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The cheesesteak project

Eat cheesesteaks for class credit? Four high school students joined Craig LaBan on a quest for the best example of Philadelphia's gift to world cuisine.

Top of the heap: John Bucci Jr. and his mother, Vonda, serve up
succulent steaks at John’s Roast Pork in South Philly.
Top of the heap: John Bucci Jr. and his mother, Vonda, serve up succulent steaks at John’s Roast Pork in South Philly.Read moreAkira Suwa / Inquirer Staff Photographer

When Josh Brawer announced to his parents what he and three friends were planning for their senior project at Lower Merion High School, the reaction was skeptical.

"C'mon," said Josh's father, David. "You're going to go around eating cheesesteaks for a month? You've got to be kidding me."

To David Brawer, the projects tended to divide the high school seniors into two groups. There were the kids who'd take the month off before graduation to do something socially active, such as work for a charity or a political campaign. And there were the others, who'd do nothing but hang out at the old man's office.

In other words, the do-gooders and the slackers.

Josh's cheesesteak adventure sounded - at least in the beginning - suspiciously as if he'd be joining the ranks of the latter. It sounded like a scam.

But it didn't seem silly to me when I was asked to mentor this project. Josh and his classmates Andy Shore, Jeffrey Steinberg and Tommy Conry would become my eating team.

After all, they were trying to answer one of the great culinary questions of our time: Who makes the best cheesesteak?

Talk about ambition. No food has defined our region more than this double-fisted roll of gusto. Nothing cuts across class lines, or bonds the generations with more unifying power, than a steaming-hot steak "wid" or "widout." (That's wid onions, if you have to ask.) The topic is an endless obsession, from gym locker rooms to the pages of the local media to Steinberg's car every time he and his buddies headed out of school for yet another lunch-period steak adventure.

Which is the best? Settling this question (at least once, though probably not for all) is a matter of regional preoccupation and a rite of gastronomic closure for these four friends about to leave for college. But it wouldn't be easy. Before it was over, the journey would take us more than 110 miles, through two states, 23 steakeries, 65-plus sandwiches and countless hours of challenging digestion.

In four days.

Read "How They Scored," with the final rankings by the Cheesesteak Project

Ever since the first time my dad took me to Geno's, we have shared an incredible bond. During the car ride home, we began to argue over what really made the steak. I believed that it was the Whiz, while he claimed that the Amoroso's roll was integral. Apparently, we were both wrong. -- Josh Brawer's cheesesteak diary

The anatomy of a cheesesteak would appear simple enough - roll, meat, cheese and toppings. But how would we know the merely good ones from greatness?

My new students were experienced in the ravenous joy of attacking a juicy sandwich. I could see that the moment we met:

Josh, the shy devotee of Classic Coke who loved to reminisce about his favorite cheesesteaks.

Jeff, the loquacious sophisticate, who had honed his palate during family dinners at the Palm.

Andy, who wasn't going to let the cast on his arm from a basketball mishap get between him and a sandwich.

Tommy, the meticulous note-taker and future plastics engineer.

Four wide-eyed 18-year-old cheesesteakaholics.

But they hesitated a moment when I informed them we would not be visiting a single steak shop that day, but several. Maybe even 20 if they could keep up. They were in the big leagues now. Their senior project was serious business. And it demanded a brief primer in the science of cheesesteak scrutiny.

There is the meat itself, I told them. It can range from rib-eye to top round to, yes, even beef knuckle (gulp!?). But most important, how it is cooked? Look at the color of the meat before it hits the griddle. Is it as faded as an unripe tomato, drained of its flavorful juices? Or does it have a fresh crimson blush, marbled with the lacy white lines of fat that will baste it?

Is the griddle a glorified factory, lined with a tall berm of precooked steaming meat? Or is each sandwich cooked to order, seared to a caramelized brown around the edges and placed on a roll still dripping its natural essence? Is it shredded to a hamburger fineness (a method I always find dry), or is the thinly sliced meat left largely intact? Is the meat seasoned?

