“Oh my God if you don’t feed me some of that food I’m gonna eat your hipster face off.”
And okay, so that line wasn’t exactly overheard at Sketch, the Fishtown burger joint that’s been slinging sloppy sirloin towers and edgy attitude on East Girard for the past three years. But it has been said. By a dog. In the form of a cartoon caption pinned to the wall above the register.
You’ll have to look a while to find it, though. Construction-paper cartoons, Crayola portraits, borrowed-pen masterpieces and sketches of every sort plaster the multi-colored walls nearly to the cobalt ceiling at Phyllis Farquhar’s idiosyncratic eatery.
No, strike that last adjective. “Idiosyncratic” is an understatement. It doesn’t do due justice. What Sketch looks like is the inside of a kindergarten classroom where the drinking fountain’s been hooked up to a vat of electric Kool-Aid. And that’s before you even look at the menu.
You can get an American Kobe burger with vegan tahini here. Or standard-issue sirloin with practically an entire avocado fanned out over a mound of mushrooms doused in truffle butter. Or a pretty outstanding vegan burger (its potato-based patty stuffed with a wild assortment of beans, pulses and grains) with a fried egg, bacon and blue cheese on top, if you want. If politically incorrect juxtaposition is really your thing.
Basically, you can get anything you can think up—which is a little ironic, considering reports that Farquhar tried to sell her then co-owner on a sign proclaiming “It’s my way, not your way” back when they opened the place.
At Sketch, Farquhar’s championed veganism with a laissez-faire attitude toward animal-eating that could use more acolytes around town these days. At a moment when eco-righteous sanctimony is threatening to trump actual cooking (I’m looking at you, Fare), Sketch’s no-bullshit, what-you-see-is-what-you-get ethos is a welcome blast of cheeseburger-scented air.
Yes, there are some issues (for example, the unusually thick layer of carbonization on the meat burgers here), but for the most part these are good-value patties that people of all ideologies and income levels can get behind. My truffle butter burger came out perfectly medium rare. The vegan burger nails the balance between squishy interior and crispy singed edge. When I first came to Sketch three years ago, the turkey burger was one of the best I’d ever had—thanks to an injection of dehydrated vegetables reconstituted with olive oil. But this time around I had to save room to sample other parts of a menu that’s grown quite a bit from Sketch’s beginnings, when Farquhar aspired to offer “only five things.”
Now there are thick-cut, twice-fried Belgian frites—topped, if you know what’s good for you, with green chilies and a gooey lava flow of cheese. (The fries themselves were moister than they should have been, making an unadorned order less of a winning proposition, but with the oozing cheese version, sloppy moistness is kind of the whole point.) In that same junky, sloppy way, a daily special of kung pao chicken wings was totally worthwhile, walking the heat/sweet tightrope with rather more success than your average Chinese takeout spot. And there’s pulled pork, too—braised in Dr. Pepper, but with the high-fructose corn syrup held judiciously in check so that it contributes to (rather than rides roughshod over) those dark strings of juicy pig meat.
A body needs to drink, of course. If you’re a health nut, you’ll be heartened to find bottles of Bai coffee-fruit antioxidant infusions in the cold case. (Sumatra Dragonfruit, perhaps? Forty times more antioxidant power than acai berries!) If you’re not, there are giant milkshakes. The malted chocolate was a little reminiscent of McDonald’s, but the coconut smacked of an equatorial paradise reduced to liquid form.
There are also vegan shakes, made with vegetable oil, but paying $7 for the pleasure of drinking one struck this dairy-lover as an iffy proposition. Once I’d tasted it, I wasn’t sure it would be worth it even if that seven bucks had been coming in the opposite direction.
Just the same, I’m sure there are plenty of enlightened folks who appreciate having the option. So good on Farquhar for throwing it into a mix that also embraces stuff as no-brow as those cheese fries. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Emerson. And so is the holier-than-thou tenor of Philly’s creeping farm-to-table fundamentalism. The City of Cheesesteakerly Love is never going to lack for down-and-dirty feeding troughs, of course. But this three-year-old spot, with its ebullient mash-up of sermon-free veganism and sloppy-good griddle fare, is a place you can feel good about surrendering to.