When I left Philadelphia six years ago, my first order of business on the Peninsula was to find proxies for each of the dining establishments I knew I would miss the most from the city I had called home. One by one, I found worthwhile facsimiles of all of my regular haunts in Philly; I found my new dive bar, my new wine bar, my new taqueria and even the closest thing I could find to a 24-hour East Coast diner.
But as a new Peninsula resident, my most intense craving was also the hardest to satisfy: a good Philly cheesesteak. Luckily for me (and other homesick East Coast transplants) a red-eye flight to Philadelphia International Airport is not entirely necessary when you crave the warm embrace of beef and cheese, because it turns out the Peninsula has plenty of great local cheesesteak options.
Pat's King of Steaks: The spiritual home of the Philly cheesesteak, in the South Philadelphia neighborhood. Photo by Zack Fernandes.
A brief history of the Philly cheesesteak
In 1930, in South Philadelphia, just outside the Italian Market, a street vendor with a hot dog stand grew bored of his regular menu and made himself a sandwich for lunch. As the story goes, a taxi driver and frequent customer of the stand saw the new creation, and asked for one too: a pile of grilled, chopped beef topped with onions, and packed into a lightly crusted, fluffy Italian roll. Neither the taxi driver nor the street vendor realized that they were witnessing the birth of a Philadelphia icon more beloved than Rocky Balboa and the Liberty Bell combined.
The street vendor, Pat Oliveri, and his brother Harry went on to found Pat's King of Steaks, upgrading from a stand to a full restaurant (in the same location) three years later, and laying claim to the title of Philadelphia's original cheesesteak. But are they the best? That question has inspired hours of contentious debate from Philadelphia residents over the years, and Philadelphians even have their own litmus test to quickly establish credibility when meeting for the first time: "Pat's or Geno's?" — in reference to Pat's main competitor, Geno's Steaks, which opened in 1966 right across the street from Pat's. In defiance of the competition, this punny Pat's slogan is emblazoned on their butcher paper, website and full-length bus ads: "Don't eat a misteak."
What makes a steak sandwich a Philly cheesesteak?
Everyone agrees a Philly cheesesteak needs three things: beef, cheese and a roll to put the beef and cheese on. From there, disagreements abound from how the beef should be cooked (sliced in thin strips, or chopped as it cooks on a griddle) to permissible toppings (requests for anything other than grilled onions will be met with scorn from purists).
Even with just three required ingredients, a multitude of permutations exist. For the choice of beef, ribeye is the most traditional, though some shops choose to use top round. Kraft Cheez Whiz, white American cheese and provolone (which Pat's owners claim was the first cheese to be placed on one of their steak sandwiches) are the most popular cheese options, though we shouldn't forget about the time John Kerry provoked the ire of Philadelphians by ordering a cheesesteak with Swiss cheese.
Then there's the bread, where even the most ornery Philadelphians find common ground on the type of roll, if not on which baker makes the best ones: any Italian roll, wider than a baguette, with a dense interior crumb capable of standing up to the sandwich's juices and a crust that yields under the pressure of your soft palate.
Here on the Peninsula, some restaurants pledge authenticity to the cheesesteak by importing their rolls from the East Coast and sticking with a tried-and-true formula, while others break from tradition and serve interpretations of the classic sandwich that are delicious in their own right. The next time you get a hankering, grab a Yuengling beer, put on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and try one of these local Philly cheesesteaks.
For the sophisticated palate: Wiz Wit at The Refuge
Can't get enough of the cheese sauce on The Refuge's Wiz Wit? The restaurant also ladles it on their "Goofy Fries," which include garlic and chunks of pastrami. Photo by Zack Fernandes.
When The Refuge opened in San Carlos eight years ago, it was meant to be an outpost for the type of great pastrami you could usually only find at delis on the East Coast. But beyond the sublime smoked meat, co-owner Matt Levin also wanted to serve the cheesesteaks he remembered eating while living just outside of Philadelphia.
