It was way past lunchtime and I was wandering around east market street near Penn’s Landing (whatever that is). It was cold and there was a stiff wind blowing, my spirits were low after many hours at constitution hall when just then god smiled down on me and revealed the fruits of my labor: two cheesesteak joins not a block away from each other! Sweet, sweet cheesemeat relief, I cried.
First stop: Campos Deli (214 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA), the official cheesesteak of local sports teams. Campos has a family-friendly feeling, it’s got the cozy-chain vibe: branded t-shirts behind the counter, tchotchke on the walls and a few cafe tables. I tried the cheesesteak hoagie (steak, cheese, onions, lettuce and tomato for $9.25) and the chicken heater (Chicken, Jalapeno cheddar and hot sauce $7.75). The cheese steak hoagie was by far the better. It had the meaty savory appeal I was looking for with some vegetable to keep it varied. The heater was decently spicy, but was pretty one-dimensional after the steak: spicy chicken, bite after bite. Something about the whole experience left me feeling a little duped. After I ordered I was asked if I wanted a side of cole slaw or pasta salad. Where’s the focus? Where’s the grit? It felt a little like a reproduction, as if I was in vegas at the “cheesesteak experience”.
Nearly bursting and with my vision fogged from eating, I stumbled down a few doors to stop number 2, Sonny’s Famous Steaks (228 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA). Something about this place struck me as more authentic immediately: no bric-a-brac, just a few tables, a meat slicer and a flat-top grill. The menu didn’t have any salads or vegetarian options, just meat, cheese and onions, focused and simple. I ordered my whiz-wit and didn’t get any weird up-sell, just a delicious sandwich. To be honest, I was so full, I couldn’t sit there and eat another. I took it home and man was I mad. I’d fallen for a trap. Sonny’s cheesesteak was incredible and it was exactly what I’d wanted a cheesesteak to be. It was over-the-top creamy and savory. Every bite was a warm blanket, a pair of warm socks, heated car seats. There was no excess cheese, no dripping grease. This may be the best cheesesteak I’ve ever had. How could I have filled up on lettuce and tomatoes and spicy chicken. Spicy chicken! I was ashamed. Though I was beyond full, I relished every cozy bite.
It seems to me as if Campo’s sold some tasty cheesesteaks, but then got popular, started diversifying, securing sports endorsements and making pasta salad. I don’t want to hold their success against them, but I can’t shake the feeling the at the experience is a bit manufactured. I had another day in Philly, I would’ve returned to Campo’s to try their whiz-wit and see if they still had it. Until then, I’ll return to Sonny’s and get what I should’ve gotten all along.