Duck Tacos at Revolution Taco | Photo by Claudia Gavin
The first time I walked into Revolution Taco, they were playing “Blister in the Sun,” and all the people in the neighborhood were still getting used to it. At the counter, everyone seemed to know someone.
Your first time?
You’re gonna love it. This place is great.
The tables were crowded, and turned over quickly. The space was spare, clean, simple—just a box painted yellow, blond wood tables, the barest necessities. Lunch rush was running the small kitchen ragged, and customers kept coming as fast as the crew could get them out the door, but the place wasn’t much more complicated than the food truck (or trucks, really) that it’d been born of. A roof instead of wheels. An open kitchen to replace the submarine claustrophobia of a repurposed panel van. But the vibe was the same: Get ’em in, give ’em tacos, get ’em out.
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LP Steak at the Valley Forge Casino | Photo by Nick Valinote
The steakhouse is the dullest kind of restaurant.
There’s no surprise in a steakhouse. No shock, no awe. The best things you can hope to happen in a steakhouse are that someone grills your hunk of meat to the temperature you find most pleasing and doesn’t leave any shells on the shrimp in your cocktail. That’s success in the steakhouse world. The bar is low. With the proper motivation, a cat could work the line in the average steakhouse kitchen (imagine the hairnet!), and I say this having worked at a couple myself. The hardest thing about working a steakhouse job? Counting to 40, because that was how many steaks I could fit on the grill in front of me at any one time. And while, granted, this was at a time in my life when my successfully counting to 40 was by no means a guarantee, I still managed it. Because I knew Mittens the calico was out there gunning for my gig.
With all this in mind, I can also say that a great steakhouse is a rare and wonderful thing. Because of their simplicity, their elemental charms (meat, fire, paintings of horses) and their lack of anything whatsoever challenging to the appetites or worldviews of the majority of American eaters, steakhouses can be comforting. They can be the blank canvas onto which are written epic nights. (The martinis help.) Almost all of us have a steakhouse we love, tucked away somewhere in our past.
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Ting Wong | Philadelphia magazine
I go to Ting Wong for lunch—hiding out at a sticky table along the wall, hot tea and perfect shrimp congee in front of me. I’ve got a book (something with spaceships and ray guns) in one hand, spoon in the other, and I’m smiling because I’m supposed to be eating at some hotel restaurant a few blocks away, but I got there and hated it (hated the vibe and the look of it and the feel it gave me walking through the door), so I about-faced and retreated here, which, yes, was probably the wrong thing to do (considering my job), but it feels good, like skipping school, so I’m happy.
I go to Ting Wong for an early dinner and everything on the block smells like hot, wet garbage, but my dinner is excellent. On another day, I drop by for a quick plate of roast pork over white rice—the meat pink, honey-sweet but also complex with ginger and garlic and five-spice—just because I’m cutting through Chinatown on my way to somewhere else. The pork needs nothing. It is delicious as it is, fanned over rice, shiny under the harsh lights that seem designed to allow no shadows. But if you’re smart, you’ll ask for a little bowl of chopped ginger and scallion—bright green like pickle relish but so much better.
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Bellicimo Burrito at Heffe
They were taking the Christmas lights down at Heffe on the day I showed up. Everyone was wearing gloves and hats; collars turned up against some of the first serious cold of the year. It was the kind of afternoon that made the smooth white stones of the outdoor seating area, the picnic tables, the sand-colored stucco of the walls and all the lime, the chilies, the summer-sunlight flavors kind of a joke. Who eats street tacos in January? In Philly?
No one but me … and the half dozen people already waiting ahead of me, and the additional half dozen who filed in behind. Enough people that maybe it isn’t really a joke anymore, but a question—semi-serious and a little bit darker: How desperate for tacos do you have to be to risk frostbite in Fishtown just to get your fix?
Heffe has no indoor seating, just those red picnic tables. There’s no dining room, no service, no silver, no booze. No credit cards are accepted (it’s cash on the barrelhead, but relatively cheap), though if you count the two column heaters and those Christmas lights (now gone), an ATM makes up fully one quarter of the exterior decor.
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The Bouillabaisse at Neuf / Neuf
I was excited when Joncarl Lachman told me his next restaurant was going to be a French/North African concept. A little bit bistro, he said, but with the techniques and textures of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. A little gin at the bar, or maybe French 75’s drunk fast so the bubbles get right up in your nose. Flavors like the Marrakesh night market lit on fire.
