High Steaks: Beat king RJD2 goes in search of the perfect Philly cheesesteak.
Phillin' It: For years, Philadelphia has been shrugged off as New York's little brother—a place where displaced Brooklynites went in search of cheaper rents, bigger spaces, and a touch less 'tude. But what's emerged over the years is far more than simply a sixth borough. So for this year's special City Issue, we dug around the Fishtown, Northern Liberties, Chinatown, and every other little enclave we could find to bring you the best that Brotherly Love has to offer. Check back every few days for a new feature from the east coast's newest hotbed.
The cheesesteak is so ubiquitous in Philly that the mere mention of it by tourists or visitors often illicits much eyerolling from locals. And yet, I have also seen heated debates over whose steak trumps the hardest—granted, the subtext of these arguments seems to stem more from “I would like to fight you right now, please” than the actual merits of a sandwich. In short, everybody here has their preference. For me, the question was rendered obsolete the first time I set mouth upon a Tommy Dinic’s sandwich.
But first, a disclaimer: I'm not a "true" Philadelphian; I'm a transient. I was born in Oregon, raised in Columbus, Ohio, lived shortly in San Francisco, and moved to Philadelphia in 2002. While this may seem trivial, it's critical to the perspective on which this entire piece rests. Technically speaking, a Philly cheesesteak is thinly sliced, frozen beef cooked on a grill and served on an Italian roll—as it has been explained to me. All the steak places in Philly open this up to include chicken, veggie meat, and possibly other variations on the concept, along with your choice of cheese (Whiz, American, provolone, etc.) and toppings (sautéed peppers, onions, mushrooms, etc.). Tommy Dinic’s serves pork—both pulled and roast brisket, and scallopine. There is only one cheese—a sharp provolone that has as much bite as any sharp cheese I've tasted. Toppings are broccoli rabe (which seems to be braised or sautéed in liberal amounts of garlic), spinach, peppers, and raw onion. In short, the menu could be written on the back of your hand. The average cheesesteak joint has a menu with rows and columns.
A little backstory: For my first five years here, I made my way through the iconic steak joints. Jim’s on South always had a rank smell to the outside, although the food was passable. Geno’s struck me as the equivalent of rot-gut whiskey on bread. Iskabibbles wasn’t half bad. And for several years, I had arrived at the conclusion that Tony Luke’s was, hands-down, the best cheesesteak in Philly (one could make the argument it still is, on technical merits). The problem is that one day about 18 months ago, I set foot in Tommy Dinic’s at the Reading Terminal Market (12th and Arch Streets) and got the pulled pork. That experience effectively exiled me from anywhere else that sold meat on a piece of bread in Philly. A big part of this was the afterglow; when I produced a song for Jack Panate, and his crew flew out here, I took them to Tony Luke’s. While they enjoyed the food, the inevitable reckoning came an hour later—bricks in the gut. It always happened to me at those places as well. Dinic’s sandwiches lack this unwelcome aftereffect. Firstly, their ingredients are culled from vendors in the market. It's less of a soupy mess than most steaks. I have probably eaten 30 pulled pork sandwiches, and maybe one or two times was the preparation less than perfect. Both the brisket and pork (especially pulled) are moist, somewhat lean, and just taste amazing. The combination of the cheese's sharpness, and the almost earthy flavor of the pork, along with a warm, slightly crisped-edge roll is just fantastic. Of all the toppings, I strongly suggest the broccoli rabe with raw onions; the onions are chopped finely enough that they absorb a bit of the juices of the meat and almost caramelize a bit, while the rabe provides a just a slightly bitter flavor to the richness of the meat.
You can come to Philly and have the kind of experience that your local Fox News affiliate briefed you on—get drunk and fight someone at a Phillies game, eat a greasy steak amidst the chaos of a Saturday night in South Philly, and throw your trash out the window on the Gray's Ferry Bridge. Instead, I implore you to do the things that people here like to do, but nobody talks about: visit a world-class art museum, tour the cities’ 19th century Victorian architecture, and eat the best Italian sandwich of your life at Tommy Dinic’s.
?Tommy Dinic's is at 1136 Arch Street in Philadelphia.