Where 9th street crosses Wharton and Passyunk Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19147
39 East Oregon Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19148
214 Market St
Philadelphia, PA 19106
by Beau Cadiyo
Bite: two of America's great sandwiches in one of America's great cities. Oh, and Campo's is kind of ok.
It should be obvious to anyone who visits Chicago that a city can thrive despite bitterly cold weather in the winter and rampant and odious corruption year-round; visiting Philadelphia, it’s evident a city can still have a strong heartbeat with widespread poverty and record levels of crime just over the border. Cleveland bears both of these curses, and could thrive, but for how it is planned. What I don’t get is why the city planners don’t follow Jane Jacobs’ lead and actually look to see what in a city will help it succeed.
Unlike Cleveland, Philadelphia has lots of mixed-use buildings and row houses and bars and restaurants. In many ways, it’s like East Fourth, but a whole city of East Fourths, open late and packed together. People want to be on top of each other – not just in the reproductive sense but in the no-man-is-an-island sense. We want to be around other people; we crave it; we are secretly most comfortable when we are crammed together in an apartment and we can hear our neighbors breathing.
So it was no wonder to me that Frank Kojouri wanted to move back to her hometown after law school. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years, but she was still the same – just more energetic and adult. She picked us up outside of the 30th Street Station and we zipped around while she showed us sights – alleys, famous punk venues, historical buildings. At one point, I saw a lot that was about eight feet wide and thought, “They could put a house there.” That’s what it’s like.
As she drove, she prepped us: there is a traditional divide between Geno’s and Pat’s for cheesesteaks. Geno’s is all glitz and glamour, Pat’s is where locals actually eat. Verily, they were right across the street from each other, and it was true: Geno’s was covered in fluorescent lights, flashing bulbs and bright colors, and was virtually empty; Pat’s hadn’t been painted since 1978 and was surrounded, the way that a bee hive buzzes with activity, little drones dancing and wiggling and moving. We queued up to the window and Frank ordered; as soon as she said we wanted Cheez Whiz, they were served, and I had to pay. It took less time to get the food and pay than it took you to read that sentence. I’ve never seen service that fast, and it wasn’t a fluke – they turn over huge amounts of food very, very quickly, and it was a miracle that we walked right into an open table, considering how many other patrons were trying to sit down.
According to Frank, what makes Philly cheesesteaks special in Philadelphia is the bread; it is baked by a local baker, and is uniform throughout the more famous and popular places. The cheeze whiz is standardized, too, so restaurants can’t differentiate much on that critical ingredient. What they CAN differentiate themselves on is the steak; also, each restaurant had a big vat of pickled peppers, and Pat’s also had some dried, smoked ones that made my ears ache when I ate one plain (not recommended). We tore ours apart, literally, so we could share them, and I tried mine plain. Then I did what Frank recommended and put some ketchup on. The difference was incredible: plain, they were good, but a tiny bit dry. With the ketchup, though, there was suddenly a sweet saltiness that complimented everything else well.
At the rate that we paid for our food, or $20 in about ten seconds, they would be making $7,200 per hour at peak times. When we drove out, we passed Geno’s. It was empty despite its lights; esse quam videri.
Frank drove us past some developing areas, past an abandoned cruise ship, past an Ikea and on to Tony Luke’s. Again, Cheesesteak, Cheez Whiz, and pickled peppers, but this time we weren’t hungry and there was a much longer wait. I grabbed a table while the girls ordered, and took the time to look at the other patrons. Many of them were fat. Not curvaceous, not thick, not heavy, not big-boned – they were fat. Fat fat. Cheesesteak fat. They didn’t look like locals; many seemed to be tourists, just like us, ill-clad for the weather and waiting around for the famous food.
I kept waiting, drawing post cards to my family, fending off other patrons trying to sit down, and then waited some more. Finally, Frank was called and the girls brought the food over. If the bread was the same, I wouldn’t have known it; this time it was far more crusty, as if they had scooped out the soft middle, all the better with which to hold the meat. It was greasier, too, which I liked; there wasn’t as much of a need for ketchup, although I did put some on. The meat was more tender, too, although I’m not sure it was worth the drive or the wait.
We had some grinders at Campo’s that don’t bear mention other than that they didn’t include oil on it at first, then got salty when we requested some. Then we walked the streets, dodging people and dogs, passing rooms where famous events occurred and the liberty bell. We played craps on Ben Franklin’s grave and left the dice there; we went into a Quaker meeting house which also hosted Franklin’s freemason meetings and talked to a period actor for an hour. It struck me that the buildings were just buildings; they didn’t have any special qualities, any special wood or floorboards or paint or roofs or windows that differentiated them from other buildings. Instead, they were distinguished by people who did great things in them. They saw things that were wrong, or that could be improved, and they worked to fix them. Nothing more, nothing less.
We’d run around the city that morning – from our hotel around City Hall, then to Chinatown, past the market, then up to the art museum. I thought of my mother. When I first saw Saturday Night Fever, she explained to me the significance at the end: Travolta’s character crosses THE bridge, which to people from New York was some big deal. “People spend their entire lives in four blocks of New York, and they never get out; when he crossed the bridge, it was like. . .woah.”
The first time she saw it, she cried – not the little tears that well up when the old lady suddenly recognizes her husband in The Notebook, or when the young lady decides to tell her parents to sod off, again in The Notebook, or when you think she's going to get married to the rich asshole, again in The Notebook, but giant sobs, the kind that might be even more embarrassing except she was in a theater in New York and everyone was sobbing. I imagined what it must be like to be from Philadelphia, knowing what it meant for Rocky to run from his neighborhood all the way up to the art museum, then to stand at the top and look down at the city and think about conquering it.