Cheesesteak or Hoagie: Which sandwich rules in Philadelphia?

I’m writing this from Philadelphia, where I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sandwiches. In the City of Brotherly Love, you can’t help it, really.

Any city with one signature sandwich can count itself pretty lucky. There’s Boston and the lobster roll, New Orleans and the po’ boy, Baltimore and the crab cake sandwich, San Francisco and pretty much anything pressed between two thick slices of sourdough.

But Philadelphia can claim, pretty irrefutably, to have two signature sandwiches: the steak sandwich and the hoagie.

And so, the visitor to Philly is left to wonder whether one holds greater sway. Can one be singled out as the Philadelphia sandwich?

Don’t look for the city to help in this debate. A few years back, City Hall here named the hoagie Philly’s official sandwich. But it has always seemed to me that the steak sandwich — and more specifically, the cheesesteak — has a better claim to that title: It was, after all, invented here, unlike the hoagie, which is just the local name for an Italian sandwich, likely invented by immigrant workers in New York at the turn of the last century.

Over the years, I’ve occasionally asked Philly locals about the two and the opinion breaks pretty much down the middle in terms of which sandwich rules.

Let’s talk about the virtues of both.
The hoagie — or “hero” in New York; “sub,” “grinder,” or “torpedo” elsewhere) is, as I said, essentially an Italian sandwich, meaning various Italian meats, provolone, trimmings and the like on a long roll.

Philly does have its own take on the sandwich, however. Technically, a hoagie features only one Italian meat (salami, for instance), provolone, along with antipasto salad and topped only with olive oil (as opposed to mayo or mustard in other interpretations). In practice, though, you can stack a hoagie with a variety of meats and throw different spices and oils on it. That’s how most places here that claim to make the city’s best hoagie distinguish themselves, by putting little twists on the original. I’m all in favor of these, so long as the hoagie comes out cold — “hot hoagies” are an abomination.

The Philadelphia steak sandwich is simplicity itself. The authentic version only requires two ingredients: thin slices of steak, grilled onions. The steak has to be thin to chop easily on the grill (interpretations of the steak sandwich elsewhere too often substitute steak tips). The onions are key: grilled to the point where they are nearly caramelized, when married to the chopped steak the union drips a sweat grease that soaks into the roll and gives the sandwich its taste. As for cheese, you can choose American or provolone or other fancy offerings, but the real deal blue-collar deal uses Cheez Whiz, which blankets the entire business with yellow-orange goodness.

Do I have a preference? I probably come out on the side of the steak sandwich, given its local roots. But I seldom miss a chance to have a hoagie when in town as well. Here are some places that make the best of both.

For hoagies, I like Carmen’s in the Reading Terminal Market off Market St. (215-592-7799). Primo Hoagies (2043 Chestnut St. / 215-496-8488) and Lee’s Hoagie House (4034 Walnut St. / 215-387-0905) are both chains that routinely win citywide awards for their hoagies; what makes Lee’s so good is the “secret oil” they put on their sandwiches. Sarcone’s Deli (734 S. 9th St. / 215-922-1717) and Slack’s Hoagie Shack (1619 Grant Ave. / 215-673-9888) are also good options.

For steak sandwiches, two places face off (literally) in their claims to make the city’s most authentic: Pat’s Steaks and Geno’s Steaks have held down the same corner on 9th St. at the intersection of Wharton and Passyunk for years, and are both rightfully considered Philly institutions. Pat’s can lay claim to being the birthplace of the steak sandwich, having cooked up the first one in 1930. Both have become tourist traps over the years (with prices, $7-$9 for a sandwich, to reflect that) but are still worth the visit. Jim’s Steaks (400 South St. / 215-928-1911) serves the best along popular South Street. Sonny’s Famous Steaks (228 Market St. / 215-629-5760) is probably the best steak sandwich you can find in Old City. Rick’s Steaks recently had to close its location in the Reading Terminal Market, where it had been a fixture for 25 years. Now it operates a seasonal stand at Citizen’s Bank Park, the home of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Got a particular favorite?