Favorite Spot: Jim’s Steaks, South St.
Neighborhood: Center City/South Philly
Address: 400 South St.
I am: A writer/artist/geek who is a regular contributor to the blogs Geekadelphia and The Quarter Bin, as well as my own blog. I spend way to much time reading comic books and… well, that’s about it.
Years in Philly: My whole life
Current Home: The suburbs (don’t judge me)
(All photos by Krystal Barber from Mote Studios)
My Love Note:
It’s the smell of the onions that gets you first.
That’s how you know you’re getting close to Jim’s Steaks; the heavenly scent of the huge pile of onions, sitting on the grill, wafting out into the South Street air. By the time you reach the black tile façade and metallic door of Jim’s itself, your mouth is watering and all you can think about is a classic Jim’s cheese steak, for me the best cheese steak in the entire city.
Now I know, there is no easier way to start an argument in Philadelphia then to talk about which place in the city has the best cheese steak. And a case can be made for both Geno’s and Pat’s, the other two Philadelphia steak institutions. But I have been a devotee of Jim’s ever since my first trip to South Street many years ago when I was a much younger man in high school.
My friend John and I were walking up and down the legendary avenue for the first time, just soaking it all in (and this was back before South St. started to change, when the shops still included Zipperheads, Tower Records and a great bookstore on every other corner, so things were still funky and weird in a good way.) when the smell of the onions hit us. We quickly found where the scent was coming from, ordered and my definition of what a cheese steak should be like was changed forever with one incredible bite.
And the thing is, Jim’s Steaks hasn’t changed a bit since that first visit 20 some odd years ago. Before I wrote this Love Note, I went to Jim’s to do some “research” and was amazed that it was like time had stood still within the walls of the place. Jim’s is a symphony of linoleum and chrome, with the pictures of the famous that had eaten there looking down on you as you devour your sandwich at the worn wooden tables or counter. You still ordered your steak the same way from the pleasant but decidedly uninterested gentleman behind the grill (one steak with American and onions, thanks) paid and then, if you were very lucky, found a place to sit upstairs. From there you could watch the masses down on South St., going in and out of Copabanana and Lickety Split, easily spotting the tourists from the locals.
But it’s the steaks that make Jim’s stand apart from the rest. Part of it may be the cheese that is still solid when they put it on and then melts about half way through eating the steak. Or it could be the onions that are just north of fully cooked so they still have a bit of firmness and bite to them yet are hot enough to burn your mouth if you’re not careful. Or it could just be the ambiance of Jim’s itself, a relic of a different time and a South Street that doesn’t really exist anymore.
If you plan on checking out Jim’s for the first time, here are a couple of tips. First, go on a weeknight, like Tuesday or Wednesday. There is no line to deal with and you can easily find a place to sit and eat. If you go on the weekend, be prepared to wait in a line that goes around the block and is filled with tourists who have to have what a cheese steak is explained to them. Do not try to get friendly with the staff. They’re accommodating and polite, but only to a point. (It’s part of the charm of the place, trust me.) And whatever you do, don’t say out loud that such-and-such a place has better steaks. It’s rude and bad form.
Jim’s Steaks is a place that is special to me on so many levels. It’s a reminder of my youth, a reminder of the South Street of old and a reminder of why Philly is such a great town. I’ll always love the place and wouldn’t trade it for anything. And man are the cheese steaks good!