How many great cheesesteaks are there in the Philadelphia region? Far more than I and my four high-school-age eating machines could sample in four days. I'd still like to get to Leo's Steaks in Delaware County and sample the steak at Shank's & Evelyn's in South Philly. Even so, the cheesesteak tasting team made a serious dent, putting 23 restaurants to a triple-header test, basing our rating (with 5 being the best) on three styles of steaks - traditional, specialty, and chicken.
5 (Best) - Cheesesteak Paradise
John's Roast Pork, Snyder Avenue and Weccacoe Street, Philadelphia. This sandwich shack has existed in delicious obscurity since 1930. Aside from serving the city's best pork sandwiches, chef-owner John Bucci Jr. unanimously swept all three categories of the cheesesteak competition, serving up zestily seasoned, perfectly seared beef and chicken steaks on crusty rolls with real cheese and garlicky spinach. It's open only weekdays through lunch.
4 - Worth Busting the Diet
Tony Luke's Old Philly Style Sandwiches, 39 E. Oregon Ave., Philadelphia. Crusty housebaked rolls, bitter broccoli rabe and aged provolone give the hefty steak Italian a gutsy neighborhood flair, and the neon-lit awning lends the South Philly location an authentic ambience. The Rittenhouse Square outpost has the food, but none of the ambience.
Chink's Steaks, 6030 Torresdale Ave., Philadelphia. Step into a time warp at this marvelously preserved soda shop, where chocolate egg creams and frothy shakes are the ideal pairing for what may be the most succulent traditional soft-roll American cheesesteak in town. The restaurant's monicker is the late founder's nickname.
McNally's H & J Tavern, 8634 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia. This unmarked tavern in Chestnut Hill produces one of the region's great specialty cheesesteaks, the Schmitter, a steak-and-salami fantasy on a kaiser roll. The marinated chicken steak was also one of the best of the poultry genre.
3 - Will Satisfy the Craving
Geno's Steaks, 1219 S. Ninth St., Philadelphia. This South Philly institution easily bested rival Pat's on the day of our tasting. The steaks were meaty and full of juicy drip.
Sonny's Famous Steaks, 216 Market St., Philadelphia. The owner of this Old City newcomer takes her traditional steak seriously, slicing the domestic beef to order, and insisting on real Cheez Whiz (imagine!). The result is a superbly tender, flavorful sandwich - as long as you keep it simple.
Chick's Deli of Cherry Hill, 906 Township Lane, Cherry Hill. I have fond memories of savoring chicken steaks from this back-alley find off Route 70 when I worked in Jersey years ago. But it was the beef steak this time that moved me, a perfect blend of flowing cheese, sweet onions and tender meat.
White House Sub Shop, Mississippi and Arctic Avenues, Atlantic City. The light and crusty roll makes the steak at this casino-city institution.
Real Pizza, 100 N. Narberth Ave., Narberth. This low-key neighborhood pizzeria turned out a very respectable assortment of steaks, the most remarkable being a pizza steak, which gets excellent sauce, real pizza cheese and a smart turn in the oven to crisp the top of the roll.
Donkey's Place, 1223 Haddon Ave., Camden. Imitated to great acclaim by an eatery in Manhattan, Donkey's specialty is a fistful of flavor on a kaiser roll.
Steve's Prince of Steaks, 2711 Comly Rd., Philadelphia. This outpost of the Northeast chain is a stainless- steel food bar trimmed with whiteand- black tile and a bulletproof glass viewing window. The unchopped meat has a minimalist effect, but is very tasty, with a particularly oozy white American cheese.
Abner's, 38th and Chestnut Streets, Philadelphia. At this University City institution, the standard steak was too dry and too finely chopped, but the pizza steak variation was a hit, with sauce and cheese that melded with the meat.
Grilladelphia, 2330 Aramingo Ave., Philadelphia. It gets points for turning one end of an Amoco station convenience store into a serious steakery. The hollowed-out round rolls are unusual, but the steaks themselves are satisfying fare.
2 - If You Had To
Mama's Pizzeria, 426 Belmont Ave., Bala Cynwyd. This Main Line darling has a particularly pink and frilly dining room as well as a secret blend of cheeses. Unfortunately, there was way too much of that cheese, overwhelming what would otherwise be some tasty, finely shredded steaks, including the house special, hamwrapped Cordon Bleu.
Rick's Steaks, Reading Terminal Market, 12th and Arch Streets, Philadelphia. At this Reading Terminal spot, the quality of the unchopped meat is decent. But it doesn't get seasoned, and there wasn't enough of it.
Lenny's Italian Deli, Ninth and Fayette Streets, Conshohocken. This spot was a personal favorite when it was the pork sandwich haven known as Mastrocola's. But the team was shocked and dismayed when the new owner reheated our steak from cooked meat sitting in Tupperware by the grill. We were even more shocked, though, to admit how good it tasted.
Dalessandro's, Henry Avenue and Walnut Lane, Philadelphia. The staff couldn't be nicer at this Roxborough classic, but the huge mound of steaming, mass-cooked beef on the griddle has a dryness that soaks the drip out its generous sandwiches.
Jim's Steaks, 431 N. 62d St., Philadelphia. The other branches got their black-andwhite tile deco style from the original in West Philly, which is a sentimental favorite of my eating team. I'll cede this Jim's some of the best fried onions in town, but even the partisans had to admit the meat was stringy.
Jim's Steaks, 400 South St., Philadelphia. A tourist favorite, this art-deco stop gives a good hot schmear of Whiz, but the meat is a little tough and the sandwich is inconsistent.
1 - Save the Calories
Pat's King of Steaks, 1237 E. Passyunk Ave. The inventor of the steak is coasting on its reputation, serving up puny, gristle-laced sandwiches at a famous corner that could use a good scrub.
Campo's, 214 Market St., Philadelphia. With dried roses hanging in the bathroom, this was by far the quaintest steak shop on the tour. Unfortunately, the sandwiches were also far too polite, with parsimonious portions and sterile flavors.
Ishkabibble's Eatery, 337 South St., Philadelphia. This South Street take-out window is famous for its chicken steaks, but we don't know why. The precooked breasts were smashed into such dry fibers it was like eating chicken drywall.
Larry's Famous Steaks, 2459 N. 54th St., Philadelphia. The home of the five-pound "belly filler" was a bust: Too much food piled onto a single, flabby roll, and it was unseasoned and of low quality.