Jim Pappas is a man on a mission, and the mission may or may not be impossible: to sample each and every cheesesteak in the tristate area.
Pappas, who grew up in Swarthmore and now lives in Wilmington, has eaten 275 of them since embarking on his journey last May. His quest for the ultimate cheesesteak has cost him thousands of dollars and taken him from Bear, Del., to Reading to Princeton.
After the 2008 economic crash precipitated the end of his 25-year career in financial services, his marriage broke up, and he weathered a leukemia diagnosis, Pappas, 56, “decided it was time to have fun." He started driving for Uber and Lyft, which took him to far-flung neighborhoods. After a conversation with a friend over cheesesteaks, he decided to combine his day job with a new hobby, asking his riders where the best steaks could be found.
Each stop is cataloged on Pappas’ blog, philadelphiacheesesteakadventure.com, with videos, pictures, reviews, and a spreadsheet.
Pappas likes to think each cheesesteak has something to offer, and has whittled his experiences into a “best-of” list on Philly Grub, which spotlights winners in 20 categories, such as “best brunch cheesesteak" (Coffee House Too, 2514 E. York St.) and “best date cheesesteak” (American Sardine Bar, 1800 Federal St.).
We talked to Pappas about controversial toppings, cheat days, and what’s next for his cheesesteak adventure.
After my wife and I separated, I’d reconnected with a friend and we were having cheesesteaks, and I said, “What do people do for fun?” I was 55, I don’t want to hang out in bars all the time. I started asking my Uber and Lyft riders what their favorite cheesesteak places were. It grew out of that, and the passion grew in me. It makes for a fun day, talking cheesesteaks.
I always get American cheese, mushrooms, lettuce and tomato. I score them in five categories: roll, meat, cheese, extras, and overall. I get a lot of grief for lettuce and tomatoes, but I started doing it to gauge the overall freshness. It tells a lot about how nice a place is. I do stick to American. Whiz, I completely dislike and avoid at all costs. Lately I’ve been doing garlic bread for the roll, if a place offers it. You should try it — it’s amazing. I’ve also gotten into adding wing sauce.
Probably 50,000 miles. Driving passengers, you usually end up somewhere new. It costs about $10 a cheesesteak, on average, so it’s been maybe close to $3,000 for the year.
I started only eating half of the cheesesteak, and giving the other half to a homeless person. Some people might eat cheesesteaks on their cheat days, but my “cheat” days are sushi, poke bowls, and salads. Lately I’ve been hitting the brewpubs more, so my doctor told me that as long as I keep drinking, it’s the alcohol that’s going to get me, not the cheesesteaks!
My younger daughter doesn’t want to talk too much about it. I posted a picture with her once, then she went back to her ham and cheese. My older daughter is a better sport, she went with me a few times to places. We went with some of her friends to do the Pat’s and Geno’s challenge, so she’s on board. And some friends love it, I’ve met people at Reading Terminal and other places. Overall, people enjoy it a lot more than they want to come forward and say.
I guess I thought I would get sick of cheesesteaks. A lot of people said that. But there is a difference between a regular cheesesteak and one made by a person who really cares about what they’re doing.
I’m a guest on a podcast, Dining on a Dime, and there’s another guest named Jim, so we’re talking about doing a Jim 1 vs. Jim 2 challenge where we go to a well-known place and a lesser-known place. I got together a panel and we’re going to start testing my best-of list. I want people to send me their cheesesteak videos. I got T-shirts, I got some cheesesteak swag I’m trying to exchange for information.