StreetSteakPalooza: The Search For A Great Cheesesteak on the Street
If you’re the type of person that reads Midtown Lunch, you probably like cheesesteaks. Lucky for you, plenty of decent Philly-style options have opened up in recent years… like this one, this one, and this one. These places are all great, but you may find it difficult to stay under $10. Sometimes, I just crave a big gut-buster that won’t bust my wallet too. So, I began a search for midtown’s best cheap cheesesteaks. Initially, my intention was to order as “traditional” a Philly cheesesteak as possible at each destination, but it soon dawned on me that there’s really nothing traditional or authentic about ordering cheap-ass cheesesteaks from street carts in New York City.
Magdy’s Cheesesteak Cart (46th and Park)
First up was Magdy’s cheesesteak cart, which was reviewed favorably in the past. I had walked by this place a bunch of times before finally stopping to check it out. The line is often down the block, but they seem to be pretty excellent at taking orders and keeping everyone moving. I was surprised at the number of toppings available (lettuce, tomato, onions, peppers, mushrooms, and more) and the number of choices I could make (double meat!), including three different types of cheese (American, provolone, and cheese whiz). I ended up ordering a single meat sandwich with mushrooms, peppers, onions, and American cheese for a grand total of $5.
First of all, whoa… I don’t think I’d ever ordered a cheesesteak for less than, maybe, eight bucks. I was able to recognize this sandwich as a great value before even taking a bite. It’s got everything that makes a cheesesteak great – meat, cheese, bread, grease, you name it. The steak and toppings were diced up and mixed together, the whole thing was pretty hot and gooey, and it was big!
That being said, it sort of tasted like a $5 cheesesteak. They were a bit skimpy with the meat, which was dry and tasteless. Next time, I’d probably order double meat and maybe a condiment of some sort (hot sauce?). Also, there were too many onions and not nearly enough mushrooms and peppers, which I barely even noticed. In the end, I ate and enjoyed the entire sandwich, but there’s no way it even comes close to something like Carl’s.
Rafiqi’s Halal (52nd and Park, multiple locations)
My next stop was Rafiqi’s Halal, which has locations all over the city. The closest to me is at 52nd Street and Park. I’ve been to Rafiqi’s a few times for chicken over rice, and it’s never been the greatest, but I’ve never thought there was anything particularly wrong with it either. It’s average street-meat at an average price with an above average variety of toppings. Looking at their menu, the Philly cheesesteak totally seems like an afterthought to the rice platters and gyros. I wasn’t even sure at first if they had any bread other than pita.
Luckily, it turns out that they do have Italian bread! And I was able to select toppings for my cheesesteak from the same menu as the chicken over rice stuff. Looking to compensate for what was sure to be more cheap, bland steak, I went a little crazy with toppings – lettuce, tomato, onions, green peppers, American cheese (my only dairy option), and white sauce. All of this only came out to only $4.25. Nice!
Yes, you read that correctly. Four dollars and twenty-five cents.
Of course, this cheesesteak suffered from many of the same issues as Magdy’s. For instance, the steak was pretty thin and unremarkable. I actually saw the guy pull frozen slices of steak from tissue paper (a la steak-ums) when putting everything together. However, the ratio of ingredients was more appealing to me at Rafiqi’s. First of all, there was no shortage of meat here, which pleased me. I would have liked more tomato and green peppers, though. There was a tasteful amount of white sauce, which kept anything from feeling too dry and also added a neat street-meat-esque flavor to the mix. The sandwich was perhaps slightly bigger than Magdy’s and was satisfying for all of the same reasons. Oh, and did I mention this cheesesteak was only $4.25? Rafiqi’s doesn’t offer as much customization as Magdy’s, but that price is pretty unbeatable.
Carnegie John’s Cart (56th and 7th)
The last stop on my journey was Carnegie John’s Cart, a longtime Midtown Lunch favorite, known for its good burgers and freshly grilled chicken. Unlike the last two carts, Carnegie John’s doesn’t have any sort of Philly cheesesteak item on the menu. Though, it does have a ribeye steak that can be ordered as a sandwich. I ordered the steak on Italian bread with American cheese, grilled onions, peppers, and white sauce. This one was the most expensive cheesesteak I tried, coming out to a mere $6.50. Like the other two, this was nicely sized. It’s worth nothing that not a single one of these sandwiches left me hungry.
The biggest distinction of Carnegie John’s is the ribeye steak. After ordering, I watched an actual raw steak get thrown onto the grill, eventually cooked and sliced into large, thick pieces. These bites were juicier than anything on my last two sandwiches, but were also a bit tougher and chewier than I would have liked. I guess it still tasted like cheap steak, just a thicker, juicier cheap steak. There were a good amount of peppers on this sandwich, but also more onions than I needed. Carnegie John’s makes a great white sauce, but there was a little too much of it here. With the thick cuts of steak and the abundance of white sauce, this sandwich certainly felt the least like a Philly cheesesteak, but I won’t hold that against Carnegie John’s. It’s still a great value and a tasty street meal; they’re not pretending to be anything they’re not.
So, at the end of the day, what did I learn? I know now that I’ll probably never find a mind-blowing cheesesteak for under $7… but at least I know of three cheesesteaks under $7 that don’t totally suck. Seriously, who knew how affordable giant, greasy gut-bombs could be? Feeling cash-strapped? Just buy a cheesesteak.