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.
Philadelphia Inquirer critic, Craig LaBan has spent the last three months becoming a pho expert. LaBan has traversed Washington Avenue, explored Chinatown and peeled back the mystery of East Kensington’s pho culture to come up with his list of the best pho in Philadelphia.
Along the way, LaBan discovers, tips, tricks and some off-the-menu requests that can elevate your pho sojourns as well.
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.
PRO TIP: If you add the cold garnishes a little at a time, they won’t cool the soup too quickly … and the heat plus garnishes will make for a more aromatic soup.
A Twitter follower had tipped us off that the postage stamp-sized Cafe Nhu Y had closed its doors at 8th and Christian. And after a lot of denial, we’re willing to admit that our favorite bargain banh mi spot is indeed gone for good. A similarly distressed Naked Philly confirms the closure.
And in the Italian Market, there’s the odd story about the closing of five-month old Torero Tapas Bar. The Torero web site has the paella and tapas bar moving/merging with Tabblon in Drexel Hill. The Passyunk Post reports that a neighbor says it was a landlord dispute that led to the closing.
On a recent visit to one of the many hole-in-the-wall pho joints on Washington Avenue, I saw a table of large white construction workers slurping up noodles. And while there might not be anything strange about that today, things weren’t always that way. Twenty-five years ago, when Benny Lai took over Vietnam on 11th Street from his family, no one in this town who didn’t grow up on home-cooked Asian food knew a pho from a bun. Lai opened the door, making the food more accessible while getting lots of us drunk on Flaming Volcanos and other tiki concoctions. These days, there are plenty of Vietnamese restaurants in town. But Lai’s Vietnam (and the mirror-image Vietnam Cafe in West Philadelphia) remains the place for Vietnamese dinner with out-of-towners, the in-laws, etc. Order the barbecue platter (Lai’s version of the pu pu platter), salt-and-pepper fried shrimp and some of those flaming drinks, and you’re good to go.
First appeared in the April, 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
Zahav is once again hosting a very Jewish Christmas. On Monday, December 23rd, it will be Vietnamese food and a movie. And this year the food will serve as a menu preview of Tyler Akin’s upcoming restaurant, Stock, a Vietnamese restaurant that Akin (a sous chef at Zahav) is opening at 308 E. Girard Avenue in Fishtown.
The movies are a surprise, but will most likely be R-rated. Price is $55 per person and excludes beverages, tax and gratuity.
On Monday, the New York Times dedicated hundreds of words to Atlantic City’s Vietnamese restaurants in an article entitled “Where the Pho Is a Sure Thing”. Now, it may seem strange that a paper like the Times would head to our little gambling town for Vietnamese noodle soup. I mean, surely there are zillions of great Vietnamese spots in New York. There must be, right? Read more »
I’m not exactly sure how you pronounce the name of Mi Dac Ky, the newest restaurant addition to the bustling Washington Avenue food district. But I do know that I want to try their “Chinese/Vietnamese Hoagie”: Peking duck, housemade duck liver pate, cucumber, carrots, jalapeños and cilantro on a French baguette. Read more »