Best of Philly: Food & Drink 2006

Restaurant trend
Small plates Tapas, meze, dim sum, “bites” … call it what you will. We call small plates the biggest trend in Philadelphia dining, from Jose Garces’s Spanish flavors at Amada and David Ansill’s adventurous ones at Ansill to Shouk’s Israeli dishes and Positano Coast’s Italian flair. Even the Continental, home of the it-feeds-four french fries platter, has joined the movement with diminutive desserts like miniature Caramellow cupcakes and teeny tufts of cotton candy.

Johnny’s Hots Forget the Whiz/provolone battles. There’s a meatier cheesesteak topic to take on: sliced or chopped? We were always chopped-steak types, as the hacking hides all flaws (plus it’s messier, always a good barometer of a cheesesteak). Then we met Johnny’s Hots — good-quality sliced steak grilled to order and sandwiched around American cheese in a slightly crusty torpedo roll. 1234 North Delaware Avenue; 215-423-2280.

Cheesesteak, updated
Deuce We were so over that cheesesteak-
spring-roll trend — until Northern Liberties comfort-food bar Deuce unveiled its version. Although it’s listed as an appetizer, you won’t need much after consuming the greaseless, crispy spring-roll shell stuffed with sliced sirloin, fried onions and American cheese, accompanied perfectly by a $1 happy-hour Yuengling. 1040 North 2nd Street, 215-413-3822;

Foie gras dish
Gilmore’s The undisputed king of this category is West Chester’s Peter Gilmore. Upon hearing about the City Council proposal to ban foie gras in Philadelphia, Gilmore prepared a one-time-only six-course protest — from corn custard with honey-glazed foie gras to savory foie gras bread pudding. But it’s his asiago-topped foie gras puff-pastry pizza, a consistent menu favorite, that tops the area’s foie offerings. 133 East Gay Street, West Chester, 610-431-2800;

Italian restaurant
Paradiso This isn’t that old-fashioned South Philly Italian meal smothered in red gravy; it’s the delicious future of Passyunk’s Italian dining scene. Hometown girl Lynn Marie Rinaldi’s two-year-old restaurant has introduced us to classic Italian flavors — rabbit cacciatore with mascarpone polenta, ­parmesan-coated tagliatelle with peas and prosciutto, osso buco with pine nut gremolata — enhanced by quality ingredients, a well-chosen wine list and a polished staff. 1627 East Passyunk Avenue, 215-271-2066;

Strip-mall dining
Springdale Plaza We’re suckers for finding great food in strip malls, and we hit the jackpot at Cherry Hill’s Springdale Plaza. For outstanding South Indian vegetarian, there’s Rajbhog; for spicy Thai, try the homey A Little Thai Kitchen. Pho Eden has terrific pho, a Vietnamese beef noodle soup. And even non-ethnic cuisine gets props with the hoagies and steaks at the 16-year-old Boyz sandwich shop. 1900 Greentree Road, Cherry Hill.

Fork, Etc. Weekend mornings, you’ll find us waiting outside at 8 a.m. (7 a.m. every other day) for the gourmet store’s baked-this-morning, perfectly Parisian baguettes, each wrapped to-go in plain paper. The slender breads are what a baguette should be: crisp, airy and yeasty. While we’re there, we’ll also pick up the substantial sesame-dotted sourdough, a great sandwich bread. 308 Market Street, 215-625-9425;

Slate BleU Those frozen soufflés you’ve been ordering don’t capture the grandeur and cloud-like character of the oven-baked classic. If you’ve never encountered the old-school variety, chef Mark Matyas will show you how it’s done at his charming French bistro in the Doylestown Agricultural Works building. Matyas varies the flavorings, which might be chocolate, praline or hazelnut, but the Grand Marnier soufflé is his customers’ favorite — and ours. 100 South Main Street, Doylestown, 215-348-0222;

Honey’s Sit ’n’ Eat
Buttermilk biscuits that rise splendidly to the occasion, lox-flecked scrambled eggs, crisp white-
cheddar latkes, tart lemonade and better-than-pork turkey bacon are highlights at this easygoing Northern Liberties spot with Jewish and American Southern influences. You can order breakfast or lunch (like the brisket sandwich with horseradish mayo or chicken-fried steak) from morning through late afternoon. Still, get there early: On weekends, the lines stretch halfway to Fairmount. 800 North 4th Street; 215-925-1150.

Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries
Ignore the spare, food-court-ugly red-and-white-tile decor, and concentrate on decorating your $4.29 burger — with fried onions, sautéed mushrooms, lettuce and tomato, jalapeño peppers, relish or barbecue sauce. The hand-formed 3.5-ounce beef patties, stacked two to every toasted sesame seed bun, add up to a juicy joy that trumps many of the Kobe-style wannabes served in white-tablecloth surroundings. Four area locations; Center City location scheduled to open this month;

New restaurant, city
Amada Jose Garces’s
$1.1 million temple of tapas in Old City will loosen you up with well-made white sangria and orange mojitos, pamper you with smooth service, energize your evenings with flamenco dancing, and feed you sumptuous suckling-pig feasts, plancha-seared chorizo, ethereal empanadas, and traditional tortilla Espanola (pictured). The $45 prix-fixe chef’s tasting is an amazing value, and an efficient way to sample the extensive menu of classic and contemporary nibbles that deliver a true taste of Spain. 217 Chestnut Street, 215-625-2450;

Local beer
Tröegs “HopBack­Amber Ale”
For sheer drinkability, it’s tough to beat Tröegs’s signature russet brew, made in Harrisburg with quality ingredients, European techniques, and a heaping helping of American creativity. Defying traditional categorization, it’s modishly hoppier than your average amber, a stunner with burgers and BBQ.

Local wine
French Creek Ridge “Blanc de Blancs”
Made from 100 percent chardonnay and aged long on the lees, this elegant sparkling wine delivers everything we expect from the toast of France — decadent richness, knife-edge sharpness, a creamy cascade of long-lasting bubbles — and everything we never expected from Chester County. Available from the winery, 200 Grove Road, Elverson, 610-286-7754;

Caffé Carmen
When it’s strawberry-tarragon, avocado or sassafras gelato we’re in the mood for, Center City’s Capogiro will always be our go-to spot. But when we’re craving nothing more or less than the simple, perfect taste of peach gelato (or other Neapolitan classics: strawberry, lemon, hazelnut), we head to Pennsport’s Caffé Carmen and sit in the sun at a table on the sidewalk. 2015 East Moyamensing Avenue, 215-218-0771;

Newly arrived cuisine
Philly had its Latin revolution, as chefs reached ever further south for culinary inspiration. Now our expanding dining scene has arrived at the Amazon. At the Northeast’s Brazuca Padaria & Lanchonete, burgers are topped with fried egg, corn, pineapple and potato sticks, among other things. At nearby Picanha Brazilian Grill, it’s churrasco — all-you-can-eat grilled meats, carved to order — and on Saturdays, classic feijoada, a garlic-and-pork-laden black bean stew. Look for churrasco chain Fogo de Chão in Center City by early next year.

New restaurant, suburbs
Seductive sauces and seasonal ingredients are the calling card of chef-owner Andrew Deery at this small, French-
influenced BYOB. We adore the buttery Pernod-infused broth with the steamed mussels, the emphatic preserved lemon aioli with the chilled lobster appetizer, and the truffle-scented broth with a splash of cream that flatters the Scottish salmon. All this, and a superb steak frites, too. 258 Bridge Street, Phoenixville, 610-917-0962;

Vegetarian restaurant
The business cards at Horizons read “New Vegan Cuisine,” an accurate description of how owners Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby think about vegan eating: It’s not a denial diet, but a full-fledged cuisine, complete with its own wines and beers. Within the no-animal-products strictures, the couple turn out colorful dishes like grass-green edamame hummus, black peppercorn-topped portabella carpaccio, and hearts-of-palm paella (pictured). 611 South 7th Street, 215-923-6117;

Private party spot
Foundation Room
The Foundation Room at A.C.’s House of Blues isn’t just the only private, casino-based club worth joining — and probably the only one that doesn’t require losing untold dollars at pai gow poker. It’s also the coolest place to party VIP-style. The internationally luxe, cozily sprawling restau-lounge contains four reservable eight-person “prayer rooms.” The most coveted of them is “Oba,” adorned with ceremonial masks and mud cloths from Mali. House of Blues, Showboat Atlantic City, 801 Boardwalk, Atlantic City, 609-236-BLUE;