The Refuge uses ribeye for their cheesesteaks, which they cut into cubes and mix before forming it into slabs to be sliced and cooked on a flat-top griddle. Levin says that cubing and shaping the beef before slicing lends the best texture once the beef is cooked. "When it hits the flat top, it falls apart all by itself," he said, adding that, "you're not going to get any chewy pieces, and you shouldn't get any gristle."
Unsatisfied with the rolls sold by local distributors, Levin turned to Liscio's Bakery in New Jersey to supply The Refuge. The Italian rolls are shipped par-baked, and finished fresh daily at the restaurant.
The Refuge's cheesiest option is called the Wiz Wit, which is Philadelphia shorthand for a cheesesteak with grilled onions and Cheez Whiz. But at The Refuge, the sandwich's velvety cheese is closer to a Mornay sauce than Whiz, made with a base of béchamel and "gang loads" of cheddar, according to Levin.
The Refuge // 963 Laurel St., San Carlos; 650-598-9813 and 1143 Crane St., Menlo Park; 650-319-8197
For the Cheez Whiz lover: East Coaster at St. John's Bar & Grill
Though frequently maligned as a cheese impostor, the saltiness and velvety mouthfeel of Cheez Whiz make it the ideal complement to the rich fattiness of ribeye. Photo by Zack Fernandes.
St. John's in Sunnyvale is best known for their barbecue, which you're likely to smell smoking gently on their grill as you walk up to the entrance, but the restaurant also devotes an entire section of its menu to the cheesesteak.
Though there are many cheesesteak options on their menu, including cajun and hickory seasoned sandwiches, St. John's offers the most classic of Philly cheesesteaks, which they dub the East Coaster. Featuring thinly sliced ribeye, grilled onions almost to the point of caramelization and a generous helping of Cheez Whiz, the only way the East Coaster cheesesteak could be more East Coast is if they swapped the bag of Lay's Classics served with each sandwich for Utz potato chips.
St. John's Bar & Grill // 510 Lawrence Expressway, Ste. 110, Sunnyvale; 408-738-8515
For the homesick: The Cheese Steak Shop
If the logo featuring the Liberty Bell doesn't make you feel like you're in Philadelphia, perhaps the Amoroso rolls will; The Cheese Steak Shop uses the ubiquitous Italian rolls from Philadelphia for all its sandwiches. To the soft roll, they add sliced sirloin steak and gooey white American cheese. If you're feeling hungry, opt for "The King of Philly," which comes with an extra half-serving of steak and cheese.
It's not just the Amoroso rolls that are sourced from Philadelphia — which the shop also sells for use at home. The Cheese Steak Shop sells Tastykakes too, the famed Philadelphia baked goods found in every supermarket, pharmacy, hoagie shop and Wawa or Sheetz convenience store in the state of Pennsylvania. Grab a Butterscotch Krimpet with your next sandwich for the full Philly experience.
The Cheese Steak Shop //832 W. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale; 408-530-8159
For a crowd: Amato's 24-inch Cheesesteak
What looks like lunch for a family of four is technically one “whole” cheesesteak, according to Amato’s menu. Maybe stick with a seven-inch Shorty and save room for some of those curly fries. Photo by Zack Fernandes.
Bill Dill and his wife Leda Amato Dill opened Amato's first location on Saratoga Ave. in San Jose in 1997 because they "couldn't find a good cheesesteak," in the Bay Area, according to Dill. The couple had just moved from Pennsauken, New Jersey, and sold their house to be able to afford to open Amato's.
When a friend and I arrived for lunch and ordered one of Amato's 24-inch cheesesteaks to share, the cashier only had one question, and it wasn't about what toppings I wanted. "Do you know how big that is?" she asked. It was a good idea to check, as Amato's uses a whopping two pounds of Harris Ranch top round beef (sliced in-house) in their 24-inch cheesesteaks. The gargantuan sandwich, topped with white American cheese and grilled onions, was enough food to leave leftovers for both me and my dining companion, though Amato's Facebook page and Instagram feed show the smiling faces of a brave few who have completed the "Amato's Challenge" by eating the entire sandwich in a single sitting.
