Options for Philadelphia’s most famous sandwich abound throughout the City of Brotherly Love. And while the renowned Pat’s and Geno’s have done a masterful job of marketing over the years, they are far from the only choices in town (Jim’s Steaks is another well-known spot that gets plenty of pub). In fact, any native Philadelphian will tell you that there are plenty of good cheesesteak choices in every neighborhood in the city. But if you were a native you wouldn’t likely be reading this– so here are a few lesser-known spots situated in Center City and on South Street– Philly’s high-traffic tourist areas.
Since I’m from Philly, and I rarely eat red meat, I hadn’t tried any of these options in years– so I pressed pause on my heathy eating habits and dove in for the sake of journalism. I ordered a plain cheesesteak with fried onions and cheese at each establishment to keep the playing field level. It’s the best way to evaluate the basics of a good cheesesteak– the quality and quantity of the meat and the softness of the bun. The cheese part is subjective. I’m personally not a fan of provolone cheese because it imparts a tartness that I’d rather avoid– so I usually go for American or a mild cheddar. However, I draw the line at Cheese Whiz. Say what you will, but I’ll pass on a wet, cheese-like substance that comes from a can (and don’t @ me about American being a processed cheese– at least it’s sliced). Now that we’ve cleared up the criteria, here are a few of my picks if you’re visiting the city and have a hankering for a satisfying Philly cheesesteak.
Ishkabibble’s & Ishkabibble’s II
337 South St.
517 South St.
Located on South Street pretty much adjacent to Jim’s Steaks, Ishkabibble’s is a popular alternative to the long lines of tourists that crowd Jim’s. It’s the place you go for more fanciful options such as a pizza steak (w/ mozzarella and pizza sauce) or a chicken cheesesteak (Yes, that’s a thing and they’re pretty tasty). In fact, Ishkabibble’s has grown so popular over the years, they’ve added a second location a few blocks away (Ishkabbibble’s II which boasts ample seating– unlike the original). Hole in the wall is not an unkind description of the older Ishkabibble’s.
On this trip I was with family so we hit up Ishkabibbles II (517 South St.), so we could sit and eat. The cheesesteak was just as good as the original with plenty of meat and a nice soft roll. It wasn’t prime rib, but it doesn’t need to be. The place is definitely no frills, but you’re not there for the ambiance.
Pro Tip: The Cheesesteak Hoagie is my favorite version of a cheesesteak. It adds lettuce and tomatoes and it is a sublime blend of meat and vegetables, hot and cool, soft and crunchy, savory and sweet. Try it. You’ll love it. But don’t forget the fried onions.
Reading Terminal Market
Reading Terminal Market / 51 N. 12th St.
The Reading Terminal Market is worth a visit– especially for foodies. It’s the grandaddy of Food Halls with restaurants and grocers selling everything from fresh seafood to fried chicken and everything in between– especially cheesesteaks. It’s a typically crowded environment that can feel like a maze of random eateries and aromas. But don’t let the narrow walkways and sparse seating options dissuade you. You’re sure to find something to please your palate. There are at least three shops that sell mainly cheesesteaks and several others that include them on the menu.
By george is easily my favorite spot in Reading Terminal. I was introduced to them by my cousin Karen a year or so ago and I was impressed. My return visit was not a disappointment. Their signage promises pizza, pasta and cheesesteaks- but I can only comment on the quality of their cheesesteak. The well cooked and cut beef was ample but not overflowing, so you could share one if you’re the giving type. The highlight however was the roll. It was a sesame roll rather than the typical plain Italian roll. The sesame added an interesting and unusual dimension to the cheesesteak that I appreciated. Although sesame rolls won’t become my standard, I really enjoyed it. If you aren’t getting it to go, you’ll have to find seating in one of the designated communal areas around Reading Terminal. A small price to pay for a tasty treat.
Independence Mall / Liberty Bell
214 Market St.
I had never been to Campo’s before– nor had I heard of it. It was a recommendation from the hotel concierge and was within walking distance. Campo’s cheesesteak is my favorite on this list– and the others are definitely good. Malinda remarked that it tasted like the definition of a Philly cheesesteak and I agree. Very Soft bread– check. Good cut of beef– check. Even at 8:30pm on a weekday, the Italian rolls were tender and delicious. The cashier added her own side of saucy, but endearing, South Philly schtick that made it even more enjoyable.
A couple of caveats: it’s cash only and they don’t fry anything on the premises– so french fries are out of the question. Homemade potato salad or a bag of potato chips are the only potato-based options. Begrudgingly, I went with chips and the cheesesteak was good enough that the lack of a side of fries was soon forgotten. Bring your appetite, but a large group might overwhelm the indoor seating. There is room for about ten to fifteen persons, tops.