On February 4, 2018 (my mother’s birthday!), the Philadelphia Eagles finally won the Super Bowl. Yes! As a long-suffering Eagles fan, I made sure I ate plenty of cheesesteaks for good luck during the playoff run. This has inspired me to write a guide to the Philadelphia Cheesesteak, from the perspective of a transplanted Philly boy living in Southern California. This post is an introduction to Philadelphia Cheesesteaks in San Diego as I start my quest to find the best in the area.
Because I grew up in Philadelphia, I have been eating cheesesteaks since the 1970s. When I moved to San Diego in 1991, about the only place I could find that had a true Philly Cheesesteak was the Philadelphia Sandwich Company. This place is still going strong, but in recent years the number of cheesesteak places in San Diego has both expanded and contracted. It is going to be a long, possibly quixotic, quest to find the best one.
A cheesesteak is not the healthiest food choice. In high school, I ate them at least twice a week, but, back then, my metabolism was a little stronger. In most cases, I got them from the corner deli or Wawa convenience type stores. The big tourist places such as Pat and Geno’s were largely unknown, even to people in Philly. Outside of Philadelphia, hardly anyone had heard of cheesesteaks.
Today, the “Philadelphia Cheesesteak” is well-known in popular culture. You can find a cheesesteak on the menu of almost any restaurant that specializes in a broad range of general American food. Many of these sandwiches are quite good, but bear little resemblance to the cheesesteak I grew up with. So, my quest is for the cheesesteak I remember from my teenage years.
For a great overview of the history of cheesesteaks and a guide to the best places in Philadelphia check out The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book. This book lists several places outside Philadelphia, including two of our San Diego Favorites (Alex’s Brown Bag and Gaglione Brothers)
Cheesesteaks in San Diego
I have eaten at many of the San Diego cheesesteak places over the years. The problem when doing a summary of the best cheesesteak is, as I have gotten slightly healthier in my eating habits, my cheesesteaks are unfortunately few and far between. This means to do a best of analysis it is going to take several months and detailed note taking. The plan is to revisit old favorites as, well as newcomers.
The only detailed analysis of Philly Cheesesteaks in San Diego I could find was from the San Diego Reader back in 2012. In a short period, author Ian Pike went to the Philly Grill, Gaglione Brothers, Philly Station, Eddie’s Place, Pop’s Jersey Style, Alex’s Brown Bag, Giorgino’s, Ultimate Philly’s, Jin’s Grill, Philly Frank’s and Philly Steak Subs. I have been to most of those places, but sadly I will never get to some, as the ones I haven’t been too are now out of business. They include Jin’s Grill, Ultimate Philly’s, and Philly Grill (I don’t include mall court chain Philly Station).
Two of our favorite places, Eddie’s Place and Pop’s Jersey Style, are sadly also out of business. The other places are all on my top list and due for revisiting. In addition, I am checking out long-time favorite Philadelphia Sandwich Company and some new places I haven’t visited.
In Philadelphia, most cheesesteak places I went to also served a wider variety of food. In many cases, great cheesesteaks were found in pizza places. Growing up one of my favorite things was the pizza steak with marinara sauce. Now, I prefer a more traditional cheesesteak, but from my childhood experiences in Philly I am not sure what is “traditional.” That starts with the cheese.
Many people talk about Cheez Whiz as a requirement for an authentic Philly cheesesteak. In my experience, I never had Cheez Whiz growing up, even as a choice. Generally, the default was a white American cheese until I learned to request provolone (I did not like cheesesteaks for a while until I had provolone). Cheez Whiz seems to have caught the public attention as the default topping, but many places in Philly refused to serve Whiz until tourist pressure demanded it. My wife loves Whiz, but I am a pure provolone guy.
The cheese debate is indicative of my whole attitude towards regional cuisine. Who cares if it authentic, as long as it is good. I had my first Chicago deep dish pizza in Nashville, Tennessee with a friend from Chicago who had never tried deep dish pizza. I lived in Nashville for two years in the 1980s and never had Nashville hot chicken. Going back to Nashville, I find hot chicken is all the rage, but really only in the past decade did most Nashville people get introduced to it.
There is no such thing as an authentic Philly Cheesesteak. Marinara sauce, mushrooms, peppers, ketchup are all legit. Where it gets very sketchy is if they have mayo or choices like swiss cheese as default options. When John Kerry was running for president, he tried to order a cheesesteak with Swiss cheese at Pat’s. That is not cool, but in reality, a cheesesteak is cheap grilled meat on a bun and, in my experience, anything goes.
You hear a great deal about how you can’t get a good cheesesteak outside of Philly because of the bread. A bakery in the Philadelphia area, Amoroso’s, has looked to solve that problem by freezing loaves and shipping them to cheesesteak places around the country. So now, many regional cheesesteak places can say they serve their sandwiches on bread “flown in from Amoroso’s in Philadelphia.”
