Our Restaurant Critic’s Hands-Down Favorite Meals of 2019
Philly Mag restaurant critic Jason Sheehan recaps his favorite food moments of the last year.
For those of you who are looking for something new, something awesome or something that you’ll only find here in Philly, I’ve got the one list that matters most to me: My five best meals of the year.
Listed in no particular order, these are the ones that stuck with me for weeks or months — the best things I ate in a whole year filled with eating, and why they mattered so much to me.
So let’s begin with…
The toong tong at Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon and My-Le Vuong’s little Thai BYO in Bella Vista are worth coming for all on their own. Delicious, crisp-skinned beggar’s purses stuffed with potatoes and curry, each tied with a little leaf ribbon, they are beautiful, complex, served with a side of chili-spiked sauce for dipping, and absolutely indicative of the kind of Thai cuisine on offer here. It’s party food. Comfort food. A greatest-hits collection of true Thai flavors that Suntaranon learned from her mother and brought here to Philly.
The fish cakes and curries, the chicken wings marinated in fish sauce, the whole branzino served table-side in lime broth with chilis — all of these are worth coming for. All of them are worth trying. But what made my meals at Kalaya some of the best of the year were the way every one of them just made me want to come back again and again.
There’s no other place this list could start than behind the half-hidden door around back of Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in Fishtown; than at one of the handful of seats at Hiroki Fujiyama’s perfectly spare, perfectly uncluttered, expectation-shattering omakase restaurant. It was, by a long reach, the most remarkable restaurant experience I had this year. In several years, maybe.
Was it the best food? Maybe. Probably. But that’s not really the point here. The thing that truly, deeply moved me about the place was the way that it upended expectations — the way I was able to walk in absolutely cold, jaded, “expecting just more stupid excellence at a place you know must be good because of the names involved and the money that Hiroki is charging,” and then to have that cynicism defeated at every turn by simplicity, charm, brilliance and the pursuit of an unreachable perfection. From the sting of freshly-grated wasabi and the architectural assumption of single dots of red chili paste dabbed onto the empty expanse of a white plate to the carefree splash of soy over rice and the messy indulgence of a toro hand roll served like an ice cream cone across the bar, there were very few moments at Hiroki that unfolded precisely the way I expected — and none that I will ever forget.
In this town so obsessed with pizza, Angelo’s is different.
It has no ego. Puts on no airs. There’s no subtle bragging about imported ovens or D.O.P. flour, deliberate barriers to entry or the staff’s travels through mysterious Italian towns full of secret pizza monks. It is a street corner, South Philly pizza joint (born, originally, in New Jersey) that aspires to be nothing other than that. It is a purely neighborhood restaurant — seats on the stoop, no phone, regulars that everyone knows by name.
But the pizzas are amazing. The sandwiches are heavyweight champs. The Upside Down Jawn is a monstrous pizza kaiju — a thick-crust red top as gooey and impossibly stretchy as pizzas you see in cartoons — and it weighs something like 10 pounds. Sitting there on the steps of the barbershop next door, in the heat of summer, surrounded by the smells of tomatoes, garlic and char, waiting for the girl behind the counter to call your name and hand over your Friday-night pies is such an iconically Philly moment that it dwarfs the scramble for reservations, the breathless Yelp reviews and the sectarian squabbling over authenticity that bookends so many other high-end pizza experiences in this town.
It feels like there’s no way to talk about the successes of Vernick Fish without also discussing the let-downs of Jean-Georges 59 floors above it in the Comcast Tower. It feels like there has to be something said about the relationship between the two chefs (Greg Vernick worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten back in the day), and the two very different approaches to feeding this city. It feels like you have to say a thousand things to set up the idea that this ground floor, Jersey Shore tribute restaurant by one of our city’s best chefs absolutely dominates the sky-scraping efforts of one of the world’s best-known chefs.
But really, none of that has to be said. If, in a rational world, each restaurant must be taken and judged on its own unique merits, then these two operations, despite representing the high and low points of a single building, can operate in intellectual isolation. At the top of the world, one of them is somewhat disappointing. Back on earth, the other is a wonderland of flavor and memory, comfort and goofy fun. While JG might’ve been the restaurant Philly thought it needed, Greg Vernick gave us what we really wanted — a seafood restaurant born of lazy summer weekends, salt water taffy, Shore-town crab shacks and comforting luxury.
Aloo bonda — fried dumplings filled with turmeric-spiced potatoes and soft onions — are a perfect snack food. Fried idli with garlic and chili sauce are a perfect snack food. Chicken 65 should be served everywhere, like Chicken McNuggets only a thousand times better, and samosa should be served on every bar menu in the city. They’re not.
Which is why I’m happy that Amma’s is there when I need it. That this place understands the power of the culinary forces they’re dealing with and can do both the high and low end of South Indian food (a rarity in Philly) with such encompassing skill and flair. I will never understand why Indian food hasn’t yet made the jump into the Philly mainstream that I fully believe is coming, but until it happens, you’ll know where to find me: in my seat against the wall at Amma’s, drinking mango lassi and hiding behind a mountain of dumplings and fried chicken, just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.