A Look at the Best of Philly Scavenger Hunt

Every normal month I pick a place that’s been around a while and try to experience it afresh. After all, why should new restaurants get all the love (or lambasting)? But this not a normal month. It’s Best of Philly month.

Open Philly Mag’s August issue and you’ll find 97 shout-outs to the restaurants, chefs, and dishes that rise above all others in their own particular class. That’s a lot. Except it isn’t. Those 97 got whittled down from something like 397. When you go out looking for, say, the best African restaurant in town, you can expect a few detours before you land at your destination.

So this month, I’m steering away from the ordinary in-depth treatment to give you a little taste of what the Best of Philly chase is like. Here, presented in a swift and shifting stream of consciousness that is the clearest windowpane into the ADHD-addled mindset of the BOP scavenger hunt, I present the honorable mentions, surprises, disappointments, and confusions that lie behind it all.

Zahav is the best Middle Eastern restaurant in Philadelphia. Even if you wouldn’t put it in your personal top 10 of city dining, there’s not much use in arguing that. But it’s no excuse for ignoring Manakeesh which, on top of their stellar sweets case (which includes the best baklava in town), has made two notable improvements since its very strong debut: First, figuring out how to curtail the oiliness in their meat-topped flatbreads, which was really their only weak point; and second, making balilah available outside the weekend. This lemony (and pine-nutty) bowl of whole and pureed chickpeas is liable to make you wonder why you’ve been wasting all your garbanzo love on hummus.

What’s the best taqueria in town? Harder question than it sounds. Can anybody really beat the duck barbacoa from Guapos Tacos? No—and yes.

No, when Jose Garces’ truck is actually on the scene, and yes when it isn’t—which is irritatingly often. The Tacos Don Memos truck is reliably open and puts out an al pastor that’s unsurpassed—except of course on Sundays in the spring and summer, when Taquitos de Puebla is churning out better ones at the Headhouse Shambles. I began this particular hunt by thinking the top honor had to go to a truck. I abandoned that notion in frustration over Guapos’ inconsistent hours. But dammit, the best tacos in town come from trucks! Puebla does it both ways, and goes the extra mile by wrapping tortillas around everything including steer eyeballs in its brick-and-mortar operation. It got the nod.

What’s the best wine list in Philadelphia? Easy. It’s whichever one has been most creatively defaced by a ballpoint-pen-wielding wine lover who can no long bear living in a city where a pinot noir that costs $12 in Jersey and $17.50 in Pennsylvania sells for $77 at Rittenhouse Tavern.

Deep breath. Okay, I’ve calmed down. And it should be noted that I didn’t draw those hairy balls on Rittenhouse Tavern’s menu (promise), but only because the perfectly reasonably beer prices chilled me out.

Anyway, Friday Saturday Sunday is still out there fighting the good fight with flat $10 markups, though on a small lineup. And Vedge is on the side of the good and just as well—a flat $25 markup is more than fair for a thoughtfully crafted inventory housed in a historic mansion. Tinto has one of the most geographically focused lists in town (you can practically see the outline of the Pyrenees take shape between the printed lines), but the fact that Garces Trading Company enables you to drink at straight retail prices isn’t extenuating enough to let Tinto off the hook for overcharging. In the end, A.Kitchen rose to the top for articulating something akin to a philosophical stance with its wine list—contra Robert Parker (the guy from The Wine Advocate), pro “natural” winemaking—and bringing a huge number of bottles to Pennsylvania for the first time. Though still, I feel like its pricing has crept up as its inventory has expanded.

Route 6’s chocolate bread pudding with banana ice cream and bourbon caramel is easily the best bread pudding I had all year, and one of the most satisfying desserts. But it tells you something about a fish house when the best thing you eat has no connection to the sea.

Cube Café is not the first place that comes to anybody’s mind when they hear the word “Chinatown,” but they make a lovely sesame-flavored Hong Kong egg waffle. Tragic that we didn’t have space this year for “Best Sesame-Flavored Hong Kong Egg Waffle”.

In the same way, Woodland Avenue doesn’t immediately trigger visions of tortillas, but the colorful Guacamole Mex-Grill makes their own flour ones to wrap around an oily chicken mole, which is a nice touch. Good and cheap churros, too, if that’s the way you roll.

44th Street isn’t going to challenge 13th Street any time soon as the heart of Philadelphia’s culinary boom, but it has blossomed into a winning little restaurant row in its own right. You could set up quite the feedback loop here: Hippie breakfast tacos at Honest Tom’s (while Dylan’s Desire album  careens along in the background), lunch at Tampopo (which serves bibimbap in hot stone bowls, to properly crisp the rice), a beery dinner at Local 44 (or an entirely liquid one at its handsome new bottle shop, which doubles as an informal bar), then a mango Sriracha popsicle at L’il Pop Shop, which will point you back in the direction of Honest Tom’s hangover-curing breakfast tacos. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Have you had a Czech sour cocktail at Vernick yet? It’s made with an herbal bitters called Becherovka. The meringue is so thick and long-lasting that the barkeep gives you a spoon to polish it off when the liquid’s gone. It’s the dog days of August. Go get one of these right now.

Or ring me up and find out whether I’ve finally found an African restaurant I can in good conscience call the best in Philly. This was the most perplexing chapter of the 2012 BOP hunt for me. If I had a banana for every time I cruised my bike to the end of Woodland Avenue without finding Philly’s proverbial jewel of the Nile, I’d be fending off a horde of starving monkeys right about now.

Le Mandinque does a lovely atthieke—a sort of cassava couscous—but mars it with a dollop of frightful mayonnaise and lamb so tough I could barely get my teeth through most of it. There was more tough lamb at Kilamandjaro.  Their poulet Senegal may be the best half-chicken in town, but one dish does not a BOP-worthy restaurant make. Another honorable mention, though, for Le Bercail, whose fried whole fish proves that tilapia can indeed taste good.  What I’d give for another species, though! Kaffa Crossing, which had risen to the top of my Ethiopian list, fell a notch when I went to confirm my fondness for it. That’s not to take away from its wonderful kitfo—raw beef tingling with bird’s eye chilis and cardomom—but it made me think that there’s no one Ethiopian place in town that comprehensively surpasses all the others.

What happened to Memdee’s, whose Liberian cooking rubbed Craig Laban and Rick Nichols the right way back in 2007? I don’t know. Whenever I called, I got a voicemail recording by what sounded like a 16-year-old girl apologizing for not being home.  Similarly, Le Baobab’s proprietor gave vague replies whenever I called her, and her storefront was dark whenever I passed it going up Woodland.

But it took a call to Medina African Take Out on 52nd Street for things to get truly bizarre. Their voicemail message informed me that the restaurant had relocated two doors down, “to inside the Crown Fried Chicken.” Click.  A call to Crown confused me further, so I hopped once more on my bike.  When I pulled up, a man of what looked to be south Asian descent was standing in the doorway, as though he had been waiting for my arrival. He shook my hand and showed me inside. The Crown Fried Chicken sign above the door had been partly obscured by a canvas advertising Medina African. And indeed, there was a menu posted to a wall inside offering enticements like “chicken and lamb with yucca cooked in palm oil with fish flavor.”

“Can I have that?” I asked, pointing toward the Medina menu.

“Yes,” he replied, “but only after 2pm.”

Until then, only fried chicken! Which lay in batter-fried pieces on a warming tray, behind glass whose thickness suggested it might be bulletproof. Crown/Medina has no chairs or tables, and it was half past noon on the day of my BOP deadline. I said I’d need to come back.

And I will, soon. Whose house should I bring the grub to?

Best of Philly 2012 [Philadelphia magazine]