Pizza Brain’s Time in Fishtown Comes to a Bittersweet End

Plus: Kampar announces first chef residency, Le Virtù's new expansion, and Uptown Beer Garden transforms into a tropical oasis.

Inside Pizza Brain / Photograph by Mike Persico

Howdy, buckaroos! And welcome back to the Foobooz food news round-up. I’ve just got a few things to catch you up on this week, like a big announcement from Le Virtù, tiki bar news, a killer pizza pop-up, and the story behind Pizza Brain’s newest announcement. So let’s get right to it, shall we? And I think we should start things off this week with…

Some Sad Pizza News

Here’s kind of a weird story …

A couple of months ago, Pizza Brain — an odd combination of Guinness Award-winning pizza museum and restaurant located in Fishtown and kind of a cult favorite among Philly’s pizza obsessives — announced that it was offering “debt-based securities” through Honeycomb Credit in an attempt to raise funds to refinance high-interest debt and pay for some badly needed repairs and equipment. There was a funding campaign. The team released a video. They were basically looking for a whole lot of cash to try to stabilize the business and then expand, taking in small-dollar investor money with the promise of a decent payout on the other end ($1,435 on a $1,000 investment at the end of the investment term).

It was a strange play. I was keeping a vague eye on it for a couple months, but after the initial push, the story kind of just dropped off the radar.

Now, though, it looks like the tale has reached its end because Pizza Brain announced late last week that they were going to be shutting down their Fishtown home base and went into a surprising amount of detail on exactly why. Here’s part of the statement:

“Know we did not make this decision to leave here lightly. But, in the behind-the-scenes realm of our world, we’ve been in a pitched struggle with our landlord over our lease renewal and much needed repairs to the home in which Pizza Brain lives. This includes efforts to modify our pre-negotiated lease and a years’ long effort to have a roof leak fixed. That leak became so pronounced, cascading water would pour from the floor above into our store with each rain, eventually creating extensive systems and physical damage to the store leading to L&I building violations. Likely, any of the ongoing issues you can imagine that come from water being where it should not, we are dealing with. It has become clear to us we need to move elsewhere.”

So yeah, that sounds to me like a pretty good argument for shutting down and trying to re-group elsewhere.

You can read the entire statement here, but the important takeaways are: 1) It was absolutely time to move; 2) They’re looking for a new location, places to do pop-ups, events to cater, and pretty much anything that will keep them in the game; and 3) This sucks. For them, for Fishtown, and for the rest of us. Pizza Brain might not have been my favorite pizza joint in town, but the place was strange, nerdy, loud, and made by people who are 100 percent committed to their love of pizza. And you just have to respect that.

There’s no hard date yet for their last day, but the owners are looking at sometime in late May or early June. So if you want to visit one last time, you’d better do it quickly. I’m sure the whole crew would appreciate the support.

Ange Branca Announces Kampar’s First Chef Residency

Ange Branca outside of Kampar / Photograph by Kerri Sitrin

Back in March, I told you everything I knew about Ange Branca’s new restaurant, Kampar. It is a highly personal restaurant, built up around Branca’s memories of Malaysian and Hakka dishes, her family’s recipes, and old favorites from her first Philly restaurant, Saté Kampar. It’s also a much bigger space than the original, with a full bar and liquor license, an excellent space on the corner of 7th and Kater (which used to be the home of Nomad Pizza), and, most importantly, two floors.

The top floor is Kampar Kongsi — a kind of bright, casual Malaysian neighborhood bar that feels like it has been there for a hundred years already. They pump Southeast Asian covers of ’60s pop music into the bar (which is awesome) and serve a menu that’s equal parts well-considered Wagyu entrees and straight-up bar food like pork jerky, pickled vegetables, and fat steak fries covered in curry sauce. It is a great spot, truly. And for anyone (like me) who dearly misses the glory days of the O.G. Saté Kampar, the nasi lemak is, if anything, even better in the new spot. And honestly, I wouldn’t have even thought that was possible without tasting it myself.

Branca opened the Kongsi half of the space a couple months ago and has been slowly getting everything up-to-speed. The downstairs was always going to be something a bit more experimental — a kind of dedicated collaboration space where local chefs working with underserved communities or underrepresented cuisines would be given long residencies (and Kampar’s institutional support) to work out the details on concepts ready to make the leap from pop-up to brick-and-mortar or daydream to reality. And now that Branca is comfortable in her new home and the staff at Kampar have their legs under them a little bit, she’s finally announcing the first of those residencies.

Reuben Asaram is the man who’ll be breaking in that downstairs kitchen. He calls himself “The Willy Wonka of tacos” and, with his concept called Reuby (named after his mom), he’ll be bringing Mexican-Asian fusion to the neighborhood.

Asaram was born in India, raised in New York, and spent time traveling through Mexico, and those three points of reference describe what he’s bringing to the table. He’s been doing pop-ups and working out his act on the road for a little while now, but thanks to Branca and Kampar, now he’s got a place to put down some long-term roots.

Here’s a quick explanation of what he’ll be doing:

“At Kampar, Chef Reuben is set to present a menu that weaves together the robust, communal dining traditions of his North Indian grandfather with the vibrant, hospitable flavors of Mexican culture. Guests can look forward to a menu featuring dishes such as spiced lamb kabobs, chicken tikka with smoked kaffir lime yogurt, and handmade naan, all complemented by an assortment of rich sauces inspired by Mexican culinary traditions.”

So yeah, fresh naan bread, coming out of Nomad’s old wood-burning pizza ovens, turned into tacos (among other things) by a guy who cut his teeth cooking at Buddakan? I’m so down for this.

Reuby is taking reservations right now for a $90 chef tasting, Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Get yours here.

