No contest. The clear winners in the 2016 presidential convention game are the Democrats.
Hear me out. Anyone attending the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia at month’s end is bound to discover, as I did last year, that the City of Brotherly Love ranks among America’s best food cities: No. 6, by my reckoning. Not only is it home to supreme sandwich makers, but Philadelphia also delivers some of the country’s best Italian food, at all price points; fashionable vegetarian restaurants; and a smorgasbord of ingredients and iconic eats at the revered Reading Terminal Market. (The last is especially useful, given the many restaurants expected to be fully committed during the July 25-28 event at the Wells Fargo Center.)
The possibilities just get better, I learned after a recent reunion with the city. Since my last visit, the landscape has broadened to include noteworthy Japanese, Malaysian and – there can never be too many – Italian accents. The “it” gastronomic neighborhoods: East Passyunk, dubbed “the future of fine-dining” in the city by Craig LaBan, restaurant critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer; and Fishtown/Kensington, where the artisanal focus borders on the Brooklyn-obsessed.
“Philadelphians want the rest of the country to know they’re about so much more than cheesesteaks and pretzels,” prime as those are, says LaBan. To eat in Philadelphia now is to “see the vitality of a city expanding its seams.”
Is the city ready for a crowd of as many as 60,000? “We just had the pope,” says Gregory Vernick of the esteemed Vernick Food & Drink near Rittenhouse Square. (Observers say that visit was ruinous for some businesses that had to go dark due to street closures and security concerns, but Vernick counted strolls with his daughter on normally busy roads as a small blessing.) At any rate, this isn’t the city’s first rodeo. In 2000, it successfully hosted the Republican convention.
Herewith my nominations for where to eat in Philadelphia. Fasten your feedbags: It’s going to be a lovely bite or two.
Here’s what you get when one owner, chef Joncarl Lachman, is Dutch and another, chef Lee Styer, is Pennsylvania Dutch: a tidy storefront in blue and white that lavishes both ring (tube-shaped) bologna and chipped beef on its eggs benedict and gives diners the option of sweet or savory Dutch baby pancakes cooked in cast-iron skillets. “Can I tell you about the specials?” asks Lachman. “Everything is special.” He and Styer are behind two other popular South Philly eateries, neighbors Noord and Fond, which means dishes from either sometimes pop up at the Dutch. (A recent afternoon found warm duck rillettes, courtesy of Fond.) Omelets and waffles aren’t just for breakfast, by the way; the Dutch stays open till 3 p.m. But you can also get soup or a Cobb salad as early as 8 a.m.
It’s not just the name that tells you what to order in this seafood haunt, where big goblets of gum-ball-size oyster crackers play the role of flowers on the tables. The walls, decorated with vintage oyster plates, and the wrap-around bar, populated by precision shuckers with the gift of gab, also strongly suggest that you get some bivalves. The rest of the menu impresses, too, be it bold snapper turtle soup, a banh mi stuffed with fried soft-shell crab, or grilled bluefish on farro. The chalkboard trumpets a milestone birthday for the restaurant: 40 years of catching, and captivating, old-school lawyers, Center City business types and discerning tourists.
There are conscientious cooks and then there’s Angelina Branca, a novice restaurateur who opened a Malaysian outpost mostly because she wanted to share with Philadelphia the kind of food she grew up with 9,000 miles away. Lucky diners. She uses coconut-shell charcoal, basically smokeless fuel that lets diners taste the many layers (lemon grass, cumin, fennel) of the exquisite marinade on her skewered meats. And one of the two big grills in the narrow yellow BYOB is dedicated to cooking halal (humanely dispatched) meat, including goat that leaves the glowing charcoal as five or 10 sticks of sizzling splendor that only get better with a sweep through peanut sauce. Pulsing with chilies and tamarind, it’s a perfect balancing act. Ribbed stingray stays moist in its wrap of banana leaf, which imparts pleasant grassiness, and nowhere else in this country have I had better beef rendang, soft cubes of meat slow-cooked in coconut cream and treated to a jungle of herbs, sometimes including hard-to-find ginger leaves. A mural of a street market depicts the place in Kuala Lumpur where a young Branca learned to cook from her aunt. In tandem with the chili-fragrant air, the scene lets us in on her story.
The room alone is intoxicating, with guitar music in the background, hammered-copper accents and, in the distance, a dancing wood fire. “I want to relax the eye,” says chef-owner Konstantinos Pitsillides, a former tanner and farmer in his native Cyprus. Then his food starts coming – sardines with spicy tomatoes, charcoal-warmed veal tongue – and you wish you were a crowd rather than a couple. The dips include an Iranian-inspired spread of pistachio, dill and feta cheese, a verdant companion to the house-baked flatbread here. Filleted at the table, branzino cooked in grape leaves resonates with lemon, thyme and rosemary. Meanwhile, dumplings plumped with warm spiced lamb and arranged on minted yogurt evoke far-away and long-ago Armenia. Forget your usual poison and sample a cocktail that hews to the restaurant’s theme. Fair warning: One Cypriot, made with piney masticha, tequila, cucumber and sage, easily leads to another.
