Photo by Dhanraj Emanuel
Pop's Jersey Style Cheese Steaks1730 Garnet Ave.Pacific Beach858-483-2600
When in Philly, you just gotta eat a cheesesteak. No trip back to my birthplace is complete without one, and my family's been going to Pat's King of Steaks in South Philly for as long as I can remember. It's become a tourist mecca in the years since, but the sandwiches still taste the same and that's all that matters. I like that Pat's is less flashy than its across-the-street rival, the neon-decorated Geno's, and its original owners are credited with inventing the steak sandwich in the '30s. The family also created the now-signature Philadelphia-style cheesesteak, a so-wrong-it's-right, Cheese Whiz-drenched steak sandwich with grilled onions—or, in downtown-speak, a “whiz wit.”
After filling a soft Italian hoagie roll with chopped shavings of rib-eye steak and sweet onions, the grill master scoops a generous dollop of cheese sauce on top, binding the sandwich into one ooey, gooey, savory whole. Though there are a couple of outdoor tables, a Pat's cheesesteak tastes the best when eaten standing up, and regulars know how to assume the cheesesteak stance—legs planted apart, elbows out and torso bent forward at the waist. The most important thing is to make sure that as you're eating, you clear your shoes, so the errant meat juices and drops of cheese sauce drip onto the sidewalk instead.
Though I've tried San Diego approximations of cheesesteaks every now and then, the sum never amounted to the hometown version I hold dear, even though sometimes all the right parts were there. Until Pop's, that is. Pop's Jersey Style Cheese Steaks may say New Jersey, but they assemble the right components for a proper Philly steak. The casual shop also has the community feel that I like about Pat's, where workers from the nearby open-air Italian Market, business people from Center City and families from the suburbs all stand elbow-to-elbow on the sidewalk, eating their cheesesteaks.
If the Guadagnis, the family behind Pop's, looks familiar, it's because they owned and operated Downtown San Diego's Alex's Brown Bag for many years, a deli that was well-known for its cheesesteaks. The restaurant's eclectic decor reflects the family's well-traveled history—Benito Guadagni Sr., called “Pop,” immigrated to New Jersey from Naples, spent time working in South Philly and met and married his wife, Francesca, in New York. They moved, with their four sons to California in the '80s, and two of the brothers, Antonio and Benito Jr., work in the kitchen alongside Mom and Dad.
Mama Francesca holds court at her perpetually reserved table at the front of the small dining room and makes batches of homemade marinara sauce that Pop's uses to top the eggplant, meatball and chicken parmigiana plates and hot subs. Mama also makes all of the desserts, using recipes that have been in the family for decades, including textbook-perfect cannoli and one of the finest versions of tiramisu I've ever had, creamy but light and not-too-sweet, with good coffee flavor.
For Jersey-style cheesesteaks, the meat is grilled up with onions, peppers and mushrooms, and the standard cheese topping is mozzarella. They use a locally made roll, a crusty sesame-seed-sprinkled loaf from Solunto Bakery, but, to my taste, these sandwiches feel a little dry and taste under-seasoned. For someone so normally processed-food averse, I totally advocate going all-in with the Cheese Whiz, which gives the sandwich moisture and seasoning. Peter Rosu, a longtime Philly resident who now works security in the Pacific Beach plaza where Pop's is located, says Pop's is the best he's found since leaving the city—his favorite is Pat's, too. But though he eats at Pop's almost daily, he says that for health reasons, he orders a cheesesteak only every other day or so. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.