If you're not much of a competitive eater, try the "Shorty," a diminutive seven-inch sandwich in comparison, though still a full meal with 8oz of beef in it. Despite Dill's South Jersey roots, he's not a fan of provolone on his sandwiches, so order one as he'd have it — with white American cheese and grilled onions.
Amato's // 1162 Saratoga Ave., San Jose; 408-246-4007
For the spice-lover: Philly Bistec at Cuban Kitchen
You've already broken some rules, so just go ahead and amp up the spice on your Philly Bistec with Cuban Kitchen's Cienfuegos habanero hot sauce. Photo by Zack Fernandes.
When Lynna Martinez opened Cuban Kitchen in San Mateo with the help of her daughter Lilah Arrazcaeta, they wanted to include a nod to the East Coast in the form of a cheesesteak crossed with a Cuban sandwich (which the restaurant specializes in). The restaurant's East Coast roots run deep, as Martinez operated a food truck, QBA (pronounced Cuba, but also an acronym for Quick But Authentic) in the northern New Jersey and New York City area before relocating to the Bay Area.
Though spiritually a cheesesteak, the Philly Bistec more closely aligns with its Cuban cousins on the menu, featuring the same Cuban bread, house-made sweet and spicy habanero pickles and Swiss cheese used on the restaurant's other sandwiches. Even the preparation of the beef embraces a degree of Cuban influence, with sirloin steak marinated and then seasoned with a "proprietary" blend of spices before cooking, according to the restaurant. The sandwich is served with Cuban Kitchen's Guantanamo sauce, a mayo-based aioli.
Cuban Kitchen //3799 S. El Camino Real, San Mateo; 650-627-4636
For the antagonist: The Gem at Hidden Spot
The aptly named Hidden Spot, tucked away in the Hometown Heroes sports bar in South San Francisco, is offering up what is decidedly the most gourmet take on the humble cheesesteak to grace this list, sure to ruffle some Philly feathers.
The Gem features Angus steak, chopped on a flat-top with mushrooms, grilled onions and both provolone and Muenster cheeses. The restaurant offers optional toppings of lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, banana peppers, red onions and jalapeños, though the sandwich is rich and deeply flavorful without all of those things, featuring plenty of umami from the well-integrated beef, mushrooms and cheese.
Hidden Spot also offers a choice of bread, with diners able to choose between a French, sourdough or Dutch crunch roll. Though the French roll may be closest to the Italian rolls used in Philadelphia, the jagged and craggy veneer of the Dutch crunch roll's exterior is a worthy textural contender to the soft and unctuous beef and cheese mixture.
Hidden Spot // 303 Grand Ave., South San Francisco; 650-872-4484
Bonus: It's not a cheesesteak, but…: Cheesesteak Spring Rolls at Town
Although this list began as a transplant's search for an authentic Philadelphia experience, sandwiches on this list like the Gem and the Philly Bistec have taught me to keep an open mind. In trying to fanatically preserve the rigid definitions of our favorite foods, it's easy to miss out on some startling (and delicious) innovation — like the Philly Cheesesteak Spring Rolls at Town.
Though almost always consumed as an entrée, the Philly cheesesteak has all the hallmarks of a great appetizer: cheesy, salty and juicy enough to stand up to a deep-fryer.
At Town in San Carlos, they take little bites of steak, American cheese, provolone and onions encased in a spring roll wrapper and deep-fry them until perfectly crunchy. Served with horseradish sauce and a spicy ketchup on the side, the spring rolls are just as good eaten plain, preferably piping hot, while the cheese is still gooey and runny.
Town // 716 Laurel St., San Carlos; 650-595-3003