The first sign of a great Philly steak sandwich? The cling-clang of a spatula on a grill. That’s when you know a joint is grilling a Philly the way the cheesesteak gods intended: made to order on a hot griddle.
This summer, I’ve been searching for the perfect Philly cheesesteaks, which are sandwiches built on a sturdy bun, stuffed with chopped, griddled steak and dotted with peppers and onions. Melted cheese turns it into a cheesesteak. They’re named after the city in which they were created.
Back in 2009, I rated Tacoma’s DelBrocco’s and Philly Joe’s at the top of my Philly sandwich list. Both places were fast-casual sandwich shacks with great sandwiches. Both are gone now, leaving what I consider a dearth of good Philly cheesesteaks. When I went looking to find replacements, I wound up at seven stops from Federal Way to Tacoma. I’m still searching for a perfect Philly sandwich, but every restaurant here made a sandwich with one element that I appreciated. I stuck to casual eateries and sandwich shops rather than sit-down restaurants.
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My list of Philly cheesesteak demands stayed pretty basic: The roll should be sturdy but soft; the steak should be a fattier cut of steak like ribeye, sizzled on the edges and chopped in such a way that the meat is still identifiable. The peppers and onions should have browned edges and very little snap. I gave extra points for any restaurant that offered Cheez Whiz, as is protocol for cheesesteak restaurants in Philadelphia, where the Philly is a matter of civic pride.
I won’t call any of these sandwiches “authentic” because, as every food writer knows, as soon as you call something authentic, natives will line up to list reasons why they’re not. I don’t want to start a Pat’s-versus-Geno’s-style smackdown, so let’s just say that while these sandwiches may or may not be authentic, they’re all pretty tasty for one reason or another. Read on.
All Star Burger and Philly3202 Gunnison St., Tacoma, 253-272-4311
This burger and Philly joint in a lone building off Center Street could use a good cleaning, but don’t clean the grill, please. The grill cook on one visit took a shortcut and delivered too-crisp peppers and onions, but the chop on the meat was just right. This sandwich provided a perfect balance of moisture to bread, mostly due to a heavy swipe of mayo. Processed cheese gave the impression of Cheez Whiz. $5.75.
Philly ThisFrom 9 a.m.-2 p.m. every Saturday through Oct. 13 at the Puyallup Farmers Market, 330 S. Meridian St., Puyallup
I’ve nicknamed this mobile Philly restaurant as the “steak and a show” team. Visit the Puyallup Farmers Market on Saturdays and find Jordan MacDonald and a cooking partner grilling up cheesesteaks on portable griddles. Their steak was leaner, which meant the sandwiches tasted less greasy. Built on a soft-and-sturdy roll, medium-chopped steak was topped with chunky griddled onions, red peppers and melted provolone. $8.50.
Fish House Cafe1814 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, 253-383-7144
The grill cook here chopped the steak into tiny pieces, which made for a sandwich closer to ground hamburger than steak. But what it lacked in texture, it made up for in flavor. Seasonings were generous, and the Philly was a big mass of cheesy goo, creating a sandwich for sit-down eating. The Fish House is a popular Hilltop eatery known for fried fish and long lines. Call ahead and expect to search for parking. $6.75.
MSM Deli2220 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253-272-4814
Authentic? Nah. Good? Definitely. This little hole-in-the-wall deli and beer shop on Sixth Avenue carries a cult following. The Philly here came built on a grilled French roll with a healthy hit of mayo and melted provolone. I ordered mine minus the tomatoes (that’s just Philly blasphemy). This was my favorite Philly for uniformity - every bite yielded chopped steak that still retained its texture, mixed with supple peppers and onions in every mouthful. However, the meat was chopped too finely on one visit. MSM is known for long lines, call your order ahead. $6.99.
Legendz1201 S. Sprague St., Tacoma, 253-572-2510
A torpedo-shaped bun with a crackly exterior makes this my go-to stop for a Philly with a great bun. The sturdy texture held solid to the last bite, even though the sandwich was drenched in ooze from steak grease, melted American and a heavy swipe of mayo. But the steak here received too fine a chop, and the peppers and onions were on the light side. This restaurant is a drive-thru with a few cafe tables outside. $5.39.
Philly Steak n Thai (Fat Monk’s)32925 First Ave. S., Federal Way, 253-838-7129
Think of Philly Steak n Thai (formerly Fat Monk’s) as the creator of the chunky Philly. The griddle cook here used a gentle spatula with the meat, giving larger pieces extra chew and tug, perhaps too much for some. The onions and peppers received a light grilling, too. This was the only sandwich shop - an order-at-the-counter restaurant in a business park - offering a choice of Cheez Whiz or provolone (for a surcharge) which earned the restaurant extra points. $6.49.
Oliver’s Sandwiches900 Meridian E., Milton, 253-927-2341
The grill was so tiny, I wanted to step behind the counter and help the sandwich maker. This is a busy order-at-the-counter sandwich shop in a Milton strip mall. I found the Philly tasty, although the meat was scant. What I really appreciated were the crisp, red-hot peppers the sandwich maker stacked on my sandwich (available by request) that added heat and crunch. $7.49.
Philly rankings: I’m still searching for the perfect Philly steak sandwich, but each sandwich for this report had at least one element of perfection:Best bun: Legendz won with a crackled exterior and soft bite, with a torpedo shape that contained all the meat and goo.Most effective use of grease as a condiment: Fish House for the win. This was a fork-and-knife sandwich and a gloppy-sloppy mess.Lean and beefy: Philly This produced a steak sandwich with beefy flavor, but low on grease, which translates into fewer Tums required after eating.Best chop: All Star Philly had the texture right- the meat had just the right sizzle and was not chopped to oblivion. The steak had good marbling.Most uniform: MSM Deli. The meat and peppers were evenly chopped and well dispersed, meaning every bite had pepper and onion.Cheese triumph: Philly Steak n Thai was the only place that advertised Cheese Whiz and provolone (for a surcharge). Extra points for that.Extra heat: Oliver’s wins for the snappy fresh hot red peppers it offered as an optional topper.
YOUR TURN: Have a favorite Philly? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 253-597-8270. I want to hear your hallmarks for the best Philly cheesesteaks and where to find them. While I only wrote about sandwich shops and casual eateries for this series, you can tell me about your favorite Philly at a sit-down or full-service restaurant, too.