When I was in college, my boyfriend Paul’s fraternity embarked on an epic quest to Philly each year. Around 10 p.m. on a Saturday, they’d pile into three or four cars and race up I-95 (I don’t even want to know how fast). Their destination? Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philly. The treasure? A cheesesteak “wit” onions and Whiz (Cheez-Whiz).
When you order at Pat’s, you say “wit” to mean “with” and “wit-out” to mean “without.” Onions are fine, but Cheez-Whiz? Honestly? Thankfully they also have Provolone (although some will argue it’s not a cheesesteak without the Whiz).
Travel to the intersection of 9th and Passyunk at around midnight on any given Saturday night and you will find a lively, if not peculiar scene. Across the street from modest Pat’s is flashier competitor Geno’s Steaks. The wild lights display, reminiscent of something you might see in Las Vegas, feels out of place in the middle-class South Philly neighborhood.
I first visited Pat’s with my mom several years ago. I ordered a Provolone cheesesteak “wit-out.” The shaved ribeye, soft hoagie roll and slightly melted cheese on top was divine at the time, so I devoured the entire monster. Paul, my boyfriend, had asked if I could bring back a cheesesteak for him in Baltimore. I can’t imagine anything is good after sitting in a car covered in Cheez-Whiz for several hours, but I’ve never seen him happier after eating his steak.
Last year, Paul and I visited Pat’s late one Saturday night on our way home from a track meet in rural Pennsylvania. We drove 30 miles out of the way just to make a stop at Pat’s. We ate them inside my car because Pat’s only offers outdoor seating (In 30 degree January weather, that’s just not fun). For the rest of the drive back, the odd scent of Cheez-Whiz from Paul’s cheesesteak permeated my car.
Most recently, I joined Paul on a road trip up to New Jersey for his summer job. I looked at a map beforehand and realized we would be passing Philly – obviously, this warranted a stop at Pat’s. Upon later inspection, I realized that Philly was a little out of the way, but of course I waited until afterwards to tell Paul this. Needless to say, he admitted it was probably the best detour he’d ever taken.
Pat’s opened about 30 years before Geno’s, but equally long lines of out-of-towners and locals form outside both destinations. It’s a question often asked: “Who has the better cheesesteak? Pat’s or Geno’s?”
Ask Philadelphians this question and they will probably direct you elsewhere in the city, such as John’s Roast Pork or Phillip’s Steaks. Yes, Pat’s and Geno’s can be touristy, but they are classic Philly landmarks. And if you live in D.C. like I do, you should visit them at least once.
Sometimes, it’s more about what the place means to you personally. For Paul, visiting Pat’s reminds him of good times with his fraternity in college. For me, I think of the fun trip my mom and I took to the city years ago. For these reasons, we’ll keep going to Pat’s. And, if we’re feeling extra adventurous, we might even try a cheesesteak at Geno’s.
Photos: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat’s_King_of_Steaks, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geno’s_Steaks