Have You Eaten Here Yet?
Summer is a tough time in the restaurant industry. Things get quiet and weird when the mercury climbs. People eat later. They leave town. They abandon their regular haunts for beer gardens, beach bars and rooftop decks. Autumn is solid. Winter is dependable–there’s the run-up to the holidays, and then the post-New-Year slump. Even spring has its own kind of rhythm, with reservations and walk-ins increasing in direct relation to the calendar ticking forward through March and April and May.
But summer? Summer is fickle. Summer is flighty. Summer is something that most restaurants just survive.
The good news? The season is almost over. We’re rolling inexorably toward September now, toward Labor Day and back-to-school. But before we slide into fall and all of fall’s new openings, this seems like a good time to look back over the past six (or seven) month’s worth of reviews and see where we stand. To measure what we’ve gained, what we’ve lost and where you should still get to (or get back to) before all the new kids on the block get up and running for the season.
And the most obvious place to start is…
Double Knot (Reviewed: May 26)
Look, if you haven’t been here yet (for lunch, for drinks, for happy hour at the bar and dinner down in the basement), I’m not sure what to tell you. I reviewed it back in May, and it has only gotten better as it settled into a groove. We named it the Best New Restaurant In Philly in this year’s Best Of Philly issue. It took the highest spot of any of the new restaurants that made it onto this year’s 50 Best Restaurants list. I still use the broiled sea bass I had there as the standard against which I judge all fish dishes in Philadelphia (and not a single one has measured up). Of the 24 restaurants I have reviewed in the past seven months, Double Knot stands alone in terms of all-around excellence.
As a matter of fact, there’s only one place that comes close, and that is…
Wm. Mulherin’s Sons (Reviewed: June 30)
If everything else skin-deep about Mulherin’s can be bought (has been bought), then the smell is different. That, you have to earn. It’s wood smoke from a well-ventilated pizza oven being put to the best possible use by a galley crew who can play it like a barroom piano. It’s yeast, alive and funky, and hot oil and garlic in the pan. It’s charred tomato and that sweet, almost grassy smell of onions being sweated and the heavy metallic tang of charring meat. On a good day, you can catch the smell of Mulherin’s from Frankford Avenue. Get much closer and it’ll lift you right off your feet and carry you straight through the doors like you’re a cartoon hobo smelling pie cooling on a windowsill. And the staff—the floor crew in their stripes and blue jeans—will be waiting for you.
“Here for dinner?”
“Right this way.”
That’s what I remember most about Mulherin’s. The smell of it. That and the pizza, the double margherita, which might have been the best new pizza I’ve had all year and among the best being served anywhere in the city. If you’re not already a regular here, you should be. If you don’t go out of your way to go here as often as possible, we really have nothing more to talk about. Right now, Mulherin’s might be the ideal example of what makes Philly’s food scene great–what we do best, which is making these beautiful, casual, brilliant bars and restaurants where everything is twice as good as it needs to be. They aren’t fine dining. They aren’t neighborhood joints. But rather they’re something suspended at the perfect point in between those poles. They are the NEW New Americanism (post-California, post-modern, post-farm-to-table), and they are where our cuisine is heading in the future. And how often does the future come to Philly first?
Oh, and while we’re talking about new, what about…
SuGa (Reviewed: May 5)
No, I didn’t love SuGa. Hell, I barely even understood what they were trying to accomplish at SuGa–some strange mash-up of borderless fusion modernism and a greatest hits mix-tape of Susanna Foo’s glory days. But I gotta respect this place for its boldness, its commitment to trying something new, and the fact that the new menu that recently rolled out is, if anything, even weirder than the one that was in place when I reviewed it. They’re banking heavy on the idea of pushing fusion cuisine well beyond the dull boundaries within which it has roamed for two decades or more, and that’s laudable.
I mean, the easiest thing in the world would have been for Foo to simply re-make her landmark Walnut Street restaurant. With the loving nostalgia she enjoys here, it would’ve been an almost guaranteed success. But she didn’t do that (or at least not completely), and instead takes chances here, in this kitchen, that would likely ruin any other restaurant. So if you’re looking for a taste of this city at its genre-defying extreme, give SuGa a try. I’m not going to tell you that you might not come away disappointed, but I can guarantee you won’t be bored.
Hungry Pigeon (Reviewed: April 28)
Same goes for Hungry Pigeon. Scott Schroeder is one of the most iconoclastic chefs in a city full of iconoclasts. Breakfasts here are pretty much the definition of how good a neighborhood breakfast joint can be. Lunches are comforting and casual. And at dinner, when Schroeder and his crew lay down the tablecloths and turn down the lights? That’s when things get fun. With its ever-changing menu and borderless culinary aesthetic, dinner at Hungry Pigeon is less like a meal out and more like dinner in at the home of that one weird friend who owns 300 spice bottles and has twenty different kinds of mustard in the fridge.
Also, not for nothing but the egg sandwich here is probably the best you’ll ever have. I don’t even know why. But I can say that I love it beyond all reasonable limits, and if you haven’t already been in for one, you’re missing one of the three greatest sandwiches of the year. The other two both require a trip out to the ‘burbs, but can be found at…
El Rincon Criollo (Reviewed: March 3)
Is it worth the drive to Spring City just for a great Cuban sandwich? Of course not. If you’re going all that way, you should also pick up some mofongo and a roasted pork plate with rice and beans and hot sauce from this little, middle-of-nowhere strip mall hole-in-the-wall. And also some deep-fried mashed potato balls.
