But, just two or three blocks west in another banal small strip center is a homegrown Pappa Geno’s, which is clearly much better to my taste. Each of the components tasted a little better than that Philly import, and the combination much more so. The availability of plastic squeeze bottles of a good hot sauce at Pappa Geno’s helped, certainly for me, with a typically Houston need for some piquancy in many of my meals. I don’t think that I am alone; we generally like a lot more spice than they do in Philly. To properly compare, I had very similar half sandwiches at each place one afternoon, which definitely confirmed my earlier observations. I did enjoy Tony Luke’s well enough, but I don’t think that there really is a reason to visit with a Pappa Geno’s so close by, as the latter is clearly better.
Since the back-to-back comparison, I’ve been back to Pappa Geno’s several times at this another location, and it’s been excellent every time. To help confirm my feelings about the cheesesteaks, I had check out the new location of Texadelphia on Montrose. It’s ground beef-like steak stuff in the sandwich was a big disappointment in comparison in both taste and texture to those served nearby at Pappa Geno’s on lower Westheimer, if in a much more inviting and comfortable setting. But, Pappa Geno’s versions are probably among the best hot sandwiches in Houston, at least the ones served in bland, unprepossessing settings.
The sandwiches are large and a feature fresh, soft rolls; good bread a necessity for a good sandwich, after all. The thinly sliced seasoned beef is tender and flavorful and well complemented by the plentiful melted provolone and nearly caramelized onions that come with it in their basic Pappa Geno’s Steak & Cheese sandwich. The ingredients might not have the provenance of those on many upscale restaurants here, but they are more than good enough and work wonderfully together. A cheesesteak sandwich here is a nearly glorious, very messy and caloric indulgence that is far from artful in appearance or construction but tastes better than most of the much fancier sandwiches around, not just its cheesesteak competitors. The other versions I’ve had thus far have also been very enjoyable: the Smothered Philly that adds sautéed mushrooms and brown gravy and the Wicked Philly that has hot oil peppers with the basic sandwich.
In all, Pappa Geno’s has seven versions of the Philly cheesesteak sandwich plus five others with the less flavorful chicken. There are also hoagies, the cold Italian-Americans that called subs here, plus burgers and cheese fries and other artery-clogging sides.
Though usually a caloric, cheesy indulgence, Philly cheesesteaks might be overrated, as it is. I enjoy them, but these are rarely that great. Cheesesteak sandwiches are popular, to be sure, but among the Italian-American hot sandwich canon, Chicago’s Italian beef sandwich featuring thinly sliced, long-braised boneless sirloin on an Italian-style roll dipped in the cooking juices and served with the pickled vegetable mixture in vinegar oil, giardiniera, is tastier, in my opinion. Far more time-consuming to make than the cheesesteak sandwich, it has not migrated that successfully much beyond the greater Chicagoland area. I do enjoy a good cheesesteak sandwich, though. Unfortunately, there are a plenty of mediocre and worse versions out there. I had one recently during a layover in the Philadelphia airport at a place called Chickie's & Pete's that was absolutely terrible. Somehow there are two locations in that airport. I had had a similarly bad cheesesteak in the same airport a number of years ago, though it might have been another crappy proprietor. For better or worse, an old roommate and lifelong Philly area resident confirmed that Chickie & Pete’s really sucks, even outside of the airport. I digress.
Pappa Geno’s now has six locations and recently opened a spot not far from my home and my office on lower Westheimer. I am very happy, though it’s certainly not propitious for my waistline.
1801 Ella (at TC Jester), 77008, (713) 863-1222
6317 N. Eldridge Parkway (north of W. Little York), 77041, (713) 466-8080
515 Westheimer (between Taft and Montrose), 77006, (281) 501-3664
9330 Katy Freeway (on the north side, between Bunker Hill and Witte), 77055, (281) 501-1617
19859 Katy Freeway (on the south side, east of Fry Road), 77094, (281) 578-1900
8035 Spencer Highway, Deer Park (just west of Luella), 77536, (281) 884-8129
The wonderful mess that is Pappa Geno's Steak & Cheese sandwich