Steaking His Claim

On an adventure to eat 1,000 different cheesesteaks, Jim Pappas tells how he got started on his culinary journey and what he looks for in every bite

Legend has it that Spanish explorer Ponce de León voyaged across the Atlantic Ocean in search of the Fountain of Youth — to no avail.

It was worse for Col. Percy Fawcett, who ventured up the Amazon looking for the Lost City of Z and was never heard from again.

El Dorado, one of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, was what England’s Sir Walter Raleigh was seeking. Instead, he ended up with his head on a chopping block after members of his expedition broke a peace treaty with Spain. Probably not what he was banking on.

One the other hand, food blogger Jim Pappas knows exactly what he’s looking for, and it’s only a matter of time (and calories) before he gets there.

Pappas may not be as geographically ambitious as any of the beforementioned explorers, but in three and a half years he’s traveled to more than 940 regional restaurants and take-out joints in pursuit of his goal of eating and reviewing 1,000 different cheesesteaks.

Most of the venues Pappas has patronized operate within 100 miles of Philadelphia. All of them have been rated on his blog, “Philadelphia Cheesesteak Adventure,” where he states that he is on a “quest for the ultimate cheesesteak.”

You may say Pappas’ cheesesteak adventure has become his personal fountain of youth — or at least an original and rejuvenating mid-life crisis.

“I had done the corporate world thing,” Pappas says, going back six years ago. “I was married, my kids were college-aged and I’d had done 25 years in financial services.

“My wife wanted to go back to work; I hated my career. So, I’m like, ‘Perfect, let’s do something fun and different. We’re still young and active.’ And she didn’t like that plan. So, we split up.”

Pappas left his wife and his home in New Jersey six years ago and moved back to Wilmington, where he’d lived in his teens.

“I went to Concord High School, so Claymont Steak Shop was always our go-to place for a cheesesteak,” Pappas says.

Back in his old stomping grounds, Pappas began driving for Uber and Lyft to “make some money and figure out what to do next.”

For a man on his way to having sampled 1,000 cheesesteaks, he is surprisingly fit.

“I’ve actually lost weight since I started,” Pappas says.

His secret? He only eats half the cheesesteak, usually giving the other half to a side-of-the-road homeless person on his driving routes. Or if that opportunity doesn’t present itself, he saves it for his brother-in-law who lives nearby. He also eats a lot of grapes at night, which he says fills him up without packing on additional pounds.

During this interview at Wilmington Brew Works, Pappas brings his latest subject for review: a cheesesteak purchased 10 minutes earlier at Maryland Avenue Sub Shop. (He will later give the sandwich a solid rating of 90 out of 100.)

In between bites and sips of beers, he tells the story of how past and present circumstances came together to lead him to his cheesesteak adventure.

O&A: Let’s start with the obvious question: Why are you doing this? What do you hope to accomplish eating and reviewing 1000 cheesesteaks?

Pappas: I hoped to impress girls. [laughs]

Actually, I’d just become single and ran into a woman who I now call my “ex-new best friend.” Claymont Steak Shop had a special place in each of our hearts. We didn’t want to do traditional dating. We didn’t want to just go sit in a movie theater. We didn’t want to sit at dinner. So, we went there.

That was May 16, 2018. My first officially reviewed cheesesteak.

From there we decided to go ask family and friends where their favorite cheesesteak shops were, and then we’d go try them.

When I asked my riders about it, it became a two-fold thing because Lyft and Uber tell us that we have to get to know the areas so we can give recommendations to riders. I’m like, “Hmm, I’m in their neighborhood — because 95% of my riders are local — so maybe they could tell me where the best cheesesteak places are.”

So, I started asking my riders and the passions for cheesesteaks came out. We were off and running.

O&A: When you say ex-new best friend, are you saying you are no longer friends with the woman who also loved Claymont Steak Shop — and that you decided to continue the quest without her?

Pappas: Yes, we are no longer friends. When I met her, she was my “new best friend.” We wanted to do things together. So, we started sampling cheesesteaks. And now, she’s decided she doesn’t want to be my best friend anymore. [laughs]

This all started as a way to impress this one particular woman. But to take it a step further, it’s also something to do that’s fun, different and creative. You know, I was 25 years corporate. I was a helicopter parent. I made sure my kids got good grades, and they both ended up going to the federal academy.

