The La Chingonita Taco Truck Makes It Official in Fishtown

Plus, an Australian bakery in the 'burbs, vampire pizza, Hawaiian cheesesteaks, and a letter from our restaurant critic.

La Chingonita | Photo provided

So here we are again, buckaroos. Another Monday means another thrilling installment of our Monday news round-up.

I’ve got a whole bunch of really cool things to tell you about this week, including another cheesesteak collaboration, more tacos for Fishtown, an Aussie bakery opening out in the ‘burbs, charity dinners at Stina and something about vampires. Plus, we’re going to cap things off this week by talking a little bit about the return of restaurant reviews to the pages of Philly Mag.

But let’s get started with the news first. And it being so very close to the beginning of spooky season, I figured we’d start with a ghost story.

The Ghost of Jose Garces

Chef Jose Garces has had a helluva run. The man is an Iron Chef. He was instrumental in shaping Philadelphia’s dining scene, has owned (and closed or sold) more restaurants than I can count, and was always a bold experimenter — doing everything from top-shelf bar food (at Village Whiskey) to down-and-dirty Cuban (Rosa Blanca), fusion (Chifa), wine snacks for the boat rock crowd (Stella New Hope) and $600 autobiographical tasting menus (Volvér). He has been, at different moments, one of the biggest chefs in the city and the guy who sold it all just to stay in the game.

Now? Dude’s a ghost.

No, for real. Lately, Garces has been going all-in on ghost kitchens — delivery-only restaurants operating out of non-public, commissary kitchens. He’s opened three different ghost kitchen concepts in Philly recently (Garces Trading Company, Livy’s Plant Based Foods, and Rustika, which is essentially a Peruvian rotisserie chicken-and-sides delivery operation that’s, coincidentally, having a pop-up event at Distrito on October 6th), and he isn’t even slowing down.

To wit: Over the weekend, he launched Buena Onda as a ghost kitchen in Washington D.C.. This Baja-style Mexican fast casual concept originally launched as a physical location in Philly a few years back. And while it looks like there’s still a possibility that we may see more actual locations here in the future, right now Garces is going all-in on the non-corporeal. He’s expanding his ghost kitchen operations to Florida, New York, and Massachusetts next, then looking for a brick-and-mortar location in our nation’s capital, and then (maybe) turning his eye back towards our fair metropolis, where it all began.

Anyway, say what you will about the arc of Garces’s career, but he has always hung himself out there on the edge, willing to take chances on whatever he thought might be the Next Big Thing. Right now, virtual restaurants are where it’s at, and Philly’s own Iron Chef is right there in the vanguard. He never does anything half-assed, and that’s deserving of respect.


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Another Cheesesteak Collaboration

Last week, I (briefly) mentioned the collaboration cheesesteak being done by Pat’s King of Steaks and Morgan’s Brooklyn BBQ. This week, we’ve got a whole other collaboration to talk about.

Alex Spataro, owner of Spataro’s Cheesesteaks at the Reading Terminal Market, has been wanting to do a Hawaiian-style cheesesteak for years — inspired by his father Domenic (the former owner of Spataro’s) and that man’s love of wearing aloha shirts. He tinkered with the idea, tried various combinations, but the real lightbulb moment came when he discovered Kiki Aranita’s line of Hawaiian sauces.

Aranita pivoted to retail after her restaurant, Poi Dog, was forced to close due to COVID. Her Chili Peppah Water and Maui Lavender Ponzu sauces were selling like hotcakes, but she had a new concoction ready to launch and wasn’t sure how to bring it to market.

Enter Spataro’s. The two have decided to team up for a collaboration Hawaiian cheesesteak featuring Aranita’s new guava katsu sauce slapped on top of some Giunta’s prime Angus top round, Cooper sharp American and some fried onions — all of it mounted on a crisp Carangi Baking Company roll.

The sandwich goes on sale starting today (September 27th) and $1 from each sale will go to SEAMAAC, which offers support to immigrants and refugees in Philadelphia.

So do some good, help out a good cause, and fill your belly with cheesesteak and katsu sauce. Sounds like a good way to spend your Monday lunch break.

Vampires Love Pizza (Apparently)

There’s this … thing happening, starting on October 1st. It’s part puzzle, part interactive experience, involves vampires (somehow) and pizza delivery. I’m gonna let the press release speak for itself:

“With deliveries beginning October 1, the new “Get Trick or Treated” experience offers players a chance to “Eat – Play – WIN!” Enter the world of Vampire.Pizza through “Chapter 1: Welcome to the Vampire Revolution” and “Chapter 2: Case of the Missing Vamp.” Available for 1-6 players, Vamps use the immersive evidence, video messages and secret phone numbers hidden in their delivery to solve clues and relay the answers back to the interactive characters, to crack the mystery. And all while enjoying a delicious pizza dinner from some of the best restaurants in Philly.

Covens that beat their mission are going to #GetTrickorTreated with instant prize packages like tickets to Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary and an Oculus Quest 2. Collecting BiteCoins along the way allows players to redeem for more food, games and FUN!”

I don’t know about you, but it was the “FUN!” that sold me.

Near as I can figure, it works like this: You get a group of friends together and lure them to your house by telling them you’re ordering some pizzas. Then you sign up for a delivery app, order a pizza from one of the participating restaurants (Pizzeria Stella is the Philadelphia partner this year), and tell your friends that now they have to play this weird, phone-based, alternate-reality vampire game with you. Whoever doesn’t immediately leave? That’s your team! And now, together, you get to decode clues, solve puzzles, get strange text messages, watch videos and try to solve a mystery. Also, there’s pizza!

