Skate wing at 26 North | Photos courtesy of Mike Stollenwerk
The 1990s were a bad time for the American restaurant scene. We were, as an emerging culinary entity, in our first youth—like awful (if precocious) toddlers who’d gotten into Daddy’s special juice. All we did was copycat, put things in our mouths and stagger around blindly from impulse to impulse. Sure, we were occasionally cute. Occasionally (accidentally) brilliant. There were great restaurants that somehow managed to avoid all the foibles and excesses of the age, but on balance, almost everything was terrible all the time.
Consider a brief list of things restaurateurs and chefs thought were good ideas in the 1990s:
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Photo by Arthur Etchells
By my own estimate, I consumed 13 billion calories at Urban Farmer the last time I was there. Maybe 13 and a half. I’m not very good at math, but I’m still pretty sure I’m right. And if I’m not, it surely felt that way. So much red meat. So much starch. So much cornbread, hot Parker rolls with melting butter, crumb-topped creamed spinach spooned from a cast iron bowl. So many sea creatures. And all of it—all of it—was so good.
There were problems, sure. The service varied between charmingly bumbling and infuriatingly incompetent. The bathrooms looked, from the outside, like you were entering through a giant shipping crate (which was at least in keeping with the faux-homespun style of the place) and, on the inside, like some kind of throwback to black marble Rat Pack Vegas, missing only the elderly man offering breath mints and Brylcreem (which was not at all). And the dissonance between the foie gras and the gingham—between the rustic Amish barn-raising decor at this third Urban Farmer steakhouse from Sage Restaurant Group and the ultimate price tag, which ran to more than a hundred dollars a head—was disturbing. It creates an all-hat-and-no-cattle kind of cowboy situation. Like some soft-handed politician throwing on a new-off-the-rack Carhartt jacket and a pair of stack-heel boots that have never touched mud and trying to prove his down-home bona fides by eating fried chicken with a fork and knife.
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Mashed potato balls, aka the hand grenades at El Rincon Criolla | Photos by Claudia Gavin
In a sane, just and rational world, all I would have to say is that El Rincon Criollo has fried mashed potato balls on its menu, and all of you would already be halfway to your cars.
We’re talking mashed potatoes, formed around a delicious core of spiced ground beef, dipped in batter that tastes something like crushed-up Cheez-Its and liquid joy, then dropped in the Fryolator. They are delicious in a way that makes you wonder at their legality.
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Tredici | Photo by Emily Teel
From the outside, the light spilling from Tredici’s windows was cool and white, and the glass appeared to be sweating. We could see the crowd—at the bar, clustering around the host’s stand, jamming all the tables. Inside, it was a wall of noise, like stepping into the middle of a party that’s been going on without you for a good long time. To speak to the hostess working the stand, I had to lean over and talk almost directly in her ear.
We were lucky. We snagged the only open table on the floor—an odd corner spot that was all banquette, past the curve where the front room’s bar ends and the counter seating and seats in front of the raw bar begin. The two of us could sprawl across room enough for three. Spread out. Get comfortable.
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Buckminster’s at 22st and Federal | Photo via Buckminster’s
It was the bologna that threw me.
I mean, really, it was everything. But it was the bologna most of all, because I loved the bologna at Buckminster’s—thick-cut quarters of Ely Farm honey bologna, stiff as salami, delicately sweet, tasting precisely nothing like anything you’re thinking of when you think of bologna—and I truly, honestly believe that everyone in the city who loves food and gives even a passing damn for locality and the bounty of this region ought to go there and eat it right now. It was far and away the best bologna I’ve ever had in my life (a life dedicated, more or less, to finding best things and loudly telling people about them), and like all best things, it’s worth going out of your way for.
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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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