Big wine list
Stepping outside the large-list formula — breadth, depth, high prices and trophies — Nineteen presents a globe-trotting mix of more than 200 selections to please the wine geek and novice alike. Sommelier Jean Marc Nolant explores the far reaches of the wine map with bottlings from Idaho, Tasmania and Lebanon, but balances that adventurous spirit with familiar grapes and well-known labels. Park Hyatt at the Bellevue, 200 South Broad Street, 215-790-1919;

Small wine list
Small restaurants are starting to resist the BYO temptation, crafting short and intriguing wine lists instead. At Gayle, the food and wine menus are well matched, with the 35 food-friendly wine selections — predominantly Pacific Northwest — chosen for their compatibility with chef Daniel Stern’s creative American cuisine. 617 South 3rd Street, 215-922-3850;

Duck Deli
There are tuna hoagies, and then there’s the incomparable smoked tuna hoagie at Duck Deli, a charming barbecue joint near Doylestown with knotty-pine booths and freshly squeezed lemonade served in mason jars. With the same care that he applies to his pulled pork and ribs, owner Chris Forlano smokes three-pound tuna loins rubbed with cracked black pepper and brown sugar over hickory wood, then combines theflavorful fish with homemade mayonnaise. Best. Tuna. Ever. 524 East Butler Avenue, New Britain, 267-880-1190;

New restaurant, Atlantic City
One way to always come out ahead in A.C.? Eat at Mia, the restaurant at Caesars backed by Georges Perrier and Chris Scarduzio. Though the audience is sometimes distracted, restaurant chef Jeremy Duclut executes the Italian/Mediterranean menu — seared foie gras, grilled langoustines, real porterhouse — with élan, making tables at Mia the only guaranteed winners. Caesars Atlantic City, 2100 Pacific Avenue, Atlantic City, 609-441-2345;

The Golden Eagle
If only the Golden Eagle could swoop down and replace the worst of Philly’s stereotypical diners. Whether you’re up for a grilled cheese or prime rib, the food here comes out hot, fresh, tasty and cheap, and the waiters don’t give you dirty looks if you ask for dressing on the side. The complimentary cheese buns don’t hurt, either. 300 Bath Street, Bristol, 215-785-6926;

Water ice
Philly Flavors
It sounds like alchemy: Water ice should be both water (albeit highly sugary, fruit-flavored water) and ice. Too little water, and you’ve got classic Italian ice; too much, and it’s a 7-11 slurpy. Just right is the eat-with-a-spoon-and-a-straw water ice at Fairmount’s Philly Flavors. All the classic colors are here, created from real fruit, like the from-the-tree cherry pieces — not maraschino — dotting the deep-red ice. 2004 Fairmount Avenue; 215-232-7748.
Water ice, updated Washington Square Shaved ice flavored delicately with lemon and sugar melts with Absolut citron and lemoncello to create the Italian Ice Martini, served in a martini glass with a spoon. At $12, Starr’s summer treat is as pricey as it is strong. 210 West Washington Square, 215-592-7787;

Bar trend
Artisanal ingredients.
The movement toward artisanal everything in the kitchen has poured out into the bars of local restaurants, where mixologists are embracing the same values. The tastiest example: At Bookbinder’s, bartenders infuse Siembra Azul, the small-batch tequila made by Los Catrines owner David Suro-Piñera, with Gala apples, toasted walnuts, macerated raisins and sticks of cinnamon for three weeks.