Now what’s next …

A Surprise Expansion for Le Virtù

Down on East Passyunk, Le Virtù has rolled out a brand new “Enoteca & Alimentari” section — essentially a bottle shop and miniature grocery store located just inside the restaurant’s front door.

The new expansion is small, but mighty. They’re stocking organic wines, rare imports, artisinal amari, Abruzzesse olive oil, balsamic vinegars from Modena, dried peppers, pastas, and anything else they can cram on the shelves. It’s basically there for the neighbors, for anyone who needs a quick dry pasta for dinner, or maybe some olives and a bottle of sparkling wine. The Enoteca & Alimentari will be open seven days a week (nice) from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. But that’s not the only new thing happening at Le Virtù.

The restaurant recently rolled out its own wine club. It’s basically a monthly subscription service for curated Italian wines. There are multiple tiers offering different benefits, but all of them are basically either wine, more wine, or even more, fancier wine. You can check out the details here.

Finally, the house is also hosting an apertivo series — one Sunday a month (usually the last one of the month), featuring wine tastings and unlimited snacks from chef Andrew Wood. They’ll have pay-as-you-go pours on anything you like the taste of, and the whole thing is kind of free-wheeling and unstructured. “Come when you want. Leave when you like. Drink and eat as you wish” — that’s the vibe. There’s more info in the Le Virtù newsletter if you’re interested.

A Hit of the Tropics in the Middle of Center City

The Uptown Beer Garden at 1500 JFK Boulevard is expanding their Kedera tiki bar concept for the 2024 summer season, creating a 7,500-square-foot tropical oasis right in the middle of the city.

“Kedera Tiki Bar,” as it is called, takes up a portion of the full garden, offering seating for 120 (and standing room for 150) amid potted palms, lush greenery, and two full-service bars serving the traditional tiki drinks plus a roster of custom cocktails. At the moment, the summer list looks like this:

  • The Refresh Button: Ketel One Botanical Cucumber Mint, elderflower liqueur, champagne, club soda, cucumber, mint
  • Uptown Vibes: Santa Familia Reposado, blood orange juice, hibiscus syrup, lime, and orange
  • Wooder Ice: Absolute Raspberri, blue curacao, lime, simple
  • Island Spice: Ancho Reyes Verde Liqueur, pineapple, lime, simple
  • Purple Sunset: Roku Gin, lavender rosemary syrup, lemon, club soda, butterfly pea flower tea
  • Peachy Keen: Jim Beam Peach Whiskey, peach purée, lemon, simple, iced tea

And okay, so they’re not quite as evocative as a Navy Grog or a Suffering Bastard, but the Uptown Vibes sounds refreshing, and, being honest, I’d drink the hell out of the Wooder Ice.

Kedera will also be serving from the regular Uptown menu with its Boardwalk fries, soft pretzels, and pulled pork tacos. Hours are Monday through Friday, starting at 4 p.m., noon on the weekends. You can get a look at the new space (and the new menus) on Uptown Beer Garden’s Instagram.

Now, how about some leftovers?

The Leftovers

Preview of Sorellina / Photograph by Robyn Muse

Speaking of new locations, the board game cafe Queen & Rook moved into a new, much larger location over the weekend, shutting down their old space at 607 South 2nd Street and turning on the lights in their new home just a hop, skip and a jump away at 123 South Street (the old home of Pietro’s).

The new spot is three times the size of the original and features two bars, outdoor seating, a neon-lit retro video game arcade, and literally thousands of board games for folks to come in and play. The new spot is open now. The grand opening was on Saturday. And while things are just getting going, the owners are promising an updated menu will come soon.

In other pizza news, Joe and Angela Cicala are having a pizza pop-up this weekend at their new spot, Sorellina, inside the Divine Lorraine. It’s on Saturday, May 25th, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and the menu is huge. There are almost a dozen different pies on offer — everything from the simplest margherita to a faccia gialla with yellow tomatoes from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, smoked scamorza, ricotta, and lemon. And seriously, how often do you get to try pizza made with volcano tomatoes?

Reservations are suggested. You can get yours here. And since Joe and Angela are calling this a “trial run” for their new pizzeria, I’m guessing they’re getting pretty close to opening Sorellina up for real.

There’s some new blood in the kitchen over at Square 1682. Patrick Czerniak, ex of Walnut Street Cafe and former exec at Cantina Feliz, is taking over and launching a new menu starting Wednesday, May 22nd. The new board will feature dishes like oysters with tomatillo salsa, white lasagna, crispy “buttered” tofu with rice and coconut milk, and a panzanella salad bulked up with gigante beans, heirloom tomatoes, and salmon. It’s a lighter take on the classic American restaurant, so here’s hoping that works for them.

Speaking of big restaurant moves, chefs Montana Houston and Ja’mir Wimberly-Cole have stepped down from their posts at Restaurant Aleksander to Eleven Social, the new Old City restaurant co-owned by Phillies legend Jimmy Rollins. Houston will be the executive chef while Wimberly-Cole the new chef de cuisine. Together, they’ll be conceptualizing a New American menu that you can check out for yourself during a soft opening they have scheduled in July. You can read more about it at Philly Eater.

Finally, this week, if you’re looking for a way to brighten up an otherwise boring Monday, the Ranstead Room has a one-night-only pop-up collaboration with the team from Nashville’s Fox Bar & Cocktail Club. Basically, this’ll be Ranstead’s Nico Diaz and Margarito Munive sharing the bar for a night with Storm Sheler and Brandon Archilla from the Fox, shaking cocktails that combine the best of both bars’ offerings. There’ll be live jazz playing, no cover, and walk-ins are welcome. The drinking starts at 7 p.m., and the party wraps up around midnight.

We’ll see you there.