And I was into it because Neuf was new—high-end North African food not being something you see much around Philadelphia—and because Lachman is good at doing new. He’s committed to turning geopolitical oddities (like Dutch/Scandinavian regional modernism at Noord, or a one-night-only rijsttafel pop-up dinner in collaboration with the crew from the Indonesian workingman’s cafe, Hardena) into satisfying, comforting dinners where the curation of the menu is nearly as important as how it all comes together on the table.
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Martha is coming to York Street in Kensington.
2113 East York Street, Kensington
Expectations were high for Martha, the Kensington bar from hospitality veteran Jon Medlinsky. For years he’d been the beer steward at the Khyber Pass Pub. He’d been a server in the Garces orbit before that, and it was an open secret around town that he was planning his own bar. What wasn’t clear was what his vision was.
But now that Martha has opened, we’ve been able to see what Medlinsky was dreaming about for all those years. It’s a two-story-tall cube with a long bar on one side, a fireplace on the other, and a turntable providing the soundtrack—a place unlike anywhere else in Philadelphia, yet with a focus on local … everything.
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Warm romanesco : butternut squash vinaigrette : sunflower seeds : toasted oat milk froth | Photo by George Sabatino
I have never before been stricken speechless by beets, but I was at Aldine. Big beets—chunks of them cut like kebab meat, that require days of preparation (marination, dehydration, poaching, having bedtime stories read to them, whatever) to give them the texture of rare steak. Beets that taste of pickle-y bitterness and garlic and a lingering, building chili heat. They came on a plate as beautiful as all the plates at Aldine, a shallow bowl in which they sat clustered together, punctuated by razor-thin slices of radish and a smear of sour yogurt and curled puffs of beet chips that I would’ve gladly eaten from a bag while sitting on my couch.
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The bar at Coeur | Photo by Emily Teel
The first time I went to Coeur, there was no poutine on the menu, and I was pissed. I mean, this place—opened in September by Brendan Hartranft, Leigh Maida and Brendan Kelly, who also run the decidedly non-Canadian Local 44, Strangelove’s and Memphis Taproom—was supposed to be a Montreal-inspired gastropub, and I’m pretty sure there’s a law that says if you name-check Montreal anywhere in the description of your restaurant, you have to have poutine.
Hell, even the faintest whiff of Canadian-ness in your restaurant (a maple tree growing within sight of the front door; chef went to Toronto on a sixth-grade field trip; owner’s cousin likes the Edmonton Oilers) and you should probably have poutine on the board just to be safe. But when you self-identify as the Montreal-iest restaurant in all of Philadelphia, there should be no question because poutine is to Montreal as cheesesteaks are to Philly—a city-defining dish, local blue-collar bar grub gone international, and the best possible argument for socialized medicine.
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Vietnamese Paella at Papaya | Photo via Papaya Vietnamese Contemporary Tapas
On a Sunday night in late November, we weren’t the only table at Papaya Vietnamese Contemporary Tapas, but it was close.
My wife and I were there, drinking water because the place is BYO and we’d forgotten to pick up a bottle. There was the couple in the corner (smarter than us, drinking, all twinkling smiles and holding hands like they were auditioning for a jewelry store commercial,) and a family sprawling across two tables in the middle of the long, spare, narrow room—half-eaten plates of short ribs and papaya salad and special-of-the-night scallops scattered across the dark wood tables. Owner and chef Patrick Le was standing at the open kitchen’s pass, plating desserts. His mom, Thuy, shuttled back and forth between the kitchen and the big table where she sat (briefly) to talk with the family, who were obviously regulars and obviously having a great night.
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Carolina Shrimp and Anson Mills lobster grits | Photo by Emily Teel
The first time I had chef Paul Martin’s food, I was standing in the street. Or a parking lot, maybe. Under a tent and the night sky. We both were—the two of us in attendance at some food festival or another—and though I don’t recall precisely what he was serving (shrimp for sure; some kind of sauce as smooth and rich as velvet), I do remember its effect. I couldn’t stop talking about it, demanding that people drop whatever they were eating and go, immediately, to taste what Martin was cooking. Eventually, I’d annoyed enough people and driven away all my friends and was free to just circle Martin’s table alone like a fat shark, pathetic but happy.
Martin was cooking at Mamou then, a Cajun-Creole place over on 13th Street, and though it was one of those restaurants that seemed to be overlooked by pretty much everyone, I went there, ate, drank—hoping only to get more food and more of those hot, immediate stabs of joy I’d experienced on the street.
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