This, we decided, was key. But there was so much more. The crusty rolls versus the soft ones. Whether the onions were fried to a sweet golden brown. The girth of the sandwich (for which we were armed with a ruler) mattered. So did the quality of the cheese (was it real Cheez Whiz, or imitation?) The fire of the chiles and sauces on the condiment bar counted for extra points. As did an authentic level of atty-tude at the cashier's window.

Ultimately, we judged each restaurant on three sandwiches: a traditional steak with Whiz or American cheese, a specialty steak, and a chicken cheesesteak.

The variations we found were numbing. In fact, Josh Brawer returned home from our forays so bursting with nuances of the day's investigations that his father - awakening to our project's critical merit – soon wrote me to address the "great chasm" between him and his son.

"I come from the Secret-to-a-Great-Cheesesteak-Lies-in-the-Roll School and I have not been able to convince him of this basic truism. I wish you would work with him on this."

If only it were so simple. The truth is that a transcendent steak must exist in perfect harmony, an ethereal melding of cheese and onion and juicy meat, swirling at the height of its flavors through your roll at that very moment you take a bite. Call it the perfect storm of steaks.

Jeffrey Steinberg has his own name for this elusive trait: Good Drip.

I placed it down and opened it a tiny bit just to glance at the onions, meat and cheese all united. I then took a large and scrumptious bite. The Whiz, oil and steak juice dripped out of the bottom. It was breathtaking. -- Jeffrey Steinberg's cheesesteak diary

Devotion to a particular cheesesteak is, for most Philadelphians, a territorial birthright.

If you are from Roxborough, for example, you will most likely consider a sandwich piled with finely chopped meat at Dalessandro's the quintessential steak. If you are from Bala Cynwyd, the cheesy pouf of shredded meat that plumps the roll at Mama's will define your preference. If you are from the Northeast, perhaps you were lucky enough to be weaned at Chink's on Torresdale Avenue, the charming old-time soda shop that, despite its un-PC name, serves one of the city's best traditional steaks. That's the only steak owners Joseph and Denise Groh will make - succulent rib-eye, American cheese, soft roll and onions.

If you are a visitor, a newly minted Philadelphian, or a night owl with a 2 a.m. case of the munchies, it is more likely that you have been initiated into the rites of steakerie at the corner of South Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue.

There's still something quintessentially Philadelphian about making a pilgrimage at least once to this particular crossroads, where rivals Geno's and Pat's King of Steaks stare at each other across the sharply angled intersection like neon battleships ready to rumble. Sandwiched between the clang of the auto body shop and the grunts of local boys playing hoops in the park, muscle cars cruise to a double-parked halt in the crosswalk. And the faithful hordes wait as long as it takes for the taste of a Whiz-slathered steak on their lips.

In local lore, Pat's King of Steaks has long been ceded the honor of having invented this delicacy (without cheese) in the 1930s. But if these rivals were the focus of our debate, it wouldn't last long. The tough-but-flavorful steak from Geno's was far superior in heft and drip to the skimpy, gristly sandwich from Pat's.

Neither titan, though, came close to snaring the crown. Nor did the sandwiches from two other tourist favorites - the dry hamburger-like steaks on squishy rolls at Jim's on South Street, and the bland, water-splashed skinnies at Rick's in the Terminal Market, a descendant of the Olivieri family that founded Pat's.

The best of the big-name eateries was Tony Luke's Old Philly Style Sandwiches on Oregon Avenue. Snug in the shadows of the I-95 overpass, it has all the genuine South Philly ambience one could want. The broad sidewalk awning is lit with yellow neon. The walls are covered with celebrity photos (though, as Tommy Conry observed, mostly of people who were "big back in the early '90s"). Even better, Tony Luke's has a staff that seems to relish heckling its clientele, a mix of businessmen, contractors and grandmothers, as well as police and paramilitary officers - ranking this among the best-armed lunch crowds in town.

A gunshot goes off somewhere in the distance. Not a soul in line flinches. Not with the promise of a juicy steak Italian - tender meat wrapped with broccoli rabe and aged provolone - snug inside one of the excellent house-baked rolls.

