Some people are good for relationship advice, some for home improvement advice, others for fashion advice. Me? Folks pretty much only come calling when they're looking for somewhere tasty to eat. So in honor of the upcoming season of eating, drinking and merriment, I thought I'd share a list of my favorite local dishes.
First, a significant disclaimer: This is a highly personal list. It is also skewed sample: I live in South Philly, and it's much easier to eat at restaurants close to one's home. Yes, West Philly is underrepresented -- please tell me where I should eat there!
Looking at this delicious selection, it's clear that we are blessed with a diverse, exciting, accessible dining scene here in Philadelphia. Immigrants -- from Italy to Mexico to Cambodia -- have shaped the fabric (and tastes) of the city. There is always something new to try just around the corner. To that end, tell us your favorites. Share suggestions in the comments or hit me up on twitter @stabert
. Tips for our new On the Ground neighborhood Callowhill
would be extra appreciated.
Cheesesteak with onions (Dalessandro's, Roxborough)
Gonna say it: This is the best one in town, and only made better by the cornucopia of pepper options spread across the cozy counter: roasted long hots, jalapeños, chilis, sweet peppers, cherry peppers, pepper relish. The punchy toppings are the perfect foil for the heavenly marriage of chopped meat and melted cheese.
Duck and Chicken Liver Mousse (The Dandelion, Rittenhouse)
Alternate title: Meat butter. This luscious quenelle of livery goodness comes with buttery toasted brioche and pickled grapes. It's the perfect symphony of sweet, salty, fatty and funky. Pair it with half-priced happy hour pints of Yards IPA. Insider's tip: The Dandelion also makes the best burger in the city.
Soondubu (Jong Ka Jib Soft Tofu Restaurant, Cheltenham)
The only problem with this spot is its distance from my house. A traditional Korean stew served in a hot stone bowl, soondubu is a magical combination of spicy, meaty broth and silken tofu. I order mine with beef and kimchi -- be sure to crack and drop in a raw egg while the brew is till bubbling. Jon Ka Jib also has killer banchan (complimentary little snacks and pickles served before the meal) and barley tea.
Budino (Barbuzzo, Midtown Village)
This dessert makes every single "best dish" list for a reason. The caramel, chocolate, salt extravaganza is perfection.
Shrimp Pil Pil (Dmitri's, Queen Village/Northern Liberties)
Vampires beware: These little shrimp, pan-fried with chili and tons of garlic are so special that I've even tried to make them at home (tasty, but no comparison to the original). The key is in the barely-there flour crust, something for all the punchy flavors to cling onto. Pair an order with greek salad, meatballs and a bottle of BYOed Greek white.
Al Pastor Tacos (Restaurant Taqueria El Jarocho, Passyunk Square)
Oh, that transcendent combination of tangy pineapple, savory marinated pork, raw onions, fresh cilantro and toasted tortilla! It's a beautiful thing, especially when topped with El Jarocho's irresistible chipotle crema.
Warm Shrimp Salad with Lemon Beurre Blanc and Avocado (Parc, Rittenhouse)
Yes, Parc feels like a movie set -- a pitch-perfect replica of a Paris bistro complete with faux smoke stains on the ceiling. Just go with it, because the food is often even better than the people watching (ladies who brunch, first dates, couples enjoying their fifth decade). This dish is spectacular: plump shrimp nestled on top of citrusy beurre blanc, half a lovingly-sliced avocado, shards of parmesan. It's a splurge disguised as a salad.
Shanghai Pan Fried Pork Soup Dumplings (Dim Sum Garden, Chinatown)
Back when this dim sum palace was hidden under the 11th Street overpass, these gems were called "crispy juicy buns" -- a better description than I could ever write. These large soup dumplings, enclosed in a pillowy wrapper, are seared on the bottom and dusted with sesame seeds and scallions. Beware of squirting broth.
Chirashi (Sagami, Collingswood, N.J.)
This South Jersey sushi spot sits sad and squat alongside Route 130. But what it lacks in external beauty, it more than makes up for in its expertly-executed Japanese cuisine. Order the agedashi tofu, and then get comfortable -- it's gonna be a while. Their chirashi is so popular that there's one sushi chef exclusively dedicated to crafting the perfectly proportioned bowls, overflowing with fresh fish, roe and tremendous tamagoyaki. But that doesn't mean he's in a rush: every item is placed with care. The wait is worth it.
Old Fashioned (Village Whiskey, Rittenhouse)
Half the joy of this powerful cocktail is watching it be made: Lots of delicate pouring and vigorous stirring, culminating in a dangerously delicious drink. The key is the 100-proof bourbon, which helps balance the sweetness of the orange and sugar.
Tuna Hoagie on Seeded (Cosmi’s Deli, Passyunk Square)
This list would not be complete without a hoagie, and the top sandwich masters in town work out of a nondescript deli at the corner of 8th and Dickinson. From the second they answer the phone with a simple, "What d'ya need?," you know you're in good hands. In addition to a stellar cheesesteak and award-winning Italian hoagie, they make a mean tuna. Order it on seeded bread with all the fixings -- Jersey tomatoes, paper-thin onions and a scattering of hot and sweet peppers.
Pork Soy Sauce Noodle (Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle, Chinatown)
Once you've eaten this Race Street resto's wonderful noodle soup a couple dozen times, branch out. Thanks to a larger location, the menu at Nan Zhou is larger, too. In this dish, their pulled or shaved noodles are tossed with ground pork, fermented soybeans, black vinegar and soy sauce. It's a savory flavor bomb, made even better with a drizzle of chili oil.
