The first sign of a great Philly steak sandwich? The cling-clang of a spatula on a grill. That’s when you know a joint is grilling a Philly the way the cheesesteak gods intended: made to order on a hot griddle.
This summer, I’ve been searching for the perfect Philly cheesesteaks, which are sandwiches built on a sturdy bun, stuffed with chopped, griddled steak and dotted with peppers and onions. Melted cheese turns it into a cheesesteak. They’re named after the city in which they were created.
Back in 2009, I rated Tacoma’s DelBrocco’s and Philly Joe’s at the top of my Philly sandwich list. Both places were fast-casual sandwich shacks with great sandwiches. Both are gone now, leaving what I consider a dearth of good Philly cheesesteaks. When I went looking to find replacements, I wound up at seven stops from Federal Way to Tacoma. I’m still searching for a perfect Philly sandwich, but every restaurant here made a sandwich with one element that I appreciated. I stuck to casual eateries and sandwich shops rather than sit-down restaurants.
My list of Philly cheesesteak demands stayed pretty basic: The roll should be sturdy but soft; the steak should be a fattier cut of steak like ribeye, sizzled on the edges and chopped in such a way that the meat is still identifiable. The peppers and onions should have browned edges and very little snap. I gave extra points for any restaurant that offered Cheez Whiz, as is protocol for cheesesteak restaurants in Philadelphia, where the Philly is a matter of civic pride.
I won’t call any of these sandwiches “authentic” because, as every food writer knows, as soon as you call something authentic, natives will line up to list reasons why they’re not. I don’t want to start a Pat’s-versus-Geno’s-style smackdown, so let’s just say that while these sandwiches may or may not be authentic, they’re all pretty tasty for one reason or another. Read on.