You may (or may not) win fabulous prizes for playing. And if you want to see the entire thing explained in an absolutely cheese-tastic video, check out the Vampire.Pizza website here.

Look, I have no idea if this sounds fun or not. I’ve honestly spent like an hour trying to figure out what, exactly, this all involves and how it works, but I can’t. What I do know is that it sounds like one of those things that’s probably a lot more fun if you’re high, and that the “experience” is available in Philly (and Los Angeles) beginning on October 1st. So if you’re into games, vampires, pizza, and possibly having a box of old clown heads delivered to your door by a dude dressed in Dracula cosplay, this is absolutely your jam.

For everyone else, YMMV.

Guest Chef Charity Dinners at Stina

Here’s something cool: Chef Bobby Saritsoglou is bringing a bunch of pals in to cook a series of benefit dinners at Stina.

In September, October and November, Stina is going to host some of the biggest chefs in town for one-night-only dinners during the last week of each month. Saritsoglou has Joncarl Lachman (Noord, Winkel) on the books for October and the legendary David Ansill in November.

But this month? He’ll be cooking with Phila Lorn and, together, the two of them will be putting together an eight-course spread (with beer pairings by Stickman Brews) to benefit Cambodian American Girls Empowering.

Lorn has a lot on his resume. He cooked at Zama for years, did a tour at Stock with Tyler Akins and another with Chris Kearse at Will. Currently, he’s cooking at Terrain in Glen Mills, but is also working with Jose Garces (see above) on some kind of super-secret project AND working on his first solo project — with details to be revealed at some later date.

Anyway, he’s busy. But he’s still taking a night off to hang out at Stina and do a full-on Cambodian ya hawn dinner. The menu looks like this:

“A Ya Hawn Dinner”

Num Pang (Cambodian Baguette)
Chicken Liver Mousse /Curry Salt

Crispy Taro Spring Rolls

West Coast Oyster
Kampot Black Peppercorn /Lime /Salt

Steak Skewer
Rib eye/ Bibb/ Prohak

Bang Chow Crepe Salad
Stewed Chicken/ Assorted herbs

Fried Smelts
Sticky Fish Sauce/Thai Chili and Basil

Ya Hawn
Khmer Red Curry Hot-Pot
Raw Beef, Seafood and Greens with Somen Noodles

Countryside Banana Dessert

The dinner is happening on Thursday, September 30th. Tickets are $65, plus another $10 if you want to kick in for the Stickman beers. Service starts at 4pm and you can reserve your spot right here or by calling the restaurant at 215-337-3455.

More Tacos for Fishtown and an Aussie Bakery for the ‘Burbs

We’ve got a double-shot of good news this week with two new openings to announce — both of which have me very excited.

First, the pop-up Mexican food cart La Chingonita has been working the streets for about a year now, but they took to Instagram last week to announce that they’d be moving into permanent digs in Fishtown in the near future.

Owners Rebecca Baez and Omar Martinez will be taking over the space at 413 East Girard Street that used to be home to Sketch Burger. They’re looking at having things up and running by the end of the year (if all goes according to plan), and will be serving a menu very similar to the one that made their cart so popular.

Meanwhile, out in West Chester, True Blue Bakery, a serious Australian bakery and pie operation, is packing up their gear and moving to Royersford. They’ll be opening sometime in the next few weeks at 324 Main Street, offering Australian meat pies, pasties, sausage rolls, tiny little apple and cherry pies, lemon meringue tarts and something called “mustard dogs” which are basically cheese dogs with mustard wrapped inside puff pastry — all of which is very dangerous for someone like me who now lives relatively close to a joint selling sausage rolls and pastry-wrapped cheese dogs right out the front door.

And these folks know what they’re doing, too. Two homesick Aussies with decades of baking experience, stranded in Pennsylvania and handling their blues by baking authentic meat pies and pastries to remind them of home.

I’m thinking about just camping out in front of the place now. Anyone want to join me?

And Finally, A Few Words About Restaurant Criticism

In the October issue of Philadelphia magazine, I’ll be running my first restaurant review since the start of the pandemic. My first two, actually. And for a while, things are going to be a little bit different than the criticism I’ve traditionally done because these are (obviously) not entirely normal circumstances.

COVID changed things in the restaurant industry. There is an ENORMOUS difference between a thousand restaurants duking it out in a relatively healthy restaurant scene, hustling to get asses into chairs by offering the best food, the best service and the best experience they can, and a shell-shocked, spilt-lip, raggedy band of industry survivors tentatively poking their collective heads out into a world shattered by a massive global pandemic that cost them not just money, time and what little sense of security the restaurant world offers, but the literal lives of their friends and co-workers. To go back to traditional criticism in this moment would mean embracing the possibility (really, the probability) that I would have to publicly take out the knees of some place that’s still struggling to stay on its feet.

And I’m not ready to do that. Yet.

For right now, what I’m doing is telling restaurant stories. I’m doing this job like you and me were sitting together at the neighborhood boozer just jawin’ about restaurants we’ve been to and foods that we ate. I’m going to tell you about chefs doing interesting things and moments of true joy had in dining rooms and parking lot patios. I’m going to write about restaurants, but I’m not necessarily going to criticize because right now everything — the entire restaurant ecosystem — is too fragile for criticism to work with anything even approaching presumed fairness.

Is this the best solution? I have no fucking idea. But I know it’s one I can live with. What’s more, I don’t know how long this will last. We’re going to let the industry and the environment guide our choices going forward and make the best decisions we can. But for right now, after more than a year of total quiet from the food section, it seems like a little more mercy, a little more patience and a little more time is the least we can offer to all of our friends (and a few of our enemies) who are just trying to see what tomorrow looks like.