We remember it as if it were yesterday . . . the promotional two-for-one sale; the sweet smell of rib eye sizzling away on the griddle; the complimentary mints and Wetnap in every takeout bag. When BB Sandwich Bar opened on West 3rd Street in the spring of 2002, it heralded—nay, precipitated—the great New York Cheesesteak Boom, a fast-food phenomenon that’s spread so fast it seems impossible to remember life before Cheez Whiz.
For the record, BB never purported to be slinging authentic Philly cheesesteaks. But ever since it introduced its heretical take on the iconic grease bomb (sliced steak; American cheese; fancy, eight-hour fried onions; and an outrageous red-pepper condiment, all scandalously served on a kaiser roll), certain others have felt duty bound to leap to the defense of the real thing. Thus began heated debates on every aspect of proper cheesesteak production—from roll sourcing to the merits of mild provolone. The only thing everyone could agree on was the importance of having customers adhere to a prescribed ordering protocol lest chaos prevail: As everybody knows by now, if you’re for onions on your cheesesteak, you must feign a South Philly accent and blurt out the word wit’ (preferably out of the side of your mouth like a pirate with a toothache) when addressing your counterperson; if you’re against them, you should bark “wit’ out” and stand firmly by your convictions.
Still, you’d have to be a native Philadelphian—and not, like the majority of our new crop of cheesesteakmongers, connected to the city by marriage or brief undergraduate residency or wishful thinking—to discern how our steaks stack up. Or, if you’re like us, you could just do the ever-expanding circuit until you find the one you like. After all, with nothing more than tangled mounds of grease-soaked beef (ideally cooked to a dull gray), so-called cheese (fake is always best), fried onions, and just enough spongy bread to hold the thing together, how bad can any cheesesteak be?
Here, a brief history and current ranking of the New York Philly-style cheesesteak.
BB Sandwich Bar, one star
120 W. 3rd St., nr. Sixth Ave.; 212-473-7500; $4.50
Trailblazer BB has vacillated wildly, stumbling most when it was forced to prep sandwiches in advance to keep up with demand. On a recent visit, though, while the sandwich was made to order, the red-pepper condiment ran roughshod over the rest of the ingredients, throwing off the balance.
Carl’s Steaks, 3.5 stars
507 Third Ave., nr. 34th St.; 212-696-5336; $6
Carl’s exemplary cheesesteak is the result of some straight-to-the-source research and the owner’s serendipitous marriage to a native Philadelphian. The meat is chopped well, the Whiz glopped on with a flourish, the onions sweated mercilessly, and the flavors melded nicely. And yet, a slightly stale roll on our most recent visit robbed Carl’s of a perfect score.
99 Miles to Philly, four stars
94 Third Ave., nr. 12th St.; 212-253-2700; $6
As often happens in growth markets, employees with big plans of their own abscond with trade secrets. Thus, a onetime Carl’s manager capitalized on his old boss’s know-how to carve out his own Philly niche, and now, thanks to careful execution and a slight edge in the overall balance department, the student has surpassed the master.
Philly Slim’s, two stars
789 Ninth Avenue, nr. 53rd St.; 212-333-3042; $6.25
Despite this joint’s spirited devotion to the City of Brotherly Love and its various foodstuffs—Hank’s sodas and Tastykakes are on display—the cheesesteak came up short: bland meat, flavorless onions, and a stingy hand with the Whiz.
Tony Luke’s Old Philly Style
Sandwiches, 2.5 stars
576 Ninth Ave., nr. 41st St.; 212-967-3055; $7
Tony Luke’s cheesesteak occasionally approaches greatness, but sometimes it’s soggy and off-flavored as it was recently—a surprising also-ran to the magnificent signature sandwich, the roast-pork Italian.
Wogie’s Bar & Grill, 2.5 stars
39 Greenwich Ave., at Charles St.; 212-229-2171; $6.75 An homage to a dear, departed, cheesesteak-fancying father, Wogie’s does a decent job on the classic, but a tough roll dominates and never becomes one with its fillings.