro’s – My final cheesesteak trial, I optioned for a breakfast at Dalessandro’s on Sunday morning before catching my flight out of Philly. Making the fifteen minute drive to Northwest Philadelphia, the tiny corner shop is located a few miles outside the downtown Philadelphia area. I line up promptly at 11AM, sliding into one of their counter stools soon after they opened the doors for business. Not long after arriving, the place is jammed with takeout orders, clearly a popular neighborhood spot.
Of the three, Dalessandro’s was finest offering of the classic Philly Cheesesteak. The steak was finely chopped and browned, with the cheese completely folded in and melted across the steak. A handful of onions garnished across the top, and the roll had a nice crunch on the outside but chewy inside. It was well executed simplicity. The perfect start to Sunday morning.
In the end, Dalessandro’s was a clear cut winner based on my criteria. Jim’s, however, would be a perfectly serviceable option if I found myself in the downtown area with a hankering. But in case you missed it, I’d sooner eat three year old sofa pizza before returning to Tony Lukes again…