Cheesesteaks “wit” all the right lingo.
Steeped in history, culture, and the arts, Philadelphia also boasts one of the country’s top food scenes. Before you go visit the City of Brotherly love, make sure you know how to order a cheesesteak like a Philly local. (Plus, an authentic cheesesteak recipe.)
I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs of Delaware County, PA. That’s Delco in local parlance. Growing up, ordering a cheesesteak was second nature, like breathing. Not until I went to college in the South did I learn how much artistic license (to put it kindly) had been taken with both the name and the filling.
Let’s get down to basics with the authentic way to order a real cheesesteak.
Philly Food History: The Birth of the Cheesesteak
Cheesesteaks date back to the 1930s, when a hotdog cart vendor named Pat Olivieri, bored of his usual fare, grilled up some thinly-sliced beef and put it on a hotdog roll. Legend has it that a passing cab driver smelled the steak sandwich and asked to try it. Pat shared his steak with the cab driver, who loved it.
Word spread, thanks in part to Pat’s aggressive marketing skills. Eventually the business went from cart to its brick-and-mortar location in South Philly.
The cheese part of cheesesteak came later, though stories vary. The people at Pat’s King of Steaks say that an employee added provolone cheese in the 19040s. The folks across the street at competing Geno’s Steaks say that they added the cheese in the 1960s.
How to Order a Cheesesteak
Philly-style steak sandwiches have made their way around the globe. You may find them listed on menus as “Philly cheesesteaks,” “Philly subs,” “Philly steak sandwiches,” “steak Philly,” and the like. These are Philly-inspired steak and cheese sandwiches. They are not, however, cheesesteaks.
Come to the Philadelphia region, and you’ll find cheesesteaks. Just cheesesteaks. And they are made in a very definitive way: thin-sliced ribeye cooked on a flattop griddle, stuffed into a hoagie roll with one of three acceptable cheeses, plus onion and pepper options.
So how do you order a cheesesteak in Philly? It breaks down into two main components: the cheese and the add-ons.
- The cheese. You can only choose from American, provolone, or Cheese Whiz. (I prefer extra American.) Those are the only options.
- The add-ons. You can choose toppings like fried onions “a cheesesteak wit” (as in “with”), a few hot pickled peppers, and that’s about it.
Here is an example of someone ordering a plain cheesesteak with extra American cheese, onions and hot peppers: “I’ll take a large cheesesteak with extra American and hot peppers, wit.”
Variation: If you are eating at a cheesesteak-only establishment, you can leave out the cheesesteak mention altogether and just say “I’ll take a large, extra-American and hot peppers, wit.”
Here’s an example of ordering a plain cheesesteak: “I’ll take a large provolone (cheesesteak) witout.”
How NOT to Order a Cheesesteak: Things to Avoid
1. Cheesesteaks should never be referred to by the following names while in the Philadelphia region. (“Philadelphia region” includes anywhere in Central and South Jersey, and anywhere southeast of Harrisburg.)
Never call cheesesteaks:
- Philly steaks
- Philly cheesesteaks
- Steak Philly
- Cheesesteak sub (anyway, there are no subs in Philadelphia, only hoagies)
- Basically, anything other than “cheesesteak.” Chicken cheesesteaks are acceptable. They are called chicken cheesesteaks. Same rules apply: They are not chicken steaks, chicken Phillies, and so on.
2. Do not ask for any cheese other than the aforementioned American, Whiz, or provolone. No cheddar. No Gruyère. No mozzarella. There are simply no other options.
John Kerry made an enormous unforced error in his 2003 Presidential campaign when the candidate, already battling an out-of-touch reputation, attempted to order a cheesesteak with Swiss cheese at Philly’s famed Pat’s King of Steaks. It did not go over well. In fact, the reverberations of the event are still analyzed in politics to this day, such as in this Economist article.
3. Watch your condiments.
No pickles, no ketchup (some may disagree with this, but they’re wrong), no mayo, no mustard, no nuthin’ like that. You can only get the add-ons listed above: mushrooms, fried onions, cheese, extra cheese, and hot peppers.
The Acceptable Cheesesteak Variations
Plain steak sandwiches and cheesesteaks “wit” or “witout” are the most common orders, but there are a few other variations you may want to know about.
- The pizza steak. If you order a cheesesteak with tomato sauce, you are ordering a pizza steak, not a “cheesesteak with tomato sauce.” This should be ordered with provolone cheese, which generally goes without saying. Example: “I’ll take a large pizza steak wit.”
- The pepper steak. Not everywhere has this, but if you see it on the menu, it means skillet-fried bell pepper slices added to the steak, usually with onions. Example: “I’ll have a large pepper steak wit, with American.”
- The mushroom steak. Same as above, but with mushrooms instead of peppers.
- The plain steak. Don’t want cheese? Say “steak sandwich,” or “plain steak sandwich.”
Now that you know how to order a cheesesteak in Philly, here’s how to make one at home.
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- Recipe: Authentic Philly Cheesesteaks
Authentic Philly Cheesesteak Sandwiches (+ How to Order One in Philly)
- 1 pound ribeye steak, sliced extremely thin
- 6 slices white American cheese, sliced deli provolone, or some Cheez Whiz (those are the only options)
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 2 soft deli rolls, sliced most of the way through (if you can find Amoroso brand, great!)
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil, such as canola
- Warm the split rolls in a 250°F oven until ready.
- Heat the oil in a wide-bottomed skillet over medium heat, preferably cast iron.
- Add the onions and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent and lightly browned, about 10 to 12 minutes.
- While the onion is cooking, slice the ribeye into extremely thin strips and pieces. Use ground beef as your inspiration, but stop before the beef reaches quite this size, and before cutting the beef to this smallness makes you insane. TIP: Cheesesteak shops cook cheesesteak beef on a flattop grill, and can chop the beef as it cooks. But you are cutting the beef this thinly now because it will be difficult to chop the beef once it is in a standard pan with sides.PRO TIP: A fantastic way to thinly slice beef is to slice it frozen. You will have much more control. You can add the frozen beef to the pan.
- Take the onions out of the pan and set them aside on a dish. Increase the heat to medium high. Add the steak, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and about 20 turns fresh black pepper. Cook for about 3 minutes, turning the beef occasionally. Stir the onions back into the beef when the steak looks about halfway done.
- Divide the cooked beef in the pan into two piles, about the length of each roll. Layer cheese slices on top of each, and let the cheese melt over the steak.
- Lay a split roll over each cheesy pile of beef, so it looks like an upside-down sandwich. Working one sandwich at a time, slide a long spatula beneath one pile of steak, and flip it right-side up onto a plate. Taste for seasoning. Repeat with the second cheesesteak.
- Serve hot.