First you have to navigate a noisy, ground-floor, all-day Asian cafe and check in with a host at a podium in the rear. But all is calm once you’re led to a door and descend a set of votive-lit stairs to an underground Japanese tavern with charred cedar walls that could pass for Tokyo except that everyone speaks English. Is this the best sushi in town? Pristine baby yellowtail on a pearly finger of warm rice, among other one-bite wonders, suggests it’s a contender. But the small plates are worth Snapchatting, too: notably, lush tuna tartare atop pads of chewy roasted sushi rice freckled with sesame seeds; juicy, deep-fried chicken (karaage); and pillowy bao buns packed with un-Asian – but awesome – corned beef and a wallop of mustard.
Yes, you can get pigeon at this all-day cafe, in the form of a grilled, sliced bird splayed over whatever vegetables look good in the market. But the place’s real strength can be found on the concrete counter of the light-filled dining room: almond croissants scented with orange blossom water that shower your plate – and table and lap – with buttery flakes, and buttermilk bran muffins that buck the usual with their fine crumb and moistness. (Pureed raisins make them sweet.) One of the two co-owners, Pat O’Malley, spent eight years in the pastry department at New York’s Balthazar; his baked goods are proof of time well spent. Lunch finds an admirable hamburger, built with a crusty beef patty and a model sesame seed bun, as well as winning vegetables, sometimes sliced zucchini and summery tomatoes nestled in a bowl swiped with whipped feta. The name of the place is reinforced by the wiry installation hovering over the community table: a cluster of bird cages that double as light fixtures.
South Philly Barbacoa
Tuesday through Thursday, this street cart-turned-storefront is known for its tortas. Friday through Sunday – beginning at 5 a.m. on weekends – it sees overnight workers, then construction crews, followed by restaurant staffers and the church crowd, everyone here for a singular sensation: the best tacos in Philadelphia. The specialty is lamb – shoulder, ribs, face – chopped while you wait at a small, cash-only counter, the front of which is lined with fixings: hot peppers (attention, Hillary Clinton), diced onion, chopped cilantro, guacamole, julienned cactus. Bundling the pleasure are supple tortillas made from corn that’s milled on-site. Husband and wife Benjamin Miller and Cristina Martinez watch over the place, a roost made cheery with maize-colored walls and significant with lithographs of Mexican revolutionaries, farmworkers and others. Keeping those tacos company are lamb consomme, chockablock with chickpeas and tiny noodles, and pancita, which is basically an organ recital you can eat. The word is out: “Earlier the better,” says Miller, who has run out of lamb as early as noon some days. Follow his advice: Call ahead for a status check.
Vernick Food & Drink
No matter how many new restaurants pop up between visits to Philadelphia, I always make time for dinner at Vernick Food & Drink, off Rittenhouse Square. Chef-owner Gregory Vernick, a disciple of the acclaimed Jean-Georges Vongerichten, has a knack for taking the best of each season and turning it into something you can’t wait to repeat: toast heaped with chanterelles and charred eggplant, red curry shrimp on jasmine rice with long beans and peanuts, sweet pea ravioli tossed with braised rabbit and mint. The cocktails are inspired; tequila, grapefruit, cardamom and lime leaves add up to an elegant Palomino. And the service in the earth-toned retreat, which includes a cozy no-reservations lounge up front, underscores the city’s brotherly motto. With the bill comes a house-made marshmallow or petite palmier. What’s not to love?
Wm. Mulherin’s Sons
My nominee for the most beguiling new restaurant in a city rich with choice tables is this expansive haven in hopping Fishtown. Wrought from a long-vacant whiskey blending and bottling facility dating to the 1890s, the interior, set off with mosaic tiles and arched windows, gives everyone a view. The Fireplace Room beckons with a concrete hearth, skylight and repurposed church pews; the Wood Oven Room, an open kitchen, stars the handsome source of heat for the restaurant’s distinctive pizzas. Chef Chris Painter dubs his food “urban Italian,” giving him license to cook outside the box. Triumphs include veal tartare, creamy with Caesar salad dressing, set on toast bites; house-made spaghetti tossed with rings of squid and bottarga; lamb steak jolted with peppercorns and cumin and framed in favas and other beans; and pizza decked out with crumbled lamb, artichokes and a hit of lemon. Throw in some ace drinks and some of Philadelphia’s best servers, and prepare for a long run.
Eating here always makes me wonder 1) when I’ll get to see it again and 2) why more meatless restaurants don’t follow its wonderful recipe for food and service. I know I’m not alone. “We’re not vegetarians,” I overhear a man say to strangers at the next table, “but this is COOL!” Or hot, in the case of a fistful of battered cauliflower nuggets, their kick (thanks to red chili ketchup) tempered by a brushstroke of gingery whipped dal. The menu is small in size but global in mind. Fried tempeh, radish kimchi and Sriracha-spiked Thousand Island dressing make for Seoul-ful tacos, while a pinwheel of wood-smoked, barbecue-sauced carrots lend their sweetness to an asado salad that’s crunchy with pumpkin seeds and colorful with grilled corn and slivers of poblano. The drinks are as serious as at any steakhouse, and the pedigree couldn’t be meatier: V Street is sibling to Philadelphia’s formal Vedge, one of the premiere vegan kitchens in the country.