I let them know, “Hey, my goal is to get you set up to have a nice steady, stable career. But now that you’re here, you don’t always have to draw inside the lines.”

The deep thought is that we do get into bubbles. We all get into our little bubbles, in our little worlds. And I tell people all the time that there are places that I used to drive by, lock my doors and never consider going in. Now, I go in and have a great cheesesteak.

I got caught up in the passion of cheesesteaks. When I ask someone about their favorite cheesesteak, I don’t hear about “seeded roll” or “sliced ribeye with provolone cheese.” I hear about “my dad’s favorite place” or “where we went after practice” or “where I went on my first date.” It’s very personal.

O&A: Talk us through the process. What is your ritual when you review a cheesesteak?

Pappas: I usually don’t call ahead. Because I’m an Uber [and Lyft] driver, I drive in the mornings and when it gets to be lunchtime and I get hungry, I ask my rider where to go for a cheesesteak or stop in someplace that is close to wherever I’m at around that time.

I usually don’t introduce myself when I’m in there. But I may be wearing my shirt, which has my [blog] logo on it.

The scoring system is five categories of a possible 20 points each: roll, meat, cheese, extras and overall [taste].

When I first started doing it, my ordering was very strict: American cheese, fried onions, mushrooms, lettuce and tomato. I got a lot of grief for lettuce and tomato, but I did that for freshness. You can toast a roll and you can flavor old meat, but when it comes to the freshness of lettuce and tomato, you can’t hide that.

… But got a lot of grief for it. So, I don’t do the lettuce and tomato anymore.

But I also got a lot of grief for the mushrooms. I still come across a lot of people that don’t like mushrooms. You get the “traditionalists.” If someone comes at you with a comment, it’s always, “Well, I [like the] traditional style. You know, meat and cheese.” All traditionalists. And I’m always like, “Well, if you go to a good steak house, you generally get a side of caramelized onions and sauteed mushrooms. Adds a little flavor.” 

Yeah, so if you do have good mushrooms, that’s your thing. Some people say, “Oh, they’re always canned.” I’m like, “Well, that’s kind of the point: Let’s see who does the good mushrooms; who goes that extra step.”

So that’s all under the [scoring category of] extras.

O&A: Ok, so you have the five categories. That makes sense. But is there one category that you feel is more important than the others when it comes to the ultimate cheesesteak?

Pappas: People always ask me, “Do you get tired of eating cheesesteaks?”

I get tired of eating the same old “pizza shop cheesesteak,” where you got some 19-year-old kid on the grill. You’ll find that it’s not really that different from a cheesesteak at the pizza shop next door.

So sometimes, I’ll be going along and keep getting that same “pizza shop cheesesteak.” And I’ll say to myself, “Okay, the roll makes a difference, the cheese makes a difference, the amount of cheese makes a difference.”

Then you come across the cheesesteak that’s made with good meat, and you’re like, “Holy shit!” [wide-eyed expression]

The cheesesteak is mostly about the meat.

O&A: Can you give us some of your favorite Delaware cheesesteaks?

Pappas: Well, Wilmington’s got a very good cheesesteak scene, a good sandwich scene. Probably right now, Zach’s Grill in New Castle. They’ve been there nine months. Zach’s is probably my top-quality cheesesteak in Delaware.

TenderBones Rib Shack in Bear, which I reviewed in August, is also very good.Scalessa’s Old School Italian Kitchen [in 40 Acres]. Donnie [Scalessa] makes a nice cheesesteak. He loves his meatballs, too. Gaudiello’s in Trolley. God, I love Gaudiello’s…

Ioannoni’s makes a good one. And Little Vinnie’s has a garlic bread special and a Little Vinnie’s special. I asked him if he could combine the two, and he did. That was really tasty.

Went to Casapulla’s in Elsmere. Saw Lou [Casapulla] when I was there. Good cheesesteak. It was solid.

There are plenty of cheesesteaks in Philadelphia that are overrated. Some of the best Philly cheesesteaks aren’t even in Philly. What I like about Delaware is we have a nice, above-average cheesesteak scene.

— For more  reviews of the 940 places Pappas has visited, see PhiladelphiaCheesesteakAdventure.com

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