Looking Back: The Best (and Worst) Restaurants of 2016, Part 1
2016 was a big year in Philly’s restaurant community. We saw the openings of some of the best restaurants in the city–and a couple of the worst. We saw a continued revision of the city’s signature style–this kind of casual-local, over-educated, multiply-influenced neighborhood-level version of new New American that is unique to Philadelphia–and saw a kind of ennui settling into the heart of its cuisine. Fine dining took a few more body blows. Fast-casual continued to boom in a huge way. Our chefs expanded outside the bounds of the city and suburbs as Philly became a national force in cuisine, and we saw some big time national restaurateurs looking at Philly with hungry eyes and wondering what THEY could do here.
So yeah, it was an important year. A formative one. And Foobooz and Philadelphia magazine were there for all of it. This week, we’re looking back at some of the biggest names and biggest moments of the year gone by, and where better to begin than with the most important restaurants of the year?
We started off 2016 drinking. There was a 1st anniversary check-in at the bar at Olde Bar and some satisfaction that it’d finally matured into a place for thoughtful, grown-up drinkers in Philly, and a look at Craftsman Row Saloon (the replacement for Cocos, stuck in place by the team behind Opa), the big discovery here was Martha.
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.
Martha became a bigger and bigger deal as the year went on–hosting cool events, doubling down on the boom in local craft distilling that would soon fundamentally affect Foobooz as a whole, and becoming a place that we regularly visited just to eat and drink and hang out. It was a nice, casual start to the year. But soon after, it was time to talk about…
Joncarl Lachman’s sophomore effort didn’t meet expectations. And while I honestly liked the Italian Market location and hanging out in the dark, cozy space eating bread and olives and drinking something with gin in it, the kitchen just didn’t have their act together.
The menu, in its final form, was unexciting. Neutered. The bisteeya vanished pretty quickly, and specials started going up on the chalkboard next to the bar. And while the kitchen offered a few dishes that looked like interesting collisions between European and Middle Eastern culinary traditions (like pan-roasted squab over fava bean bissara with fingerling potatoes and a quince gastrique), there were even more that read like one-note covers. Sure, there were tajines and shakshuka. There was a goat leg. But very few dishes (on paper, anyway) seemed to have the mash-up poetry and excitement I’d been hoping for.
Which would have been fine—the kind of thing where a menu’s descriptions just can’t possibly do the dishes justice, which happens a lot. Except that once I made it to the table, the kitchen proved to be equally uninspired.
It was an inauspicious start to 2016, and I followed it with a visit to another odd side-project–the streetcorner taco stand opened by Italian specialist Peter McAndrews in Fishtown. Heffe was something of a surprise, actually–a place that I ended up liking more than I thought I would, even if there were some disappointments. Most importantly, though, Heffe became a place that I talked about a lot–using it as an example of the ways in which successful restaurateurs could be creative in the way they approached choosing and utilizing their spaces. I wanted to see a hundred little permanent pop-up style operations open across the city–kitchens that focused on doing just one or two things very well, operating out of stripped-down physical spaces that would keep costs and complications down. And while we haven’t really seen that happening yet, I’m still hopeful.
Ting Wong is probably my favorite restaurant in Philadelphia. It’s certainly one of the places that I keep returning to, month after month and year after year. The reason for the review? A series of shut-downs, management changes and alterations to the kitchen that could’ve totally ruined the place. Luckily, Ting Wong appears to be un-killable. Nothing could ruin it. Honestly, nothing even really changed it that much.
Everyone I asked had a different story about what had happened and what was still in the process of happening. Different owners, different management, a new chef who might (or might not) be the original chef who ran the kitchen back in the day. And this chef might have a new menu in mind, too—something more luxe, more Hong Kong-y—but when I asked a waiter, he laughed at me. Nothing was changing, he said. Nothing ever would. But then he let me pay with a credit card, which I’d never been able to do before.
So how does the new-new Ting Wong stack up to the old-new Ting Wong and the OG Ting Wong? The new-new version is better, how’s that? Not by much, because there wasn’t much better it could get, but it certainly hasn’t suffered at all. I miss the sticky tables a little bit (they added character) and the harsh lighting (I like a place where it’s perpetually high noon), but the food, if anything, is even better—which is the only judgment that truly matters. They do a house soup (you have to ask for it) that’s made with all the bits and pieces of meat scraped up from the cutting boards, all that fat, all that meat, and stock from the bones of all the animals the kitchen runs through in a day. It’s murky and looks like dishwater but tastes amazing—one of the most comforting things imaginable. The last duck I had there was the best I’ve ever had from Ting Wong’s kitchen (meaning, probably, one of the best ducks I’ve ever had, period), but that likely had as much to do with the duck itself as it did with the kitchen. The ginger and scallion noodles were exactly as wonderful as they’ve always been.
Honestly, this is the easiest review I’ve ever written. Should you go to Ting Wong? Yes. Today. If you haven’t been there before, be brave. Dive right in. Order anything. Take chances. None of us know how many lunches we’re going to have on this earth, so don’t waste another one sitting at your desk. Go now.
I’ll meet you there.
