Philadelphia and cheesesteaks just go hand in hand. Jim Pappas has eaten more than 1,000 versions of the city’s iconic sandwich on a quest to find the best one.
The secret to a crave-worthy Philly cheesesteak isn’t locked up in a vault underneath Independence Hall, like some missing scene sitting from a Nicholas Cage movie. The city’s iconic sandwich is an approachable meal and easily enjoyed every day of the week. The real key to unlocking its secret appeal lies in the ingredients. And it starts and ends with the meat.
When Jim Pappas started a daily cheesesteak blog back in 2018, he wasn’t expecting to be the country’s foremost expert on the subject. The 59-year-old Swarthmore native quit his full-time job – 25 years in what he called the corporate rat race – and decided to start driving for Uber and Lyft with his kids off at college.
His wife didn’t like the sound of his pseudo retirement plan, but Pappas pursued it. They divorced. And he met someone else. Those cheesesteaks weren’t going to eat themselves. “It started with a girl,” Pappas said. “We had similar interests.”
The seeds of his rebellion were planted from a conversation with one of his Uber passengers when he asked him what his favorite cheesesteak was. Following their chat, Pappas clocked out and stopped for lunch at Claymont Steak Shop in Delaware – “a special place,” per Pappas – and the “Philadelphia Cheesesteak Adventure” was off and running.
“In the beginning people would message me and say, ‘Want to meet up for a cheesesteak?’,” Pappas said. “But I only had 15 minutes since it was a lunch break thing.”
That first mid-day rendezvous has morphed into a full-time job, with Pappas sampling more than 1,000 cheesesteaks to date. He has designed official shirts, masks, and business cards while enlisting the help of his good friend Amigo Dan Matassino. Sometimes, they get recognized like that one time at Primo’s Pizza in Hockessin, Delaware.
“I was a little tired and cranky that day, probably not the best customer,” Pappas said. “But the cheesesteak came out and it was perfect, exactly the way I wanted it. The owner came out and told me he recognized me. He made it himself.”
The Wilmington resident prefers to remain incognito on his visits, an uncomplicated food critic who uses a five-point grading system: roll, meat, cheese, extras, overall experience. Which considers things like bathrooms, parking, cleanliness, service, and staff rudeness. That’s it. He visits about four spots in a day.
“I’ve eaten a million mediocre cheesesteaks,” Pappas said. “For some cheesesteaks, nothing about it works but it’s just good; for whatever reason, that pile of slop tasted good. And the people making it and serving it were nice.”
Pappas doesn’t factor in price which has caused some backlash among his Instagram followers. People have told him they don’t believe Barclay Prime’s $140 cheesesteak – Wagyu ribeye with foie gras, truffled Cheez Whiz, caramelized onions – deserves to be in the conversation. Too bad.
“I don’t care about price,” Pappas said. “And I’m not a Whiz guy.”
His favorite? Charlie’s Roast Pork at 3rd and Moyamensing. They scored a 96, the highest-rated cheesesteak in his travels. The South Philly joint is run by Joe who worked the line at John’s Roast Pork for 15 years before branching out on his own. High quality meat and a Carangi roll put them close to perfection, although “there are no perfect 100s.” According to Pappas, it all comes down to the grill person in the kitchen.
The Right Cheesesteak
How do you order a cheesesteak?
American cheese, fried onions, mushrooms. Early on, I used to ask for lettuce and tomatoes because if they were soggy, I knew all the ingredients might not be fresh.
Explain why the meat is so important and how do you like it?
I grew up on chopped meat, but it doesn’t matter. When you have good meat you want to taste it, less of a chop so you can bite into it and taste the quality of the steak. I like American cheese, melted all the through, so it evenly coats every piece of meat. I also get mushrooms and fried onions.
Mushrooms? Yes or no?
It’s a test, really. Like at a good steakhouse, you get the caramelized onions mixed with the mushrooms and it brings out the flavor of the steak. You want them cooked and browned, then you can tell if they are fresh versus if they just threw a can of mushrooms on the steak. Not the ones that were sitting out in the pizza bin. If the mushrooms are fresh, then all the ingredients they are using are probably going to be fresh. I want to see if they go the extra mile.
And what about the roll?
I like a thin crust for the roll, not thick. There has to be enough bread to hold the meat and grease in. But you also have to be able to close it without everything leaking out. Some places scoop it and make a ladle, that works. The roll has to be crusty.
Pat’s and Geno’s – tourist traps or quality steaks?
I take all my out-of-towners there. It’s a good introduction to what a Philly cheesesteak is all about. I’ve also had some very good $5 cheesesteaks at random corner stores in South Philly and elsewhere.
Cover photo Campo’s Cheesesteaks. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.