Amoroso is okay, but it is more of a factory. The best Philly cheesesteak places have their own bread providers. My favorite has been the Conshohocken Bread Company, but there are many others. In Philadelphia, Amoroso is on the low end. In Philadelphia last summer I was talking to the owner of one of the top cheesesteak shops. He said he wanted to open a shop in San Diego but didn’t know how he would get the bread. I mentioned Amoroso and he just laughed and said that doesn’t count as real bread. Hopefully, one day, a Southern California cheesesteak place or bakery will learn to do a great cheesesteak/hoagie roll.
Lets go back to toppings. A cheesesteak needs toppings. The most traditional is grilled onions and you hear stories about people asking “wit,” as in do you want grilled onions. To me that is more of a tourist thing and it was never a problem about getting onions or not. The bigger decision was around the cherry hot peppers.
Spicy food was not as prevalent in the early 1980s, and one of my first spicy food loves was cheesesteaks with red hot cherry peppers. This was something I didn’t find until recently in Southern California, it was truly a Philly thing. To me a cheesesteak needs some kind of hot pepper. In San Diego, cheesesteak places are catching on and adding their own custom pepper bars.
But, that is just my opinion. I think, when it comes to cheesesteaks, to each his own. The cheesesteak is really the precursor to the make your own sandwich. As in, “yes wit onions,” extra hot peppers,” “add some marinara,” etc. This is a grill chef cooking sandwiches to order at its most basic. As in the chef yelling, “I got lots of meat on the grill with a whole line of customers, how do you want it served, hurry up, don’t waste my time.”
The Make Your Own Revolution
Mainly what I want to look for is something that doesn’t take it too seriously. When people say “it must have Whiz (or any other cheese),” “it must be on an Amoroso roll,” “don’t dare put ketchup on it,” etc. that is not a Philly cheesesteak. To me, Philadelphia, with cheesesteaks and the hoagie, invented the make your own sandwich movement.
Everyone is used to making their own sandwiches, as in hold the pickles, extra mayo etc. But really, I think this is where Philly’s true sandwich legacy lies. I remember the Subway chain exploded in the 1980s and 1990s, and it was really an expansion of what I had known in Philly stores like the Wawa chain (basically a really good 7-11). This concept has expanded to Mexican food (Chipotle) and pizza (many of those make your own chains I predict soon to go out of business).
To me a Philly cheesesteak is whatever you make it, within parameters. A place with a preset “Philly Cheesesteak” (which usually adds mayo, mushrooms, peppers, etc as default) automatically loses huge points for being pre-defined. You need to make your own version of a Philly cheesesteak, from choice of cheese, to the choice of toppings.
As mentioned, most Philly cheesesteak places I grew up with also served other food, most notably hoagies. From the failure rate of dedicated cheesesteak shops in San Diego, I can say this is probably a prudent decision. Even at the height of my Philly cheesesteak eating years I knew I needed the turkey sandwich break. A good Philadelphia hoagie is its own work of art, and I think many San Diego places are just getting around to putting the effort into also making a great hoagie.
Finding a Good Cheesesteak in San Diego
I moved away from Philadelphia long ago, in 1983. Since then the cheesesteak scene has exploded. Older places have become famous, while new places like Tony Luke’s have entered the scene. I go back to Philly every two years or so and always try and hit one of the premium shops. There are lots of them and the problem I have is that, even a mediocre cheesesteak is pretty good. It is just that rare greasy delight that is kind of hard to judge when you don’t eat that type of food too often.
So my goal in trying to judge cheesesteaks is to get as close to that Philadelphia experience, knowing that there is no such thing as a true “Philadelphia Cheesesteak experience.” This will take time and some extra exercise on my part. I do think there are some great cheesesteaks in San Diego, but none can top memories of my top ones growing up in Philly.
Narrowing Down the List
The quest now is to get a reasonable list of cheesesteak places to try in San Diego. In Philadelphia this would be impossible, but when we start eliminating pretenders we can narrow it down in San Diego. Basically, a Philly cheesesteak place could be a great sandwich place, or a great pizza or hamburger joint. However, they need to have a major focus on Philly cheesesteaks.
Focusing on Philly cheesesteaks means they need to have a great deal of ability to add-on and customize toppings. In most cases this will eliminate the chain type restaurants with a pre-set “Philly Cheesesteak” that will often come with items like Swiss cheese or mayo by default. A cheesesteak is grilled to order meat that a customer can add on whatever they choose (I will note, the large Philadelphia tourist shops grill so much meat they have it sitting in piles which is not quite fresh to order).
Philadelphia Cheesesteaks in San Diego
As we go through our list we may try looking at hoagies and other side items. However, that will not be our primary focus. Our goal is to tackle places in roughly this order:
- Philadelphia Sandwich Company
- Philly Franks
- Gaglione Brothers
- The Cheesesteak Grill
- Philly Steak Subs
- Alex’s Brown Bag
- Steak N Fries
- Monkey Paw
- Tony’s Giant Pizzeria (formerly the Philly Grill)
This will take awhile and I am sure new places will pop up. Let us know your favorites!