Yeah, you heard me right.
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.
I mean, to eat a fried mashed potato ball in this day and age? In this psychological climate of kale salads, yoga and green juice? Baby, that’s like taking your mortality in your hands, squishing it down into the shape of a hand grenade, deep-frying it and then eating it. It’s like being devoured by a lion or dying facedown in a mountain of cocaine—if you’re found dead with a half-eaten fried mashed potato ball next to you, no one is going to shake his head at the untimely tragedy. That, they will say, is a man who went out on his own terms. He was living his best life right till the very end.
The other sandwich can be found at…
Stove & Tap (Reviewed: June 23)
It’s a great restaurant for Lansdale. For anywhere in the suburbs, really. It’s big and polished, run by a couple of veterans of Steven Starr’s restaurant empire, and has a menu full of things that go great with cold beers and long afternoons.
But the brisket dip sandwich with melted gouda and horseradish mayo is this kitchen’s masterpiece. No matter what else you’re getting when you come here, you should order two of these as well–one to eat in the car on the way home, and one to eat when you get sad that the first one is gone.
Tiki (Reviewed: August 11)
Autumn may be coming, but for today, it’s still summer. And summer is when Tiki should be experienced. Go while you can still hang out by the big, open windows, or on the rooftop deck. Go while drinking tiki drinks is something you can do in a celebratory way, not as medicine against sleet and ice and another gray day where the sun never really rises. If you haven’t been to Tiki yet, you still have some time to experience it at its best. But I really don’t understand what you’ve been waiting for.
Sate Kampar (Reviewed: May 19)
Double Knot is better. Wm. Mulherin’s Sons is better. Depending on your definition of “better,” there are maybe dozens of restaurants in Philly that are better than this small, crowded Malaysian restaurant that opened on East Passyunk this year. But there is no place in this city where I had more fun than at Sate Kampar. It was a beautifully imperfect experience every time I ended up there–and has remained so every time since.
But if I’m being honest with myself, I have probably recommended Sate Kampar to more people than any other restaurant on this list. To visiting friends, to chefs coming through town, to the parents of coworkers and my in-laws and just about anyone else who has asked me where they ought to go if they have just one night in Philly and want to have a great meal. I mean, it’s a small, crowded BYO in a former shoe store on East Passyunk Avenue, opened by a husband and wife team who came from outside the restaurant community, serving meat on sticks and killer coffee drinks to overflow crowds every night. What could be more Philly than that?
Actually, though, that’s not entirely true. I guess there are actually two places that I might recommend more often than Sate Kampar. And they are…
Ting Wong (Reviewed: January 21)
Ting Wong is my favorite restaurant in Philadelphia. It has been for a very long time. Even if it burned down tomorrow, it would likely remain my favorite restaurant in town for years. It represents everything I love about Chinatown: Weirdness, surliness, strange smells, mysterious origins, hard-earned comfort, headless ducks and delicious rewards for those willing to take a chance on something unfamiliar.
Tom’s Dim Sum (Reviewed: May 12)
It has the best scallion pancakes you’ll ever have. It has the best soup dumplings in the city. It has the greatest location of any restaurant ever (hidden under a bridge, on the outskirts of Chinatown), and if you eat here at night, in the rain, it feels like you’re living a scene from Blade Runner which, to me, is the ultimate compliment I can give to any restaurant.
This is how I described my feelings about Tom’s, now that it is back under the command of Tom Guo:
There are a lot of restaurants in this town that I go to because it’s my job. There are some I find myself in because life is strange and sometimes the lesser of many evils is a plate of greasy mozzarella sticks and a hip flask of Jim Beam and Coke at 3 a.m. Others I go to because I get caught up in the excitement just like everyone else—the frenzy of the new—and want to be there to see what all the fuss is about. To weigh this particular fuss against the fuss of last week and whatever fuss might be coming along next.
And then there are places I go to because I simply can’t not go. Because something in them draws me like gravity—a comfort beyond simple sustenance, strong drinks or good company. The new and improved Tom’s Dim Sum is like that. Get me within a block or two and I’ll find my course bending inevitably toward its weird, trollish location in the 11th Street tunnel on the edge of Chinatown. I’ll find excuses to go. Because I’m hungry, sure (I’m always hungry), but also because the cops go there, and cops (like cabbies, like strippers) have a sixth sense for finding the good, cheap stuff. Because when it’s raining, the water sheeting off the mouth of the tunnel as it runs beneath the Hilton and the garden of umbrellas that blooms around the crosswalk makes me feel like I’m living in the opening scene of Blade Runner. Because it serves the best scallion pancakes I’ve probably ever had in my life (a whole plate of them for less than $4, enough to make a meal of if you’re dangerously close to broke), and that’s only one of the great things the kitchen is capable of. And because going there feels like finding something hidden even if it isn’t really at all, and something special even if the menu is a mess (too long, too deep, too full of things like Chinese cabbage dumplings that even I will probably never order, and 23 different kinds of noodle soup) and the service is inept in the most well-meaning way and the space itself looks like the offspring of a one-night stand between a well-off suburban Italian bistro and a Shanghai Chipotle franchise. Plus neon.
So, yeah. If you haven’t been, go. Go tonight. Go right now. Get there before you get distracted by the next new and shiny thing that comes along. If you order the scallion pancakes (and ask for them a little bit well done) and a plate or two of soup dumplings, I promise you won’t be disappointed.
With any luck, I might even see you there.
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