Move over, Cheesesteak. Goodbye, soft pretzel. Philly’s hungry for a new generation of ethnic foods
PHILADELPHIA’S MENU OF iconic street foods is outdated. While we’re talking about cheesesteaks, pretzels and water ice, we’re eating falafel, churros and chapulines (yes, grasshoppers). And it makes sense: The original Philly-defining foods came from the tables of our Italian immigrants and the German-influenced recipes of Lancaster County’s Amish communities. As the face of the city has changed — the Once-Italian Market is now a vibrant combination of Italy, Mexico and Southeast Asia — so have our tastes. No, we’re not ready to renounce hoagies and Tastykakes, but we’re as likely to reach for Venezuelan arepas and wash them down with Asian bubble tea, reimagined in Philly-friendly flavors. Could one of these foods be the city’s next culinary calling card?
Of course Spring Garden’s lone Venezuelan restaurant, Sazon, serves arepas — as a crisp counterpoint to a hearty omelet of fish and fried plantains, as a cornbread bun for a citrusy pulled-pork sandwich, as a cheddar-stuffed snack. And of course you can order arepas, stuffed with spicy Colombian chorizo, at Tierra Colombiana on North 5th Street. The griddle-scorched savory corn biscuits are an essential part of the diet in Venezuela and Colombia. The only Philadelphia-area drawback: You can’t get fluffy handmade arepas 24 hours a day, the way you can in Caracas.
Long a standard at Philadelphia street carts, with devotees arguing the respective merits of the “King” (16th and JFK) and the “Expert” (40th and Locust), falafel — those fried fritters of chickpeas (or, less typically, fava beans) often served in a pita with tahini and hummus — has recently gone mainstream, sold at storefronts throughout the city. (Marigold Kitchen chef Michael Solomonov has even experimented with a cheese-steak falafel.) On street-food-central South Street, Maoz, a Dutch chain, turns out heavily garlicked falafel, and new addition Mama’s Grill offers a crisp, certified kosher version on a tender house-made pita.
In France, crepes from a street vendor are a light treat, the eggy batter smoothed onto a round griddle, lightly coated with butter and sugar, and folded into a pie wedge to go. In Philadelphia, crepes are much fatter. Penn’s Pari Café Creperie in Houston Hall — a stationary version of the former lunch truck — turns out overstuffed savory and sweet crepes. The offerings at the Crepewalk, a popular Penn street cart on Spruce between 36th and 37th, have a similarly Americanized crepe-as-sandwich take. But both vendors hew to Parisian authenticity on one important point: They’re both generous with the hazelnutty Nutella.
The wide straw, more than half an inch in diameter, is an essential component of this Asian version of iced tea, which has its roots in the tea-stand culture of Taiwan. That straw is needed to draw the slightly sweetened tapioca pearls at the bottom of the glass — they have the consistency of gummi bears — up through the cold fruit-flavored liquid. There are many recipes for bubble tea — shaken or stirred or blended with ice, with or without milk, even with or without tea — so it’s no surprise that a trend that began with traditional Asian flavors like taro root has been translated at West Philly’s Bubble House into more Western versions that include Almond Joy, Island Punch and Pumpkin Pie.
Pão de Queijo
Many cultures recognize the snackability of the simple pairing of bread and cheese. In France, the combination is a gougère (though this choux pastry and gruyère version is difficult to find in Philadelphia); in Brazil, it’s pão de queijo, and the crisp-exterior, moist-interior cheese bun is increasingly available here. Often eaten with coffee at breakfast, it’s typically made with slightly sour cassava flour and minas meia-cura, a mild, salty cheese most similar to the often-substituted parmesan. Look for it at Brazilian barbecue destinations like Center City chain Fogo de Chão and the Northeast’s Picanha Brazilian Grill.
It isn’t at all unusual these days to see once-unexpected flavors — black pepper, olive oil, even celery — on the city’s dessert trays. But our Asian markets were far ahead of the anything-goes dessert trend, with offbeat sweets like chewy milk candy and gummi-bear-like treats in flavors from kiwi to lychee. The colorfully packaged goodies aren’t confined to Chinatown; we’re snacking on pumpkin hard candies, green tea jelly and red-bean cakes at accessible Asian supermarket H Mart in Upper Darby, Levittown, Elkins Park and Cherry Hill.
