Philadelphia Fiefdom: South Street?s steak Credit: Darrow Montgomery

There’s an old saying among Philadelphians that you can’t get an authentic cheese steak an hour outside the city. The boast was once based in reality—that outsiders couldn’t secure the proper soft, crusty rolls for a real Philly cheese steak—but these days, every rinky-dink sandwich shop from D.C. to Los Angeles can have flash-frozen Amoroso Bakery rolls shipped to it.

In our area, you can eat a cheese steak on genuine Amoroso rolls at Philadelphia Water Ice Factory, at Philadelphia Cheesesteak Factory, and at South Street Steaks. The bread, in fact, is often a selling point for these shops. Why? Because the only cheese steak ingredient that can’t be fudged is the roll, says Peter Mossaidis, a Philly native and owner of the small Cheesesteak Factory chain. South Street’s owner Danny Uhr agrees.

“Bread is the most important thing in a cheese steak,” says Uhr, a native of Villanova, just outside of Philly. Yes, the roll has to be crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, but it must “hold up to the greasiness and meat,” he says. Not surprisingly, Uhr thinks the quality of Amoroso bread has something to do with Philly’s water.

If the Amoroso roll is a given, then there’s more wiggle room in the other ingredients, such as the beef. Philly’s two signature cheese steak purveyors, Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks, both start with thin strips of rib-eye (though Pat’s chops up the meat, and Geno’s doesn’t). Others, like Jim’s Steaks in Philly, use top round. Others still rely on sirloin. There’s little agreement on the proper cheese, either, an ingredient that, incidentally, came along well after the steak sandwich was created in the early 1930s. Pat’s prefers Cheez Whiz, but some swear by provolone and white American, which pre-date the processed cheese sauce.

Not even onions are a requirement. Consider the proper ordering technique at Pat’s—cheese wit or wit-out. That’s a cheese steak with fried onions or without. From there, the topping options can quickly get out of control: sautéed green peppers, hot peppers, mushrooms, ketchup, and pizza sauce (which is practically required in certain parts of Philly). There’s even a cheese steak variation that grafts ingredients from another Philly signature dish, the hoagie, which just seems wrong. The Frankenwich.

For the sake of simplicity—and to make easier comparisons—I opted to streamline the ingredients down to what I consider the classic cheese steak: Italian roll, steak, fried onions, and cheese, preferably Whiz. I found a lot of places that peddle cheese steaks, from Breadline’s Monday special to Jerry’s Subs and Pizza’s everyday approximation; I tried to sample as many as my deadline and constitution would accommodate.

Allow me to start at the bottom. It’s a shop I didn’t expect to find there: Al’s Steak House (1504 Mt. Vernon Ave., 703-836-9443). The modest brick operation in Alexandria is as familiar as your grandparents’ house—and just as fussy. There’s a no-cell-phone policy in the paneled dining room adorned with sports trophies and celebrity snaps. I only wish the cooks were as fastidious with their steaks. No Amoroso rolls here; Al’s relies on soft Gold Crust rolls, which don’t stand a chance against the greasy, under-seasoned chopped rib-eye scooped into them. The sandwich is then topped with an explosion of onions, more onions than any human should eat in one sitting. The final insult: no Whiz.

Philadelphia Mike’s in Bethesda (7732 Wisconsin Ave., 301-656-0103) also doesn’t do Whiz or Amoroso rolls. It prefers white American or provolone as well as its own house-baked bread, which are as soft as dinner rolls. Mike’s finely chops its rib-eye to the point that, were it any finer, the meat could qualify as steak powder, as if it were some José Andrés creation. (I joke, but Andrés has his own imaginative spin on the cheese steak at Minibar.) Despite its microscopic size, the meat tastes as big and beefy as, well, a rib-eye. I say that even though the sandwich boasted enough black pepper to make an elephant sneeze. Still, I missed the Whiz.

Sometimes, I have to admit, a nontraditional cheese steak goes down well. Out in Beltsville, there’s an Asian-run joint called King Pizza (4414 Powder Mill Road, 301-937-9117). It’s a standard pizza, subs, and Chinese takeout operation, as common as house dust around these parts. King’s cheese steak is served on a nondescript, slightly stale commercial roll with either provolone or American cheese. But the beef! It’s chopped rib-eye that tastes like it’s been cooked on a griddle that hasn’t been cleaned in years. You could also call it a seasoned grill. It made for one satisfyingly beefy bite.

Chef Haidar Karoum offers a wagyu steak and cheese sandwich—a cheese steak for the Grand Cru set—at Proof (775 G St. NW, 202-737-7663). It is, under no circumstances, authentic. It starts with eye of round, which is cut into thick slices and sautéed in olive oil, then served on a browned and crackly roll from Firehook, which has been slathered with jalapeño aioli and stuffed with greens, provolone, and wild mushrooms. It’s a rich, spicy handful that has more body and texture than the usual wad of griddled mush that comprises a Philly cheese steak. That’s part of the reason I loved it.

But for a real taste of Philly, Washingtonians have at least two worthy outlets: Philadelphia Cheesesteak Factory (locations in Alexandria and Tysons; 202-333-8040 for info) and South Street Steaks (4856 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-215-7972, with another spot in Gaithersburg). There’s perhaps even a third if you want to consider the salt bomb at Philadelphia Water Ice Factory (2620 Georgia Ave. NW, 202-483-1429, with another on H Street NE). Each one favors a particular cut of beef—porterhouse tail for Cheesesteak Factory, sirloin for South Street, and rib-eye for Water Ice Factory—with fried onions and Whiz on Amoroso rolls. I was particularly pleased with the sandwiches at Cheesesteak Factory and South Street, despite subtle differences between them, say, more gristle at the former and the occasional gummy roll at the latter.

No matter how good these steak sandwiches are, though, I found each to be as squishy as McDonald’s cheeseburgers. None had the body and crustiness I remember from my pilgrimages to Pat’s in Philly. I asked the Cheesesteak Factory’s Mossaidis if something wasn’t lost in the flash-frozen Amoroso rolls. He paused for a beat. “Well, they’re not like you’re going to get at the back door of the bakery.”

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