Philadelphia's cultural reputation is practically built on our signature foods, from cheesesteaks to pretzels to water ice. Our buzzing culinary scene also boasts several newer icons that have achieved cult-favorite status in just a few years. While they’re likely to keep landing on travel guides’ “must-try lists,” are they really that good?
We asked readers to weigh in on what does or doesn’t live up to the hype, and compiled that info into a list of our own. Not saying these things can’t be good, just that they might not live up to their breathless billing. Flip through to check out the 10 most overrated foods in Philly.
Why They’re an Icon: If you’re looking for the part of Philadelphia that never sleeps, you’ll find it at the intersection of Ninth and Passyunk, where the brick facade of likely cheesesteak inventor Pat’s plays the authenticity card against the bombastic (and usually busier) neon-orange wedge of Geno’s. After a cameo in Rocky, the spurious rivalry became its own legend, rocketing both joints to international fame.
Why They’re Overrated: While both shops use high-quality ingredients, these steaks are made for speed and volume, by necessity. They’re ok for tourists short on time (or when you’re heading back from a South Philly bar), but anyone in search of the best cheesesteak in the city might look elsewhere — locals shout out Joe’s Steaks & Soda (fka Chink’s), Steve’s Prince of Steaks and John’s Roast Pork as better options.
Why They’re an Icon: Pete Ciarrocchi was looking for a way to use up crab seasonings in the off-season, the story goes, so he worked to develop a dusting for crinkle-cut fries (they hold the spices better). In 1998, the bar expanded to the South Philly sports stadium, where the fries and cheese sauce were an instant hit for in-game snacking. They’re now offered at concession stands throughout the region.
Why They’re Overrated: Yes, this snack food is trademarked, and Ciarrocchi has brought lawsuits against others using the name for their dishes that mix fried potatoes with crabmeat. Thing is, there’s no seafood at all in Crabfries® — they might be good as seasoned fries, but probably don’t deserve to keep the “crab” misnomer on lockdown.
Why It’s an Icon: For four generations, the Nicolosi family has been roasting pork and beef and selling it sliced thin on hoagie rolls, but it was in 2012 that the pork version (topped with sharp provolone, broccoli rabe and gravy) really made a splash. The Travel Channel’s Adam Richman declared it “the best sandwich in America” after a season-long search, and now the lines at DiNic’s wind down the aisles of Reading Terminal Market, day in and day out.
Why It’s Overrated: There’s nothing wrong with a roast pork sandwich (a great alternative to the cheesesteak), but if you make your way through the wait and get to the counter, there’s a better sandwich to get. It’s the *pulled* pork, chunks of meat tugged from a roast to order, so they’re much juicier and more flavorful than the slices on the icon.
Why It’s an Icon: After starting out with a small shack in Bensalem in 1984, firefighter Bob Tumolo jumped on the chance to franchise his frozen dessert business, and by 1996 had more than 100 locations across nine states. An ever-expanding flavor list and free small cups on the first day of spring are reasons kids and adults continue to flock to the red-and-white awnings, which are now owned and operated by investment firm Falconhead Capital.
Why It’s Overrated: Tumolo may have started out using fresh fruit for his ice (just like the best South Philly water ice shops do today), but you can tell there’s other stuff in these slushes now just by reading the flavor list — what fruit is Swedish Fish-flavored? Sour Patch Kids Red? The chain even dropped the Philly jargon from its name, going with “Italian Ice” instead.
Why They’re an Icon: Dan Dizio took his childhood job of selling pretzels on a morning street corner and turned it into a bakery in Mayfair that has expanded to more than 150 stores since its 1998 launch. Low prices and consistent products have made his salted twists ambassadors of the Philadelphia snack from Florida to the Carolinas.
Why They’re Overrated: Speed and convenience are hallmarks of the figure eights that come out of these ovens, and while the warm pretzels are usually softer than those on today’s street corners, they’re extremely salty and can lack flavor. Many prefer to visit Center City Pretzel Co. on Washington Avenue, which uses nothing but flour, yeast and water in the version from their single, family-owned location.
Why It’s an Icon: A whole concession stand at the home of the Phillies is dedicated to this meat-on-meat sandwich, and it’s always busy during games. A relatively unique combination of sliced beef, cooked salami, fried onions, tomatoes, cheese and Schmitter sauce sits on a kaiser roll, a recipe that originated at McNally’s Tavern in the mid-1960s
Why It’s Overrated: At the Chestnut Hill pub where the sandwich was invented, technique is as important as anything: the onions, tomato and salami are cooked and flipped on the grill together, allowing the flavors to meld. When you get it at the ballpark, everything is assembled individually, and it can make for a hard-to-bite, difficult-to-chew experience.
Why It’s an Icon: Giuseppe Pulizzi has been slinging double-wide slices of sauce-and-cheese pie for late-night South Street hordes since 1988 (save for a brief hiatus in 2013 due to a devastating fire). The large portion size even led to the iconic-but-questionable dare snack known as the “Philly Taco”: a Jim’s cheesesteak wrapped in a Lorenzo’s slice.
Why It’s Overrated: Pulizzi relented last year and began offering toppings on his previously blank pies, which is a good thing for the tourists and drunk folks who stop there, because the sauce and cheese aren’t flavorful enough to hold your interest as you try to make your way through the huge triangle of dough. When it’s 3:30 AM, however, you take what you can get.
Why It’s an Icon: With its huge portions of packed-full omelets, stuffed French toast and other homestyle breakfast food, the original Italian Market location became an overnight hit when it launched in 2001, a marked contrast to the stuffy, upscale brunches popular in the 1990s. Robert and Raquel DeAbreu have since opened three other outposts, in Fairmount, University City and Wynnewood.
Why It’s Overrated: No brunch is worth standing in line for an hour, or even 45 minutes, the regular scene on weekend mornings at many if not all locations of the bruncherie. Stop in on a Monday or later in the day (or even for dinner at the newer spots) and judge the offerings without the wait.
Why It’s an Icon: Before he opened this American brown-spirits bar in 2009, Jose Garces had done only Latin flavors, so it was his opportunity to join the city’s burger battle, and he did it with a splash. One of the priciest in the city at $26, the patty is topped with a healthy chunk of foie gras, along with blue cheese, onions and bacon. Impossible to get your mouth around as it is to not talk about.
Why It’s Overrated: The meat in the burger is already incredibly rich and juicy, thanks to a loose-pack technique, and the foie gras can end up feeling like overkill, especially when it slides out the edge as you try to take a bite. We usually end up eating the liver on its own, separately, which isn’t a bad bite, but also isn’t the intended result.
Why They’re an Icon: In less than three years, this Michael Solomonov-led shop has exploded to five locations around Philadelphia with its focus on offering just three items — coffee, fried chicken and donuts — and doing them well. Pre-glazed “fancies” are now made throughout the day, so they sell out less often than before, and the donut robot can pop out fresh, hot circles to be tossed in spiced sugar whenever you stop by. Critics from national magazines and papers of record have exalted both types to no end.
Why They’re Overrated: First, if you’re a fan of light, airy yeast donuts, these are not that. They’re cake-style, thick and crumbly (think “old fashioned” donuts). The batter is also quite temperamental, so the end result can vary widely from day to day — we’ve had exquisite specimens but also a few we didn’t feel compelled to finish. If you end up thinking the latter, you might want to go back for another try.