Warm and satisfying, hot chocolate fills an obvious niche on cold Philadelphia winter days, but the cocoa, sugar and water combo found at diners and Northeast high-school football games now has rivals, as the city’s chocolate offerings go international. Explore at South Philly Mexican La Lupe, which melts spicy Mexican chocolate to order for its thin, fragrant brew, or just down the street at très French Rim Café, where sweet chocolate is steamed to a cotton-candy consistency.
When a food becomes available in a cheesesteak version, you know it has arrived in Philly. Witness the cheddar-y cheese-steak empanada at Good Dog Bar in Center City. But more authentic versions of South America’s take on the stuffed turnover can be found throughout the city. Visit the Italian Market, which in recent years has seen an influx of Mexican spots like Molcajete Mixto, with its classic huitlacoche-stuffed empanada. (That’s mushroomy corn fungus.)
Cruise any area supermarket’s snack food aisle and it’s obvious that Pennsylvania loves its spuds: Locally produced Herr’s, Utz and Snyder’s dominate. But the region also has a strong tradition of small-batch potato chips — and a crunch-addicted underground that trades tips on where to score Good’s (blue-bagged original recipe or red-bagged home-style), Kay and Ray’s, and Dieffenbach’s. Lancaster has long been chip central, but recent scouts have spotted these haute chips as far east as New Jersey. Try your luck at non-chain convenience stores or the Reading Terminal Market.
The city remains obsessed with all things Spanish. That’s easy to understand when there are churros to be eaten. This long, ridged, sugar-dusted Spanish doughnut is traditionally fried until the exterior is brittle and the interior is delicately cakey, but in Philadelphia renditions, the batter is extruded more thinly and fried until the pastry is crisp all the way through. Find them at Northern Liberties tapas spot Bar Ferdinand and Graduate Hospital’s Café Apamate. One tradition we can thank the Spanish for: rich, often spicy chocolate for dipping.
You may not want an English translation for this Mexican bar snack. And if you order chapulines in Oaxaca, Mexico, or at Center City’s Tequila’s, you won’t need a translation. These are, undeniably, grasshoppers, complete with antennae. Tequila’s owner David Suro only recently began importing this crunchy Mexican standard, flash-frying the ’hoppers in butter, garlic, lime and tequila, the way he remembers them from his home in Guadalajara. Ask for a bowl of them at the bar; the slightly sweet mahogany bodies are a Spanish-accented answer to peanuts. Or try them wrapped in a corn tortilla with a ballast of chunky guacamole.
Cupcakes have long been an essential part of American childhood, but leave it to a New York joint, Magnolia Bakery, to elevate the miniature treats to the level of trend. In Philly, kid-pleasing cupcakes have so taken center stage in the snack world that it’s getting hard to find a simple birthday cake. At Brown Betty in Northern Liberties, the family recipe for pound cake informs the rich, thickly iced cupcakes. And at Center City’s Grocery, chocolate-on-chocolate cupcakes fit snugly into tailored plastic cupcake suitcases.
Now that Ikea has started serving panzoratti, this onetime Philadelphia favorite, too long overshadowed by its crusty cousins pizza, calzone and stromboli, may make a comeback. The only problem? Ikea calls panzoratti “pizza pockets,” and serves them fast-food-style, from a heat table. It falls to no-frills Vincent’s Pizza in Merchantville to protect the tradition, frying the individual-sized dough shells, stuffed with marinara and handfuls of mozzarella, until the skin blisters, and serving the crisp pizza balloons in waxed paper.
Philly understands waffles as breakfast; they’re a diner standard. But Brussels does us one better with eat-them-anytime, sweet-and-savory gaufres. The gaufres (pronounced “go-fras”) at all three Center City locations of Bonté look like typical waffles, but are made with a thick, yeasty, pearl-sugar-studded dough favored by Belgian street vendors. (Owner Brad Messinger claims to have bought the recipe from a gaufre maker in front of Notre Dame du Finistère.) The waffle is shaped on a hot iron, which darkly caramelizes the exterior while leaving the interior chewy, then served in a paper sleeve.