A Philly cheesesteak from Geno's. All photos by the author
Philadelphia's great contribution to such freedom, alongside more paltry offerings like the Liberty Bell and the Declaration of Independence, is the majestic cheesesteak. Every food truck and corner store in the city offers up some version of this great East Coast American tradition of borderline inedible items. However, at Geno's Steaks, a Philadelphia staple notorious for harboring a crude version of this sandwich, along with politics that are even cruder, pressure from the increasingly widespread popularity of the cheesesteak may be threatening this iconic item. Torn between menu adaptations geared at a wider audience and the mainstream disapproval of time-honored arts like heart disease, Philadelphia sandwich eaters may be witnessing the refinement of the cheesesteak and, with it, the shaking foundations of that liberty for which the city is so famous.
Subway has a cheesesteak now.
The cheesesteak is now pervasive enough outside of Philadelphia that any Subway sandwich chain will serve you some monstrosity of a "Philly." I tracked down one of these sandwiches in its natural environment: a standing-room only convenience store swarmed with high school kids pounding energy drinks. Shockingly, it wasn't as bad as I expected. The generous sandwich artist garnished it with a mountain of whacky toppings that brought it closer to a salad than a cheesesteak. No traditional Philadelphia steak shop is going to put raw green peppers, black olives, crushed Fritos, or any number of utterly fucking ridiculous absurdities on its sandwiches. That is happening here.
I got mine on a freshly made "Italian Herbs and Cheese" roll with chipotle mayo because hell is real. There is no such thing as a "Philly," but somehow this wasn't even horrible.
Embarrassing as it may be, the attempt to brand the cheesesteak as the "Philly" for mass-market appeal has had apparent success. But in a society plagued by highly suspect food allergies and fad diets, adapting pulverized and processed foods like the cheesesteak for a mass audience tends to equate with fast-food style bastardization. As anyone with his finger on the pulse of authenticity—or anyone who has watched four hours of any random food-television programming cycle—can tell you, to gauge the world's real perception of the authentic cheesesteak experience we need to look to the heart of South Philly on the only street corner that contains the opposing factions of the Philadelphia cheese steak sandwich: Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's Steaks.
I'll spare you the mind-numbing debate that surrounds these two shops. The only voices louder than those arguing for the superiority of either side are often those who argue that the "real place" to find an authentic steak is a mythical deli in the backroom of their grandfather's basement where you're forced to drink homemade grappa until you go blind before you're allowed to order. That sounds like a good time, but I'm confident both Geno's and Pat's meet the strenuous demand of representing a tradition that basically involves dumping Cheez Whiz on sliced beef and serving it on a long roll.
The traditional cheesesteak from Geno's includes a sliced rib-eye, fried onions, and a slathering of Whiz. It's pretty delicious and almost definitely made of organic material.
A proper cheesesteak from Geno's
In its most basic incarnation, these simple ingredients are all you need to achieve deliciousness. Onions are acceptable, but the trend toward adulterating the sandwich with bell peppers or any other foods that actually grow in soil is mostly taboo. Like the best of all American inventions—electricity, airplanes, and hard work—it almost seems designed to kill you.
But even the traditional gatekeepers of the cheesesteak no longer seem content to wrest their sandwiches directly from death's cold hand. Geno Vento, current owner of the shop who was, I shit you not, named after the restaurant founded by his father, is publicly discussing menu changes more shocking than a six-pound can of processed cheese product.
He wants to try to make the cheesesteak healthy.
Coinciding with a recent lap-band surgery and enrollment in culinary school, Vento has been exploring low-fat and low-cholesterol options in an effort to update the currently straightforward Geno's menu. What these changes will entail for Philadelphia's sandwich future aren't clear, but a "diet cheesesteak" seems custom-made for the assholes of the world. Will Geno's steak go the way of the Subway "Philly" sandwich? Could we see a vegetarian offering alongside the ribeye?
Maybe afterward we can swing by Ikea for a frozen yogurt and a Häst Slidan furniture set?
A cheesesteak from Philly's all-vegan Blackbird Pizzeria is made with sliced seitan, daiya cheese, and plenty of green peppers. Could this be the future of Genos? It didn't even give me chest pains.
A "cheesesteak" from Blackbird Pizzeria
Such efforts to make the cheesesteak palatable to a health-conscious market might go unnoticed if it weren't for Geno's historically unique attitude toward newfangled ideas like diversity or tolerance. Geno's would be just one of many menus that have been sanitized to translate a local dive's character into widespread appeal. In this particular case, there is more to the process than cutting calories; the character in question gives off the vibes of a shady racist uncle decked out in gold chains and tattoos who is complaining about the Mexicans moving in.
Having first attracted controversy for its prominent memorial to Daniel Faulkner, the police officer allegedly killed by former Black Panther and currently incarcerated political activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, Geno's has made a history of establishing itself as anything but accommodating to all elements of the Philadelphia community. The Faulkner plaque, conspicuously placed on the shop's facade right in the center of the outdoor seating area, was the beginning of an onslaught that featured prominent signs instructing customers to order in English and a steady stream of interviews with the late Joey Vento lamenting the plight of Italian Americans in facing the current wave of goddamned freedom-hating immigrants.
The politically incorrect signs outside of Geno's Steaks
Geno, the son, has made it clear that he's stepping away from the aspects of his father's legacy that overshadowed the food, but catering to the politics and diets of the organic-grocery-store crowds will still be a lofty goal for the heir.
Considering this context, the changes Vento institutes could be a welcome respite from an uncomfortable history. Certainly a healthier— and less racist—Philadelphia is a good idea. But at the same time, these healthy adaptations also make clear the attempt to tame and sterilize working-class food culture. From the exterior view, replete with numerous neon signs and a giant glowing cheesesteak, Geno's itself looks like some kind of meat amusement park from hell. I'd love to offer a romantic history of the cheesesteak along the lines of the Cubano, with local workers lining up to grab steaks on their lunch breaks, but whatever roots in feeding the common people Geno's may have had, it is now largely given over to the spectacle of a tourist trap.
The easiest response, of course, would be for purists to completely ignore Geno's as it completes this transformation. But whether it be "Philly" offerings from Subway and T.G.I. Fridays or vegan steaks from the city's local all-vegetarian shops like Blackbird Pizzeria and Govinda's Vegetarian, the entire cheesesteak landscape is shifting dramatically. It would be comforting if the crowds of tourists drawn to Geno's neon lights like idiotic moths to a flame walked away with at least a somewhat authentic experience of Philadelphia cuisine. Hopefully, there's a way to preserve the only slightly toxic tradition of the delicious cheesesteak while navigating the more thoroughly toxic aspects of its present predicament.