It’s one of those phenomena that someone’s cousin’s sister’s roommate has experienced, but rarely has anyone confessed to actually eating the indulgent mash-up. Just about everyone professes to know of its existence, but very few have seen it in the wild. It has become a sort of urban legend - Philadelphia’s very own Sasquatch.
Colloquially, it has many monikers - ’South Street Sushi’ or the ‘Lorenzo’s-Jim’s Challenge’ (named for two local restaurants) are among them. However, most Philadelphians know it as the ‘Philly Taco’. Consisting of a full-sized cheesesteak wrapped in a jumbo slice of pizza, it is one of those foods that is either loved or reviled. There is no middle ground and, like most culinary legends, it has quite the storied origin.
The birth of a new sandwich
Say what you want about Philly residents, but their culinary inventiveness is unmatched, and many times begins with drunkenness and a serious case of late-night munchies. Dubbed the ‘sandwich of drunks and stoners’, the pizza-cheesesteak hodgepodge was created in 2003 by friends Jeff Barg and Adam Gordon as a joke. They called it the Lorenzo’s-Jim’s Challenge. When Barg, who was then an editor at a city paper, wrote about it and declared it a Philadelphia delicacy, the joke became gospel. Word of the ‘frankensteak’ circulated around the city and local frat boys became the newly anointed proselytisers, spreading the good news of the latest addition to the city’s sandwich roster.
Thanks to Barg pretending it was a thing, it actually became a thing - a pretty awesome feat considering Philadelphia takes its sandwiches seriously, especially when it comes to the beloved cheesesteak - and soon Barg’s and Gordon’s names were forever cemented in the city’s culinary annals. (It should be noted that after Jeff Barg convinced an entire city of the sandwich’s legitimacy, he eventually became a vegetarian. No word if his decision was fuelled by elevated blood pressure, carb overload, or a sodium overdose.)
How to eat the Philly Taco
Assembling a Philly Taco requires a bit of agility. It begins with a visit to Lorenzo’s, the famed south Philly pizza joint, followed by a quick dash one block away to Jim’s Steaks, thought by some to sell the best cheesesteak in the city.
The colossal 28-inch slice of Lorenzo’s cheese pizza gets filled with a cheesesteak from Jim’s and rolled from the middle of the slice or diagonally from its tip. No matter how it’s rolled, the most important thing to remember is to do so quickly so as to ensure maximum cheese drippage from the pizza to the cheesesteak - lactose intolerance be damned. Once the sandwich has been properly swaddled, it’s time to chow down.
First and foremost, a suitable eating surface must be procured; a car hood is preferable but walking or standing while balancing the mega sandwich on a couple of flimsy paper plates will suffice. Secondly, don’t dare eat it sitting down or - heaven forbid - with any kind of utensil. The unholy duo must be eaten Philly-style.
Every Philadelphian knows the proper sandwich-eating stance: legs positioned slightly more than shoulder width apart, backside and hips jutted out, and torso slightly bent. This weird triangular pose may look silly to an outsider, but it ensures that the proper distance is maintained from any greasy sandwich drippings. (Seriously, who’d want to ruin their Eagles jersey?)
BYO (Build Your Own)
Of course if you’re a culinary puritan, you’ll want to stick to the original combination of Lorenzo’s pizza and a cheesesteak from Jim’s Steaks, but since the sandwich itself is a deviation from all that is traditional, live a little and get creative - but only with the choice of cheesesteak. Why? The Lorenzo’s slice is perfect for an experiment of this sort; there’s no other place in the city serving pizza slices over 2 feet long.
Since there is no lack of cheesesteak spots dotted around the city, building your own Philly Taco is a siren call that can’t be ignored. You’ll find stellar filling options here:
Woodrow’s Sandwich Shop
Elevating your Philly Taco by adding fancy ingredients is likely to be considered sacrilege and an affront to the sandwich’s humble beginnings, but opting for the cheesesteak with truffle whiz (a kind of liquid processed cheese) is the kind of high-brow/low-brow choice that absolves you of any culinary sins.
630 South St., Philadelphia, PA 19147
Never has there been a more aptly named restaurant; the Pennsport hotspot serves generously-sized, ridiculously juicy sandwiches and rolling one in a slice of crusty pizza would help sop up some of that drippy goodness.
231 McClellan St., Philadelphia, PA 19148
Diehard cheesesteak lovers adore this landmark and it’s best not to argue. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Geno’s versus Pat’s rivalry has torn many a relationship asunder. The distinctive sandwiches at Geno’s are known for their sliced (not chopped) meat. Be forewarned: If you choose to stuff your Lorenzo’s pizza with a cheesesteak from here, you either have to be a fast runner or you need some wheels because it’s over a mile away.
1219 S. 19th St., Philadelphia, PA 19147
The South Philly institution has earned a reputation for its cheap eats and generous portions. The folks working the grill here really put the ‘cheese’ in cheesesteak - your Philly Taco is guaranteed to be oozing globs of the stuff.
337 South St., Philadelphia, PA 19147
Pat’s King of Steaks
Want to start a war? Tell a Geno’s Steaks lover that the best Philly Tacos are made with a steak from Pat’s. Their sandwiches are pretty close to perfection - a great choice to round out your pizza-cheesesteak combo. Located across the street from rival Geno’s, the beloved institution has been in operation since the 1930s.
1237 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19147
Have you tried the Philly Taco? Would you dare? Whether you attempt to take on the original challenge or create your own, you may discover that what began as a joke may very well be one of the city’s greatest eats.