Philadelphia is such a great food city. It’s the fifth most populous city in the U.S., which for some reason I find surprising even after hearing it…and confirming it…several times. Perhaps because it has sometimes been overshadowed by near-ish neighbors NYC and DC. Despite its relative proximity to these culinary juggernauts, the food scene in Philly just keeps getting hotter and hotter.
We recently took our second trip to Philly as a family. It was only for two nights, but we still got to try a lot of great places. Here’s a brief rundown of what we ate, along with a brief synopsis of some of the very lovely food we had last year.
1416 Frankford Ave, Philadelphia
When we got to CHeU Fishtown, our waiter summed up their menu as Asian-Jewish fusion. The CHeU website spells out their approach to food:
“What do we, two dudes from Philly, know about ‘authentic’ Asian cuisine? Nothing. Lucky for us, that’s not what CHeU Noodle Bar & Bing Bing Dim Sum are all about. We cook what we like to eat — it’s personal, no matter what we put in front of you. Our food is often informed by tradition, but it’s never defined by it. All that we require of you is a willing mind and a willing stomach. We might not be ‘authentic.’ But we do keep it real. – Ben & Shawn”
I love these types of “fusion” foods—foods that liberally and lovingly share different influences and cultures. To me, it’s a unique expression of American food. That said, such combinations don’t always work. Sometimes it can be hard to get your head around certain flavor combinations. I had some moments like that at CHeU Fishtown.
We got the brisket ramen with kim chi and a big old matzo ball. Asian-Jewish fusion. This one was a little hard to process taste-wise. I’m not sure if it totally worked for me, but I love the idea, and the components were good, especially the matzo ball.
Duck in red curry with kasha and gribenes (usually crispy chicken skin, though likely duck skin in this case—I didn’t think to ask at the time). Again, great components of the dish, but not sure I fully understand the kasha and red curry combo.
Beef and kim chi dumplings. These were pretty straightforward and good, but they were neither traditional nor particularly genre-bending.
The menu. Not a great shot, but hopefully you can make out some of the dishes, and the way they playfully mix and match flavors and cultures. My thoughts above on the dishes we ate may seem like I was underwhelmed, but I did really like what this place was all about. And all three of their locations are wildly popular, so what do I know?
1632 Sansom St.
Federal Donuts is one of Michael Solomonov’s many Philly eateries (he’s also behind Zahav, Abe Fisher, Dizengoff [see below], Goldie, and Rooster Soup Co). Oh, heavenly donuts! I do not have a sweet tooth, but these donuts—blissful…and gorgeous, don’t you think? Clockwise from top left: cinnamon brown sugar, chocolate caramel banana, strawberry lavender, and snow cap (coconut). Some come hot out of the oven—be sure to get at least one hot one.
Federal Donuts also serves fried chicken with a choice of dry seasonings or glazes. Here with za’atar. The skin is almost preposterously crispy, and the meat is as tender and juicy as can be. A half order (breast, leg, and thigh) comes with one honey donut.
1625 Sansom Street
Another Solomonov restaurant, just across the street from Federal Donuts (in fact, Abe Fisher, Rooster Soup Co., and Goldie are also all on Sansom, just a stone’s throw from each other). This is a hummus place, with a location in Miami and a spot in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market. The hummus here is creamy and amazing, and the toppings really sing. We got fennel and almonds, as well as a side order of the meat of the day, which was chicken with apricots. Check out their social media for the daily offering. The pepper walnut hummus was really good too, though in smaller doses.
Far left: fennel almond hummus; middle, top to bottom: chicken with apricots, beets with a pickle, and pepper walnut hummus; and right, amazing pita.
1838 E. Passyunk Ave
An East End-style “pie and mash shop” on Passyunk. Primarily a lunch place, we got there in the late afternoon and there were no more pies left (sad face), just a sausage roll. The mash comes with parsley liquor, a fresh and slightly tangy note in an otherwise very savory plate. What we had tasted really good, and we imagine the meat pies are amazing. Next time, we’ll go for lunch. They also serve jellied and stewed eels as well as sweet pies.
1837 E. Passyunk Ave
This Malaysian place on East Passyunk is popular, hip, and, most importantly, delicious. Well known for their saté, they offer a handful of choices of meat marinated in one of two ways (essentially sweet or salty), then skewered on a stick and cooked over coconut shell charcoal, served with peanut sauce. The flavor is so unique, nothing like the garden-variety Thai restaurant saté we all know well.
We also had the rendang daging, or beef rendang. Of course we ordered it, since it’s basically one of the greatest dishes ever. This iteration was deeply satisfying, rich and packed with flavor, with subtle heat, spice, and sweetness, although chewier than ideal. We also got the achat, essentially pickled carrots and cucumbers with peanut sauce. While the dish was fine, there was way too much of it and I would only recommend it if a large party was going to share it, with each person just having a small portion. Unfortunately, they did not have the nasi lemak bungkus (coconut rice stuffed with crispy anchovies and more, wrapped up in a banana leaf) that night. I heard they’re amazing. Next time. Oh, and I’d also try the ayam kurma, a coconut-based chicken and potato curry.
Sate Kampar is BYOB, but they have a tea and coffee bar with a wide range of drinks—in fact, it takes up half the menu, with images of the many permutations of coffee, tea, condensed milk, evaporated milk, and sugar. The drinks are made in full view and many involve some showmanship.
1149 S. 9th Street
El Compadre is simply lovely. A small space on a busy street in the Italian Market neighborhood. They are known for their barbacoa, a slow-cooked lamb dish. This place is a new iteration of the former South Philly Barbacoa, which won national attention for its succulent rendition of its namesake dish.
The current place is cheerful and cozy, with warmly colored walls, vibrant art work, and bright table cloths. It gets very, very crowded and the set up can make for close quarters, but it remains festive, and the staff is attentive and very warm. I believe the barbacoa is only available on the weekend. Definitely check before going.
When you walk in, you’ll line up by the stand where the meat is chopped up for your order. You order by weight, half kilo (just over a pound), kilo, etc. We got a kilo of mostly lamb, some pork. We sat down with our meat and were brought lamb consommé with chickpeas, rice, and flecks of chile pepper. The order of meat also includes tortillas, onions, pickled vegetables, cilantro, and nopales, as well as a few salsas. The lamb is mild and meltingly tender, and the toppings let you dress up the meat as desired. You can also order tacos and tortas, but I wholeheartedly suggest getting the meat with the sides and making your own. This place is not to be missed.
Our Last Trip, February 2017
Our last trip to Philly included meals at Zahav, the award-winning Israeli restaurant that put Michael Solomonov on the map, so to speak; John’s Roast Pork, a classic place for a classic Philly sandwich of roast pork, greens, and aged provolone, and a winner of a James Beard America’s Classics Award; and V Street, which serves vegan takes on international street foods, a sister restaurant of Vedge. All three are still going strong and definitely worth a stop. If you want to go to Zahav, you’ll need to make a reservation well beforehand…or line up before they open. They have seats at the bar as well as at a long bar that looks right into the kitchen. We got there about 20 minutes before opening on a Sunday and scored seats.