The Hoagie vs. the Cheesesteak

Posted by Susan Russo

Philly Cheesesteak, Photo by Mikey Il

Philadelphia may be the City of Brotherly Love, but when it comes to its signature sandwiches, the hoagie and cheesesteak, it’s more like a Civil War battleground.

Why the decades-long rivalry? Maybe because both sandwiches to varying degrees reflect the city itself: Rough around the edges with a heart of gold, reliable, hard-working, and self-assured.
After all, how do explain Pat’s King of Steaks in the heart of South Philly? This iconic Philly eatery founded in 1930 is open 24/7 (Thanksgiving & Christmas Day excluded) and boasts lines that snake around the building and spill onto neighboring blocks. It’s not because of their exemplary service, or is it?
When first-timers go to Pat’s, as I did a couple of years ago, they’ll find the servers fast and furious, and you’d better be too. You see, unlike other sandwiches, when it comes to ordering a cheesesteak, there is a correct way to do it. Do it incorrectly, and you’ll get hollered at by the guy taking your order. Dare to disagree with him or show your snarky side, and you may even get tossed from the joint. (Note: If that happens, go across the street to Geno’s, Pat’s rival.)

But before you do anything, you need to learn how to properly order a cheesesteak:
1. Know what you want before getting in line. Not sure? Get advice from the people in line. 99% have been there before and won’t steer you wrong.
2. Don’t smile, say hello, chit-chat, or dilly-dally when it’s time to order.
3. Order like a local, and keep it to three words. The first word is one, which means you’re ordering one sandwich. The second indicates the types of cheese you want. And the third is either wit or witout., with indicates your preference for fried onions. So “one, Whiz, wit” is a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz and fried onions. Got it?
4. If you don’t got it, then print this and practice it before you go.
One wonders, is a simple cheesesteak worth all this effort? In a word, YES. Strips of moist, tender steak piled high on a soft oblong roll then drenched with cheese (American, provolone, or Cheez Whiz) and fried onions is a culinary gem even the most ardent vegetarians should try at least once. Indeed, some Philadelphians I know would go as far to stay it’s downright un-American to not eat cheesesteaks.
But, I’m from San Diego, so I won’t go that far.
Italian Hoagie, Photo by Mikey Il
Now, let’s take a look at the cheesesteak’s contender, the hoagie. In 1992, Mayor Ed Rendell named the hoagie the “Official Sandwich of Philadelphia,” trumping the cheesesteak. But just how “Philly” is the hoagie? Well, consider its origin: During the WWI-era Italian shipyard workers who worked on Philadelphia’s Hog Island brought huge homemade sandwiches of meat, cheese, and pickled vegetables for lunch. They were called “hoggies” which eventually became “hoagies” and quickly spread to local street carts, markets, and eateries.
Though you can get hoagies across America, most Philadelphians believe that the only place to a get a real hoagie roll — oversized, crusty on-the-outside, soft and chewy on-the-inside — is their hometown. I wouldn’t argue with them.
A traditional hoagie typically consists of Italian deli meat such as salami, provolone cheese, vinegary antipasto or pepperoncini peppers, and olive oil or some type of Italian dressing, served cold. No mustard or mayo. However, unlike the cheesesteak, ordering a hoagie is a much less fraught affair. Since it’s built-to-order, you can choose the meat, cheese, and toppings you like without fear of getting it wrong. But it has to be soused with olive oil or Italian dressing, preferably one heavy on oregano, or it’s really not a hoagie.
So, after all this, which is the more Philly-worthy? When it comes to taste, I prefer hoagies to cheesesteak, but that’s because I’m partial to salami, mortadella, and Italian dressing. However, I’m going with the cheesesteak. Here’s why: The cheesesteak may be simpler, but it’s more confident. It’s an unabashed rule-follower and history lover that says, take me the way I am, or move on. And it refuses to be called by any other name, unlike the hoagie, which has various geographical names such as “hero” in New York and “grinder” in Rhode Island.
Rough around the edges with a heart of gold — that’s the cheesesteak. And that’s my pick for the better Philly sandwich. What’s yours? Name your favorite and why, and three random answers will win a copy of The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches!