Jim Pappas steps up to the counter at Mike’s BBQ with high expectations and a sense of accomplishment.
He orders the South Philly barbecue joint’s brisket cheesesteak — meltingly tender brisket, house-made whiz, and onions folded into a Carangi seeded roll. As he waits for his sandwich, he explains to the man behind the register why a photographer is present, documenting this momentous occasion: It’s the 500th cheesesteak Pappas has eaten in 20 months’ time.
“Wow, congratulations,” the man exclaims. “That’s insane.”
Three years ago, Pappas, 56, a Delaware County native, started working as an Uber and Lyft driver. He and his wife had divorced, his kids were grown, and he had moved to the Wilmington area.
“I was trying to find what to do with the second half of my life,” Pappas says.
Around May 2018, he reconnected with a childhood friend, and the two decided they could hang out together while visiting new cheesesteak joints. He’d solicit his ride-sharing customers’ recommendations to shake things up.
“When I started, my friends were like, ‘What are you doing? You’re an idiot. Everybody knows where to get a good cheesesteak.’”
It didn’t take long before this friendship exercise became a mission — a cheesesteak adventure: “I got the passion, I realized there was something there.”
Pappas developed a scoring system, initially a 35-point rubric. “Luckily,” Pappas says, “I have another friend who enjoys telling me when I’m doing something stupid. He told me, ‘35-point grading system? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard in my entire life. That means nothing. You guys gotta make it out of 100.’ ” And so he did. He grades steaks on the roll, meat, cheese, extras, and the shop’s overall atmosphere. (Craft beer offerings will boost the total; cranky service will lower it.) It’s all tracked in a meticulous Google spreadsheet on his website, philadelphiacheesesteakadventure.com.
He began eating several a week, sometimes two a day. With each sandwich, his cheesesteak insight grew: Were the mushrooms fresh or canned? Did the onions spend time on the grill? Was the cheese mixed into the meat, or just melted on top? What bakery made the roll — and was it toasted?
Driving passengers took him to new corners of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, and everywhere he went, discoveries abounded. At Hunt’s Annex Lounge in Woodlyn, he had a cheesesteak served on Texas toast. (According to the spreadsheet, “it was fantabulous!!”) Lawrence Township’s Meatheadz won him over with “the Drippin’ Steak,” rib-eye with provolone on an Amoroso roll dipped in au jus. At Reading’s Ugly Oyster, he balked, then swooned over peanuts — a 75-cent extra: “Peanuts are an amazing treat on a cheesesteak.” He reveled in the goodness of garlic bread cheesesteaks, of which there are too many to count.
He hit 275 steaks around May 2019. But “May is a tough time to have an anniversary,” Pappas says, so he set out to hit a nice round number — 500 — by Christmas 2019. He ratcheted up the pace in October, aiming for 10 steaks a week. He and his friends ate nine during a two-day trip to the Jersey Shore. (If he’s not joined by friends when he’s eating, Pappas stops at half a sandwich and gives the other half away. To stay trim, he walks 3 miles every day.)
In the end, he ate his 500th steak on Jan. 8, two weeks after Christmas.
Sporting a Philadelphia Cheesesteak Adventure zip-up (adorned with a waving cheesesteak-man logo), Pappas sits at one of the tables in Mike’s BBQ, the brisket sandwich on a tray before him. He pulls out his phone to take a video as he begins to assess.
“I’m telling you, Jenn. I’m a little concerned already.”
He tucks in to the sandwich, chews, and considers. “I can bite and manipulate and make sure I get cheese with meat,” he says. A gob of whiz clings to his beard. "It’s good but ... you really need bite discipline, and you need a fork.
“This is one of those deals where everything’s great individually, but it’s up to you, the eater, to make sure you taste it together,” he concludes. “You have to know what you’re doing.”
Pappas has no shortage of cheesesteak know-how. Asked if he’s ready to stop, he says no. “This is the beginning.”