It felt good to revisit an old favorite in Chinatown. But soon enough, it was time to move on again, to visit Luke Palladino’s LP Steak at the Valley Forge Casino Resort (which was terribly disappointing and closed within months), and Buckminster’s (which was strange and complicated and had this great plate of bologna that I still remember today–and is also now closed). Revolution Taco fared better, offering a roast duck taco that more or less defined the place (and the whole chef-y taco movement in Philly), but still didn’t blow me away. To its credit, Revolution is still open (and thriving, from what I understand), but it really took until nearly March before I found a new restaurant that could make me feel good about the still-young year. And that restaurant was…
Tredici was a place I could really get behind. It was ridiculously busy and loud and vital. It had a good bar and a great menu. And it was complicated in the best possible way.
Tredici might pitch itself as an Italian restaurant, but that’s just style. That’s just putting on a fancy scarf, smoking Gauloises and calling yourself French even though you were born and raised in Kalamazoo. Most of the best things about Tredici aren’t Italian at all.
That five-dollar half-pour of Terrapura sauvignon blanc? It’s from Chile. The excellent, sweet and slightly funky muscadet is Château Dimerie, and it’s from the Loire Valley. Of the 11 reds on the by-the-glass list, only three are Italian. The lasagna is good, yes—a thin, cheesy square of it, covered with a meaty bolognese but filled with a green verde sauce that balances out the heaviness. If you’re lucky, you’ll get one of the corner pieces, with the tips and edges of the pasta burnt to an almost potato-chip crispness. When I ordered it, I had two different strangers lean in just to tell me that I’d chosen well. That the lasagna was their favorite dish.
But it wasn’t mine. I loved the fried goat cheese with pea shoot pesto, smeared on grilled bread. The shrimp cocktail off the raw bar. And the Israeli couscous—tiny soft pearls of it, studded with almonds, sweet cherry tomatoes and chunks of avocado (I know … ) and topped with a meltingly soft fresh burrata (I know). It sounds terrible, but it tasted amazing—all the contradictory pieces of it coming together into a comforting mess of a dish, wedded together by a basil pesto, served cool and, in my case, in between two expertly prepared gin and tonics, which is just about the best place for any plate to fall.
I feel roughly the same way about the plate of Moroccan-spiced ribs crowned with grilled scallions, and about the yellowtail crudo with pistachio and sun-dried tomato. Neither is quite as good as that plate of couscous, but both are considered and smart. And for the vegetable enthusiasts, there’s a whole spread of equally thoughtful options—from broccoli and avocado speckled with black sesame seeds to a beautifully rustic dish of cumin-scented grilled carrots on a plate smeared with yogurt. Honestly, you can sit down, have a couple drinks, eat a full meal, and not realize until you’re halfway home that you just went to a Mediterranean restaurant or ate nothing but Greek dishes with California wines or missed the pastas entirely.
Tredici was a turning point for me, and for the year. It marked the beginning of a great run of restaurant openings that culminated in the best of the year–even if that review was a few months off yet. But even Tredici couldn’t hold a candle to my favorite restaurant of the year–not the best, but the one I loved more than any other. That I have recommended to everyone who has asked. That I still go to at least once (or twice, or three times…) a month just to revisit my favorites. It was also one of my favorite reviews of the year. And even if you have no interest whatsoever in going all the way out to Spring City just to eat Puerto Rican food, you should still check it out.
Friends, strangers, bartenders, parents in the neighborhood, the guy who sold me new windshield wipers, the woman who cuts my hair–I’ve sent them all to El Rincon. And I have never had anyone come back to me with anything but thanks. I love this place for their mofongo, for their Cuban sandwiches and beans and rice and hot sauce and deep-fried mashed potato balls.
Oh, wait. You’ve never heard about the mashed potato balls? Well check this out:
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.
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.
But I get it. We don’t live in a world where a simple Puerto Rican carb bomb is enough to move the masses all on its own. Even if I tell you that the fried mashed potato ball is only the third best thing on the menu at El Rincon Criollo, that’s not enough. Because I’m asking you to do a couple of pretty crazy things here.
For starters, I’m asking you to go to Spring City (because that’s where El Rincon Criollo is now, since May of last year), and while there’s awesome Puerto Rican food at the end of the journey, for a lot of you, it’s kind of a schlep. I get that.
I’m asking you to find a place that’s hard to find even if you know Spring City—a small storefront mom-and-pop operation with two names (it’s also sometimes called the Latin Corner II) and zero visibility from any regularly traveled road.
I’m asking you to go to a restaurant where the excellence of the food is belied by its plainness, and judged (partly) by the amount of grease soaking through the sandwich paper. Where the hot sauce tastes like some kind of cross between a Chinese sweet-and-sour sauce and the strained liquid from the best salsa ever.
Yeah, and that’s just the start of that epic review. You should really go check it out. And if you’re looking for something to do this afternoon, you should absolutely make the drive and check the place out yourself.
As a matter of fact, I think I might head over there myself today. I feel a powerful urge for a Cuban sandwich and some fried plantains. So let’s pick this up again tomorrow, shall we? We’ve still got a lot of restaurants to get through–including the best of the year, the strangest of the year and one of the worst of all time.
2016 Restaurant Review [Philly mag]