Saturday, July 25, 2009

Today we began our New England Diner Tour with a flight to Philadelphia, partially due to the decent price we scored on tickets and mostly because Jenny had never visited the City of Brotherly Love. Vienna and I toured Philly three years ago, and I made my acquaintance with the city several times before that, most notably in 1990 when I completed my active duty Navy tour with one last buzz cut, but Jenny only had stories about this place. It was time for her to see for herself that Philadelphia is a terrific town to start a roadtrip.

We touched down after five in the afternoon, leaving little time for adventuring today, but we still headed straight for an epic battlefield to start our trip: the gastronomical standoff between Pat's and Geno's in South Philly, home of the city's beloved cheesesteaks. Visiting these two walk-up restaurants offers a chance to sample a famed and fattening cheesy delicacy dripping with history and grease. Arriving as clouds lined up for an evening storm, we found a lucky parking place a couple blocks away and split up, Jenny joining the queue at Pat's, Vienna and I lurching along at Geno's. Both spots included lines that snaked around their respective blocks.

At both places, you must listen to folks ordering and learn the lingo fast. Slowing people down can be cause for getting tossed from the line. And God help you if you speak any other language than English at Geno's; the murals, bumper stickers, and other signage at that shop would warm the cockles of any Rush Limbaugh lover. In her efforts to learn the rules Jenny was luckier; Pat's includes instructions on the wall, ensuring that even the most clueless out-of-towners (setting ourselves as the baseline, of course) know whether to order "wit" or "witout" onions. If only I'd remembered to leave Jenny with some cash! Fortunately, we managed to meet quickly enough to avoid excess embarrassment and re-gather with two heaping cheesesteaks for the three of us to share.

The verdict? Hard to say. At first, one must remember that Philly cheesesteaks appear to be a few steps higher quality than the paper-sliced stuff sold as Steak-umms, but seriously, we're not talking gourmet meat here. Heck, I have no idea what kind of stuff goes into these things anyway. But we could detect some subtle distinctions between both sandwiches, equally composed of scrambled, frizzled beef mixed with onions and provolone, banged into a thick hoagie roll. Geno's seemed more balanced, with no particular distinction than its overall savory aftertaste. Pat's was more pronounced, especially in its meat, which possessed a flavor that is hard to describe. Jenny liked Geno's a bit more, while Vienna and I preferred Pat's. Personally, I had to be impressed with a sandwich that tossed off greasy globules with each bite.

Satisfied and bulging from our first meal, we grabbed a room in a Holiday Inn, a block away from the Independence Hall visitor center, and settled in. We were initially exhausted from the tedium and stress of a cross-country flight, but the three of us couldn't wait to take a brief walk around to orient ourselves, stopping first by the Benjamin Franklin gravesite before wandering by the mall between Independence Hall and the new Constitution Center, even stopping for some "water ice," which reminded us of sherbet. As the setting sun hid behind billowing clouds, we gazed up at Independence Hall, trying to imagine how it appeared without the tall business buildings that soar behind this relatively humble birthplace of American democracy. Later on, Jenny and I took a second walk, this time to Old Town, where we paused at a monument to the Irish immigrants who escaped the potato famine to forge new lives in America. As raindrops began to fall we finished up a quick evening snack and returned to our room, ready for a new day's adventures.

All text copyright Andrew Wood.
Photos copyright Andrew and Jenny Wood.