No one can tell me how the cheesesteaks from Geno’s Steaks became among the most famous in South Philly, or the world, for that matter.
The product itself and the story behind it doesn’t inspire much in anyone paying attention. Yet at the time of writing this piece, there are nearly 14k posts tagged with the hashtag #genossteaks on Instagram and decades worth of references to Geno’s (alongside the Liberty Bell and the cream cheese brand) made by people who are not from Philadelphia.
Some people say that the Geno’s name didn’t really become ubiquitous until it appeared in the background of the Boyz II Men “Motownphilly” video in 1991. That video seems to be when Geno’s realized that it could be made famous by its association with celebrity. They’ve been paying back the favor ever since, and they’ve done it by maintaining an expansive, impressive and lurid Wall of Fame.
The Geno’s Wall of Fame adorns the ceiling and exterior walls of Geno’s and consists of a menagerie of photos of the pride and detritus of the American celebrity-industrial complex, staring down from black 8.5 x 11 frames. Most of the photos are from the final 25 years of the last millennium, the period of American culture that brought pop music, stand-up comedy, reality television and sports personalities into our daily consciousness.
Part museum, part shrine, it welcomes you to partake in a nostalgic retelling of entertainment history, but only briefly, lest you forget to stick to the script, which is the making of a transaction.
Personally, I’m obsessed with it.
When I moved to South Philly years ago, I immediately created a culinary home and routine for myself. I still cherish my weekly trip to the Italian Market for produce, freshly ground spices and crabs in the summer. I’ve sampled most of the pho that the Vietnamese diaspora has to offer. I try not to look too closely at the lamb’s head splayed on the carving station at South Philly Barbacoa. This is my life, I thought and think, blessed by an abundance of extraordinary and quotidian pleasures.
Yet the Wall of Fame never stops asking for my attention, and I can never stop giving it. I stare with a craned neck and slow sideways shuffle while my arms are full of produce on Saturday morning or my blood is full of alcohol on Saturday night. I marvel at the thing in its entirety, which is born from the audaciousness of asking America’s most talented and conventionally attractive people to help you convince the world that your product is worthy of representing an entire city.
And I have to admit that the Wall of Fame occasionally does its job of making me feel like I want it, whatever ‘it’ is — a cheesesteak, recognition, sex, relishing in memories of American culture that mostly feel like a dream.
There’s Shaq in his prime. Oprah in a leather vest, the photo stamped 5 16 ’94 in orange digital numbers in the bottom right corner. Tony Hawk, Pat Sajak, Ms. Pennsylvania, Ray Romano and his entire family. A still of Nipplegate 2004, no signature or context; just a bare breast and Justin playing dumb. Margaret Cho, Jake Tapper, a few rogue Backstreet Boys, Kermit the Frog. Danny DeVito in a bucket hat. Three different photos of Carson Daly: in one he holds a cheesesteak like a firstborn while wearing flip-flops, and there’s another where he gives an erect thumbs up while seated at the chrome table reserved for VIPs.
Some of these photos are signed, others aren’t. Some feature an actual cheesesteak, others don’t. Some don’t contain any celebrities at all, like the photo of a bird holding a Geno’s cup in its beak, the signed ‘Thank You’ card from Mrs. Gaultieri’s fifth grade class, a bride and groom still in their gowns and tux who give away their non-celebrity status by being at Geno’s on their wedding day.
I realize that my preoccupation is a form of masochism. I choose to prod my own irritation to make sure I’m maintaining a proper sense of proportion. In a neighborhood as fecund as South Philly, where honest scrutiny and truly excellent food abound, it’s bothersome that what is regarded as one of the best received its title by simply existing the most loudly and referring to the past most forcefully.
On a recent Tuesday morning, I stopped by before work. Open 24 hours, the smell of onions and beef were already present but negligible in the air. In the park across the street, a group of elders practiced tai chi in sync with soft music played from a boombox. Disoriented and endeared, I became self-conscious for being obsessed with something as trivial as photos of celebrities.
Then I remembered that in a few hours, buses will unload visiting marching bands and tour groups from the Midwest. SUVs full of suburbanites and their relatives from out of town will practice saying “Whiz Wit” in line after having searched for a parallel parking spot for much too long. Their thumbs, smeared with beef grease and hovering above the white shutter button on the iPhone camera, will type #genossteaks to add it to a gallery of thousands of others on Instagram in an attempt to represent the moment accurately.
DINNER FOR 20
A roundup of great meals around town that won’t leave you broke and penniless.
Tacos don Memo
This truck is heralded as one of the best food trucks on University of Pennsylvania’s campus by students and employees alike. Regulars recommend the burrito ($7) and suggest calling in your order ahead of time.
Known as some of the best Puerto Rican food in the Northeast, served simply and with heart. People come from all over for the pernil (roast pork) and morcillas (blood sausage), each $7.50.
Little Sicily II
Within a shopping center on Columbus Blvd lies this restaurant that serves a hybrid of Indian food and traditional pizzeria fare. Try the egg keema or the chicken tandoori cheesesteak, both $8.
A fast-casual Korean spot that can fulfill a desire for a snack (try the crunch ball for $2.75), a meal (bulgogi beef sandwich, $8.50), or something right in between with a taco ($4.50-$5.25).
People love this Italian neighborhood staple because of the espresso ($1.50) in the morning, and the chicken parm ($8) and spaghetti ($10) in the evening.