Pretty certain I’ll be late to my own funeral, so I shouldn’t be surprised I’m barely making it under the wire in confirming a Tweet by @Atrios, expert in the urban hellhole: “No one will listen, but plenty of good non-cheesesteak food in Philly.” The Dems in disarray and the reporters determined to portray them that way may have only a couple more days to listen to me, but at least I’m motivated to update on our last two trips. These are just some of the more representative local flavors to sample. Before or after experiencing the phenomenal “Creative Africa” show at the Rocky museum, of course.
Like the Double Knot, the Fat Ham is exceptional, not just the food and drink but the caring (we were cranky about our two bags taking up too much space in the tiny dining room and they comped us a great hummingbird cake in a Mason jar for the Amtrak ride home). A plate of smoked ribs and pulled pork with coleslaw; a brisket slider with white barbecue sauce, and pimento cheese served easy to eat on one slice of toast all wowed us, but the surprising standout was the cornbread, baked to order with tasso and molasses butter. It was $8 and worth even more. Unsurprisingly, the cocktail list is heavy on the bourbon.
At the other extreme from that carnivorous overkill, V Street serves the most impressive vegan food either of us have ever encountered. Highest praise: If they didn’t label it, you wouldn’t know it. Everything had deep flavor and almost the mouth feel of meat, especially the charred and chewy carrot asado salad, with avocado, poblano and pumpkinseeds. Curried cauliflower nuggets came with whipped dal and mint chutney, so it was like eating in Kolkata. And the dan dan noodles were almost too filling, with five-spice mushrooms and zucchini in a spicy red chile sauce.
The Oyster House on Sansom felt like a bridge between classic Philadelphia and pushing-the-envelope Philadelphia. The servers are total (I guess I shouldn’t say old) pros, the modern room is get-’em-in-and-get-’em-out spare but attractive and the food simply makes you happy. My jumbo-lump crab cake at lunch sat atop “Chesapeake remoulade” and alongside an odd but addictive salad of broccoli, dates and almonds in a creamy dressing. Bob, however, scored with the softshell crab banh mi. Where has that idea been all our lives?
On the trip before that, for a wedding right after New Year’s, I was shocked to get four good meals within just a few blocks’ of our hosts’ dazzling townhouse in Graduate Hospital (which is a neighborhood, not anywhere to go get better). We couldn’t do that at home.
The tiny and charming Fitler Dining Room at lunch had great little pimento cheese fritters and amazingly light gnocchi Parisienne with cauliflower. I actually laughed when my consort’s “Waldorf Cobb” salad landed; it looked like deconstruction gone tiny-wrong. But the combination of grapes, spiced pecans, julienned apple and well-dressed greens added up. Southgate, a Momofuku knockoff, was a fun destination to meet up with our hosts and the newlyweds to share “fish and chips,” Korean tacos, bibimbop, sweet potato fritters, chicken wings and “Koreancini.” If it all had a one-noteness to it, and too much sweetness, that may have been thanks to our not-smart ordering. And the meal that is usually our least favorite, brunch, was perfect at Pub & Kitchen, including a massive and well-made cheeseburger with great fries and a spinach omelet. It’s a bar but a nice one I wish would move closer to us.
I was most thrilled with Blue Corn, a little farther away in the Italian Market, because it serves gorditas, which I developed an obsession with long ago in El Paso. These were obviously just fried, a plate of three filled with chicken, with pork and with cheese. Tacos were well-spiced, the queso fundido excellent. Red and green salsas with the (yes) blue corn chips were also superb. All I foggily remember of Mexican in Philadelphia from my three years there were the margaritas at some mill on Second Street. They were no more like Blue Corn’s than the menu was.
For the record, the letdowns on our most recent getaway included Distrito in University City, where we landed for lunch because it was close to the always-worth-the-trip Institute of Contemporary Art at Penn and because we had never tried a José Garces joint. We won’t be repeating that mistake. The food was one step up from Blockheads’: bland guacamole, dishwatery pork tacos, pallid queso fundido, the side of pico de gallo tasteless. Too bad you can’t eat decor. And I’m cutting Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in newly hip Fishtown a break because it had just opened when we had clumsy wine service and underwhelming food, including just-average double Margherita pizza with cold burrata and okay garganelli with duck. Dates stuffed with Gorgonzola and baked dry in speck earned a “worst date I ever had” from one friend. Asparagus salad with egg, pancetta and capers, however, was impressive if tricky to share. And maybe we would not have been so let down if the hamachi crudo with grapefruit and pistachios we started with had not been so impressive. The wine list was, as so many Philadelphia restaurants’ are, Gouge City. We also finally tried a Marc Vetri joint where the mortadella mousse was blow-away and the paccheri with swordfish and eggplant at least inventive. The dismissive waiter kept insisting the sausage of the day was chorizo, but it certainly looked and tasted Italian. Still, I think we would have liked the food more if we hadn’t had to walk out before they would give us a decent table in the deafening space. (“Those are reserved.” “Well, we reserved.”) At least a manager ran out and talked us back in. For a place named Amis it felt awfully like a club, one that would not admit us.
WIGB really doesn’t count in Philadelphia because we try not to repeat any resto on our eating expeditions to the town where we met. When or if we do it’s at a.Kitchen off Rittenhouse Square, where the smoked beet salad is extraordinary, and Barbuzzo, where the vibe and the pizzas etc. are so great, and Vernick, where the chef who comes up with such lively food was so generous in recommending other places, including Le Virtu in South Philadelphia, and finally Dizengoff, where the hummus platters are perfection. Even though we could now get one of those at the Chelsea Market it would not be as transporting.