Dear Main Line Foodies: Vote With Your Wallets or Quit Whining
There are good restaurants on the Main Line — you’re just not going to them.
Three topics dominate our Main Line poker games, backyard gatherings or dads’ nights at the bar: where our kids are going (or hoping to go) to college, who is going where for work travel, and — the biggie — why there is no good food on the Main Line.
Oh sure, we have pizza, bars with decent pub food, sushi, brunch, and Chinese. But what we would give for a good [insert Mexican, Malay, Central American, Southeast Asian, Korean, and on and on]. For that, they bemoan, we need to go into town. The parking!
One Saturday night, between junior prom photos, bat mitzvah drop offs, and making ourselves available later for chauffeuring, my wife, Molly, and I found ourselves with an opportunity for an impromtu date night. Our kids’ schedules were too vague to risk being a course or two into dinner in Philly before getting a “pick me up” text, so we checked out Pala’a Latin American Seafood in Ardmore, which opened last July.
Pala’a seems to be doing everything to answer my neighbors’ lament. On Google and Yelp, the restaurant rocks a cool 5 stars. One reviewer says, “One of my favorite places around! Very impressed by the delicious menu and outstanding service! The owners are absolutely lovely and really add such a wonderful spirit to their business! If you are in the area, I highly recommend the visit!” Another: “Hard to believe we have such an authentic place in the heart of the main line! In my second visit, I tried the patacon, a sandwich made of pressed plantains instead of bread. Unbelievably good! I would have tasted the whole menu if the portions weren’t so plenty! The staff is super friendly and a very welcoming ambiance. Gotta get there again soon!”
And it’s not like the restaurant is a secret. Its location on Lancaster Avenue is highly visible, and the press has not been shy to let us know about its launch with coverage in Philly Mag, Philly.com, Eater, and Main Line Today, among others.
Driving over, I managed expectations with Molly. It was 7:30 on a weekend night, after all — prime time in Ardmore, and we didn’t have a reservation. Plus, it’s an acclaimed, small BYOB with a nothing over $20 on the menu. “It’s probably packed. There may be a long wait. We may need to try somewhere else,” I warned her. “Just be ready to roll with it.” Because, after all, it’s the Main Line, so there is nowhere to eat. This rare gem will be hopping.
There were just four other covers there — a deuce before us and another after — and one Caviar order.
Here is a restaurant doing everything you want, neighbors — traditional cuisine, patiently explained by the owner, taking us through photos of the dishes on her iPad, explaining ingredients in detail, and talking about her family’s inspiration for bringing them to the inquiring palates of Ardmore. BYOB encouraged. Vegetarian- and pescatarian-friendly (and arepas are even naturally gluten-free). Quick, affordable, flavorful food delivered without fuss. Free parking in municipal lots. A music venue, bars with live music, and plenty of other pre- and post-game opportunities steps away. A block from the train. Family friendly, date-night friendly, take-out friendly, friendly-friendly.
Must be a fluke, right? We repeated our Saturday date the next week with a visit to Bam Bam Kitchen, also on Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore. There we also walked in at prime time with no reservation and no wait and had some legit Korean fried chicken, pajeon, soft tofu soup, and some serviceable mandoo. Ardmore is no Cheltenham, but a walking-distance Korean spot, affordably priced, where my only service gripe was an oversolicitous spice warning, is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
In my five years as a Main Liner, I have seen other great concepts come and go: Barbacoa, Carmine’s Creole Café, Verdad, and, as rumor has it, Sola, to name a few. Good places that delivered on food and service. Places to eat on the Main Line.
I don’t often complain about food options in the burbs. I work in town and frequent all the restaurants my calorie budget and budget-budget allow. When I’m home, I cook or occasionally visit a suburban chain with my kids as a cranky culinary ethnographer. But a message to those who recite the familiar refrain: There are indeed places to eat on the Main Line. Celebrate them. Vote with your wallets.
Or quit whining.
Jonathan Deutsch, Ph.D. is a professor in the Center for Food and Hospitality Management and Department of Nutrition Sciences at Drexel and the inaugural James Beard Foundation Impact Fellow.