This was a true contender, but not quite the top. No, the real joy of cheesesteaks, the ultimate proof of their vitality as street food, is that the greatest sandwiches are still being cooked at some smaller places you might never have heard of.

The Schmitter, for example, was a wonderful sandwich layered between garlicky salami and tomatoes on a kaiser roll at the virtually unmarked McNally's H & J Tavern in Chestnut Hill (which also happens to make a superb chicken steak). But the Schmitter, we decided, was a fancy steak variation rather than a purely great steak. So was the kaiser steak with a mop-top of onions at Donkey's Place in Camden that was copied recently with wild success by an eatery in Manhattan.

We found our nirvana of steakdom at a take-out sandwich shack wedged between a train track and a chemical plant off Snyder Avenue near Columbus Boulevard. John's Roast Pork has been in business there since 1930, and its juice-drenched pork sandwiches are so good, it is little wonder I hadn't tried the steaks until I brought my posse here in search of a sleeper.

What we discovered was a rarity in second-generation owner John Bucci Jr.: a cook who knows what to do with a griddle, who plays the searing hot spots and cooler regions of his flat-top like a virtuoso. Frying each batch of meat and onions to order, deftly seasoning his steaks, strategically crumbling and folding his cheese into the middle, Bucci packed the marvelous seeded rolls from Carangi Baking Co. with nearly a pound of explosive flavors.

At the picnic tables outside, we took three bites and knew: Little John's had taken all three categories by unanimous decision. The traditional cheesesteak was a cosmic flow of meat and molten American cheese. The steak with sauteed spinach and salty aged provolone lit our palates. The chicken steak - usually the dieter's penance - was as succulent as anything we tasted, and even better with a dark streak of sausage-infused red gravy.

"Wow ... "

"This meat tastes so ... "

"I'm bringing my dad ... "

Their words kept disappearing into the sandwiches.

The catch is that John's grill is open only weekdays and only until 2:30 p.m. Wait too long after noon, and those seeded rolls will be gone, too.

"You gotta come early, kid," John Jr.'s mother, Vonda, told me curtly from behind the register. "We're dedicated here to the working man."

After I had eaten half I almost threw in the towel. Thank God my friends were there to save me. 'You wussy, eat the rest of your steak!' they shouted. Ten minutes later, I lay sprawled along the back seat of Jeff's car, reminiscing about the steak while falling asleep. -- Andy Shore's cheesesteak diary

By the end of our odyssey, my students had honed their skills to the point where, by merely opening a sandwich and inhaling its aroma, they knew whether it was worthy.

"I'm not going to eat that," said Andy the moment we dropped a floppy, five-pound "belly filler" from Larry's Famous Steaks on the table.

He was right, of course; this steak was a kitchen-sink mess.

Josh Brawer, too, had refined his tastes - even his dad had to admit that his son had "learned a lot. ... Go figure!" David Brawer also says their conversations now incorporate the nuances of steak shop talk. "I've never really been into talking about sports," David said, "but this has kind of taken the place of it."

But for these friends, going in search of the great cheesesteak, it turns out, was always about more than the consumption of an ultimate sandwich.

"For Josh and his buddies," said David Brawer, "I think it represented freedom. To be able to pile into the car and go to places that were, if not taboo, beyond the reach of parental control."

That thrill of adventure may explain, at least in part, their frequent lunch-hour visits to unfamiliar neighborhoods in the city.

It may be no coincidence that their final steak frenzy came in the weeks before their departure for college. Josh, Andy and Jeffrey were heading off to Penn State, while Tommy was going to the University of Michigan.

Sure, they passed their senior project. Their teachers were "impressed," Josh Brawer said, "that we actually learned something."

But it was also as if making the summer rounds of their favorite steakeries was finally cementing their roots in place. No one expressed this better than Tommy, the only one going out of state. He wrote in his cheesesteak journal:

I have known the true greatness of Cheese Whiz mixed with fried onions and fried-up steak, because I have Philly running through my veins (along with lots of cholesterol). ... Now that I am about to head out to the Midwest for college, only now that I am leaving the world of cheesesteaks behind, can I reflect on how lucky I was.

Craig LaBan is The Inquirer's restaurant critic. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or