Veal Schnitzel Taco (Abe Fisher, Rittenhouse)
Anchovy mayo. ANCHOVY MAYO. It's the perfect umami foil to veal that's been braised 'till tender and then fried in a crunchy crust. Add a shower of vinegary slaw and a toasted flour tortilla and you have a Jewish/Mexican mishmash from the gods.
Pizza (Pizzeria Beddia, Fishtown)
Thanks to Bon Appetit
, it's tough to get at this tremendous pizza. The magazine declared Joe Beddia's pies the best in America, and the subsequent lines add to an already cumbersome ordering process -- no phone; they tell you when your pie will come out (whether that's in 15 minutes or two hours); when he's out of dough, you're out of luck. Let's hope the coming cold weather thwarts at least a few of the hopefuls, because it really is that good.
Vietnamese Iced Coffee (Cafe Cuong, Bella Vista)
Watching the crew at this Bella Vista coffee and banh mi joint concoct their highly-caffeinated, unctuous iced coffee is a show in itself: They start with a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk, add ice, add coffee, stir, add ice, add coffee, stir, add ice, add coffee, stir, then top it all with more ice. The resulting slurry just keeps getting colder as you sip it, offering the brain a heady buzz and a jolt of sugar.
Roasted Lamb Shoulder (Zahav, Old City)
In order to experience this smorgasbord -- slow-roasted lamb shoulder with pomegranate molasses, crispy yellow rice, salads, hummus, fresh bread -- you have to bring friends and you have to book in advance. The unforgettable feast culminates with a giant hunk of meat so beautiful that it turns heads coming out of the kitchen.
Bun Bo Hue (Cafe Diem, Bella Vista)
Think of this soup as pho's rebellious cousin: spicier, beefier and with a lemongrass kick. A small storefront on 8th Street serves up the best version in town, and is consistently packed with customers blissed out on chili oil, fresh herbs and thinly-shaved beef. It's a rainy-day classic.
Mole Poblano (Mole Poblano, Italian Market)
Most of the Mexican immigrants in South Philadelphia come from Puebla, and that means mole, a rich, complex sauce made from as many as 30 ingredients including chilis, cloves and Mexican chocolate. If you're going to name your restaurant after one dish on your menu, it better deliver. This one does -- order the dark potion over enchiladas or a piece of juicy chicken.
Cannoli (Termini Bros., Passyunk Square)
No one does the classic Italian dessert better than this beloved institution. The key is allowing the savory quality of the ricotta to shine through -- and filling those expertly fried shells to order.
Everything Bagel (Philly Style Bagels, Fishtown)
The teeny, tiny storefront where Joe Beddia slings his pies might just have the highest deliciousness-per-square-foot ratio in the city. On some Sundays, he cedes his space (and his oven) to the team from Philly Style Bagels, crafters of crispy, yeasty goodies boiled with beer in the kettle water. The team is currently working on their own shop in Fishtown
where they'll sell excellent everything bagels (schmutz on both sides), smoky lox spread and much more.
Bo Luc Lac (Nam Phuong, Passyunk Square)
This is the place to go for your Vietnamese basics, from spring rolls to fish cooked in a clay pot to rice noodles topped with pickled vegetables and grilled pork. But it's their take on bo luc lac that keeps me coming back -- cubes of hard-seared beef and fresh watercress topped with a slurry of lime, salt and pepper.
Manti (Kanella, Queen Village)
The worst part about Kanella's protracted closure -- the result of a move from their small space at 10th and Pine to a grander spread at Front and Fitzwater -- was going months without these tender Turkish dumplings, floating in spicy oil and tangy yogurt. (If this was a list of best meals as opposed to best dishes, then brunch at the Cypriot spot would be a no-brainer. It's the best in town.)
Pleah Sak-Koe or spicy raw beef salad (Khmer Kitchen, Dickinson Narrows)
This flavor explosion of lime, fish sauce, chili and vegetable crunch is summer on a plate. When the stunning mound of cabbage, celery, red peppers, fresh herbs, roasted peanuts and thinly sliced raw beef hits your table, everyone else in the small, perennially-packed family restaurant will be jealous. It's like Cambodian ceviche, hold the fish.
Bacon, eggs and peppers on a long roll (George's Sandwich Shop, Italian Market)
Every Philadelphian probably has a favorite one in their neighborhood: the breakfast sandwich-cum-hangover cure. What makes the version sold at this tiny Italian Market greasy spoon special is the addition of roasted peppers. They play well with bacon.
Beef Rendang (Hardena/Waroeng Surabaya Restaurant, Newbold)
I love this steam table spot so much that they catered my wedding. Go for the greens in coconut milk and the spicy eggplant, but save plenty of room for the braised beef in a warming, spice-inflected gravy.
Babaganoush (Hamifgash, Jewelers Row)
Glatt kosher never tasted so good. Smoky, garlicky and unforgettable, their take on the famous eggplant spread is the best I've ever had. It doesn't hurt that they serve it with fresh doughy pita, woken up by a couple minutes on the grill.
Black garlic wings at Cheu Noodle Bar
, Stopfleberwurst (foie gras liverwurst with cherry compote) at Brauhaus Schmitz
, sea urchin with warm scrambled eggs at Vernick Food & Drink
, square pizza with sausage and broccoli rabe at Santucci's
, dry saute chicken with black bean sauce no bone at Shiao Lan Kung
, rock shrimp tempura at Izumi
, almond croissant at Artisan Boulanger Patisserie
, vegetarian combination at Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant
, rye bread from High Street on Market
, pita bread soaked in lamb and beef soup at Xi'an Sizzling Woks
LEE STABERT is managing editor of Flying Kite Media. Tell her how wrong she is @stabert.