Philadelphia is renowned for a number of tourist attractions. It is considered to be the birthplace of American democracy and is the hometown of Benjamin Franklin. The city is, to a certain degree, a walking museum of this great man’s legacy. From his tombstone that gets covered in pennies every day (Franklin coined the phrase “A penny saved is a penny earned”) to the first volunteer fire station that Franklin founded, a statue of him made of melted down keys (he discovered that lightning is electricity and that electricity can travel across a wire), the tourist is spoilt for choice when it comes to attractions related to the great man’s legacy.
But, perhaps to a lesser degree, Philadelphia is also renowned for its food, specifically the Philly cheesesteak. And here, Benjamin shows up again.
To get a good insight into Philadelphia’s palate, my travel companion and I headed to the Reading Terminal Market. This is one of America’s largest and oldest public markets. Housed since 1892 in a National Historic Landmark building in downtown Philadelphia, the market offers an impressive selection of fresh farm produce, meat and poultry as well as seafood, cheeses, baked goods and confections.
The market is not only limited to selling food and you can buy flowers, kitchenware, cookbooks, jewellery and crafts. I thought it quaint to find a little second-hand bookshop tucked away at the back of the market. Called Miscellanea Libri, the cosy shop occupied just a tiny corner but had quite a selection considering its size including books on art, physiology, music, cookery, biographies and comics.
The interminable length of the queue around lunchtime turned out to be directly proportional to the good quality of the sandwich
But back to the star of the show, the Philly cheesesteak. While I don’t eat meat, my travelling companion does and offered his tastebuds in a gesture of literary goodwill. So benevolent was he, that he tried two varieties of the steak on two separate occasions. The first sitting saw the consumption of ‘The Franklin’ at Carmen’s Famous Italian Hoagies and Cheesesteaks. The interminable length of the queue around lunchtime turned out to be directly proportional to the good quality of the sandwich.
The Philadelphia cheesesteak is essentially a bread roll filled with thinly cut slices of steak cooked on a grill plate and mixed with cheese. The varieties allow you to select the cheese – some examples include cheese wiz, American cheese and Philadelphia cream cheese – and to add ingredients of your choice such as mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes and lettuce. You can also choose one of three sauces.
At its most basic, ‘The Franklin’ contains steak and both American and Philadelphia cheese. You are encouraged to add extras at a price. The first impression was that the bread was a bit boring (it’s just a white bread roll) but then as you taste the melted cheese and meat together, you realise what a perfect combination the cheese and meat’s juices make. The lingering taste also contributed to this meal’s star review.
The steak was so good that for the second tasting we returned to Carmen’s and this time we sampled ‘The Classic’. This version features cheese wiz, mushrooms, onions and peppers. Cheese wiz is thick creamy cheese sauce very similar to the variety you find on nachos. Taste notes for this steak included comments such as, “Even more cheesy juiciness around everything which blended perfectly with the meat.”
As for the price, the steak starts at $10.25 (€9.20) and can easily go up to $14 (€12.50) when you add extras. According to the taster, it is worth the price in terms of value for taste and size. Because it is so huge you can easily share and the steak is conveniently served cut in two.
Sadly my options were somewhat restricted due to my not eating meat and because I am what has recently been termed a health Godzilla. On our first outing I really enjoyed a wholemeal bagel bought from a bakery where you can also add salad ingredients of your choice. The cheese special had finished so I went for the plain cheese spread and added some vegetables. It was plain but good. On my second day I tried to find a breadless meatless meal.
This did not prove too successful and I ended up having a not-so-good salad and then wandering through the baked goods section and savouring the mouth-watering aromas of cakes, cookies and muffins. There are healthy food sections though the food here is sold more in the form of market food and not ready to eat meals.
Reading Terminal Market has a wonderful variety of foods, but to enjoy them it’s best to put any food reservations behind you.