In Philly, Southeast Asian flavors are the gift that keeps on giving. In Point Breeze, South Philly and Chinatown, along Washington Avenue and even out in the ’burbs, there are enclaves whose composition and abstract representation of geopolitical borders are constantly shifting and changing. This means Thai and Laotian food on traditionally Vietnamese-heavy blocks, and awe-inspiring Malaysian food in Chinatown. It also means a deepening and broadening of available flavors, so if you’re looking to explore the subtle differences between Malaysian and Indonesian food, Vietnamese that goes beyond a bowl of pho, or Thai more complicated (and delicious) than a simple plate of pad Thai, there are many options.
Indonesia (SOUTH PHILLY)
This old standby is a place where affordability and actual tablecloths intersect with Indonesia’s culinary trademarks — tempeh, satay skewers, jackfruit — and the pervasive sweetness of Javanese cooking (which you can cut with a fiery sambal as you please). Standouts include the “Uprising Tofu” — crunchy deep-fried hunks stuffed with sprouts and bamboo shoots — and rawon, a beef soup given savory depth by keluak nuts. 1725 Snyder Avenue, 215-829-1400.
Sky Cafe (SOUTH PHILLY)
The Sumatran cooking here represents Indonesian cuisine at its closest overlap with Malaysian food. The connection comes out clearly in dishes like mie kepiting (homemade egg noodles with crab) and a thick rendang curry fragrant with warming spices like turmeric and nutmeg. 1540 West Ritner Street, 215-271-1983.
Hardena (POINT BREEZE)
The $7 spreads of three dishes piled on rice at this comforting hole-in-the-wall are straight out of an East Java workingman’s commissary: varied, filling, and authentic as it comes. Stir-fried tempeh with dried anchovies and crunchy matchstick potatoes is a protein punch packed in salty-junk-food disguise. The jackfruit stew strikes the ideal sweet-savory balance. And the lamb satay rocks a righteous peanut sauce as thick as mortar paste. 1754 Hicks Street, 215-271-9442.
Malaysia owes great culinary debts to its Indian and Chinese communities — which is another way of saying, “It’s flatbread and noodle time!” Start with the roti canai, a crispy-stretchy griddled pancake that’s ignited a million love affairs with the mild chicken curry it’s made to sop up. Or if hot-and-sour is your thing, dive into the pineapple-strewn rice noodles of an assertively fishy laksa soup. 117 North 10th Street, 215-413-2531.
Banana Leaf (CHINATOWN)
There’s great roti canai here, too — with a slurrier curry — plus all the stir-fried noodles that showcase Malaysia’s genius for incorporating influences from all directions. (Try the Indian mee goreng, a mash-up of pad Thai toppings, egg noodles and squid sauce that seems like an Indian fantasy of China.) But it’s the traditional fish-head curry, with eggplant and okra and curry leaves by the handful, that’s truly the showstopper. 1009 Arch Street, 215-592-8288.
Le Viet (BELLA VISTA)
The sleekest, shiniest and most sophisticated of the Washington Avenue corridor restaurants is also one of the strongest, with a massive menu of fresh-tasting standards and twists on familiar dishes, like the sautéed clams and pork served in an edible saucer that’s a giant rice cracker. 1019 South 11th Street, 215-463-1570.
This pretty Chinatown standby is one of the most accessible to neophytes. (Same goes for its West Philly sister restaurant, Vietnam Café.) The barbecue platter and stuffed grape leaves alone are worth the trip, and the herbs are always zippy and fresh. Bonus: Flaming cocktails! 221 North 11th Street, 215-592-1163.
Nam Phuong (BELLA VISTA)
This sprawling, no-frills Washington Avenue staple is more of a workhorse than a show pony, though it’s fully earned its rep as the whole city’s go-to for cheap, fast and delicious Vietnamese food. The menu is more than 200 items deep (translation: great for kids, large groups and newbies), and the place is also wildly popular amongst the Philly chef-and-foodie crowd, who obsess over the rice paper crepes, the bo luc lac and the beef jerky salad. 1100 Washington Avenue, 215-468-0410.
Pho 75 (BELLA VISTA)
Yeah, yeah — Vietnamese food is about more than just pho. But if you need a fix of the crazy-popular Vietnamese soup, this Washington Avenue strip-mall superstar is the place for pho, and basically nothing but pho. Just remember: It’s cash-only. 1122 Washington Avenue, 215-271-5866.
Circles Thai (POINT BREEZE)
This mini-chain raised the bar for Thai food in Philadelphia when it opened in 2008, much the way Tiffin did for Indian dining. The original Point Breeze location is still better than the newer one in Northern Liberties, even though the neighborhood is a little sketchy. But Bangkok-born chef and Four Seasons alum Alex Boonphaya’s intensely flavorful and well-prepared dishes make it worth the trip. 1514 Tasker Street, 267-687-1778.
Sa Bai Dee (UPPER DARBY)
The tom yum soup is, hands down, the best in the region, and the amazingly affordable $8.95 lunch special comes with a bowl of it, an appetizer (do the fried tofu) and a sizable entrée. (The green curry is fearsomely hot.) At dinnertime, if there’s a whole fish on the specials board, don’t miss it. Bonus: The restaurant is just a few doors down from the H-Mart Asian supermarket, so you can stock up on fish sauce and lemongrass while you’re in the neighborhood. 7038 Terminal Square, 610-352-1119.
Ratchada (BELLA VISTA)
Like many Thai restaurants, this one is located in Washington Avenue’s Vietnamese district and serves up a combination of Laotian and Thai food. From the former, you’ll want the chicken larb salad. From the latter, the pad prik king shrimp is a favorite. Herbivores will find comfort here, too — primarily in the vegetarian appetizer sampler, with its awesome corn cakes and Buddha dumplings. 1117 South 11th Street, 215-467-1546.
House of Thai Cuisine (NORTHEAST PHILLY)
Good Thai food in Mayfair? Yep, the times they are a changin’. The soups, massaman curry and noodle dishes are the way to go here, and the guys who run the restaurant are friendly as can be. 3520 Cottman Avenue, 215-708-8799.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.