Finally, a neighborhood restaurant that takes both those words seriously. Mercato, with its open kitchen and open windows, is a jovial gathering spot. (Look for the people-watchers who lounge on their stoop across the street, waving at dining friends.) But even better, the Italian-ish BYOB under the direction of chef R. Evan Turney is an accomplished restaurant, with substantial portions of chianti-glazed striped bass and red wine/rosemary braised short ribs and undeniably delicious house-made pastas. 1216 Spruce Street, 215-985-2962;

Ice cream
Franklin Fountain
Brothers Ryan and Eric Berley do the old-school soda-fountain theme right — with antique fixtures, an authentic menu of creams and fizzes, and a dedication to the best ingredients. Taste their success in a milkshake so good that you have to remember to breathe between sips. The consistency is smooth but not soupy, with the not-too-sweet homemade ice-cream flavor coming through, allowing for (one bellyache later) maximum intake. A long spoon lets you finish every last drop. 116 Market Street, 215-627-1899;

Chinese restaurant in Chinatown
Szechuan Tasty House
It’s easy to walk past the nondescript storefront, so we’ll give you a landmark: It’s next door to Eddie’s Tattooing. Fittingly, since STH is the place to tattoo your tongue with fiery ma po tofu and three-pepper chicken. Not that brave? Stick to the pork dumplings in a red sauce that looks angrier than it really is, or the “gold coins,” puffed rounds of fried eggplant filled with ground pork. 902 Arch Street; 215-925-2839.

Chinese restaurant outside Chinatown
Sang Kee Asian

Bistro Sang Kee may have storied Chinatown roots, but this modern bistro is all Main Line. Housed in a Wynnewood strip mall, it has the familiar feel of a suburban BYOB (including parking!) and the flavors of the Chinatown original: crunchy salt-baked shrimp, garlicky Chinese greens and, of course, abundant, flavorful Peking duck, prepared daily at the 9th Street location. 339 East Lancaster Avenue, Wynnewood, 610-658-0618;

Once upon a time, barmen wore aprons, and “cocktails” weren’t spiked versions of fruit punch. Kip Waide, barmaster and co-proprietor of Southwark in Queen Village, has revived interest in classic drinks for adults who actually appreciate the taste of liquor, not mixers. Sit at the long bar and try his Manhattan, made, as it should be, with American rye whiskey. 701 South 4th Street; 215-238-1888.

Cocktails, updated
The Walnut Room
Inventive cocktails lubricate the lively late-night scene upstairs at the Walnut Room, where uncommon ingredients meet intriguing combinations. Honey water and peach bitters set the Rocket apart from the apple-tini masses. Fresh raspberries rev up a spin on the Tom Collins. And the memorable elderflower martini is graceful, seductive, and refreshingly unfamiliar. 1709 Walnut Street, 2nd floor, 215-751-0201;

New chef
Michael Solomonov
Our Rising Star Detector went off the minute we tasted his savory chicken truffle amuse rolled in smoked paprika at West Philly’s Marigold Kitchen. And while the restaurant’s best summer starter, chilled tomato soup with cucumber-tomato salad, chilled oysters and green tobiko, exemplifies Solomonov’s modern-eclectic style, he hasn’t forgotten where he came from: Pink lentil soup with cinnamon-spiced lamb sausage and pearly couscous with escargots are two tasty nods to his native Israel. 501 South 45th Street, 215-222-3699;

Food you’ve never heard of
Kubbeh Shouk’s menu
of Israeli meze makes it easy to be adventurous. Sure, you’ll try the kubbeh. What’s one unknown item in an order of half a dozen increasingly familiar Middle Eastern dishes? Even better, the restaurant’s small-plate approach makes it easy to order more kubbeh, after you quickly polish off the surprisingly sweet (that’s the carrot), immensely fragrant (cinnamon) ground-chicken dumplings. 622 South 6th Street; 215-627-3344.

Fish dish
Restaurant Alba Chef-owner Sean Weinberg takes particular pride in the dishes from his wood-burning grill, but our favorite comes from the oven: the salmon fillet, roasted slowly to medium-rare succulence and served on an opulent bed of creamy guacamole with a slightly tart grilled-tomato vinaigrette to break the richness (pictured). We also crave this European-style BYOB’s grilled halibut, the whole grilled dorade, and the spicy fish soup. 7 West King Street, Malvern, 610-644-4009;

the House of Tea
Tea is trendy at the year’s new Center City and King of Prussia tea salons, but at Queen Village’s House of Tea, it’s been hot for 13 years. The narrow store stocks 300 teas on its ­apothecary-style shelves (at accessible prices), and its knowledgeable staff can answer questions from “How do I brew green tea?” to “Why is my iced tea cloudy?” (Answer: You were impatient and poured it over ice too soon.) 720 South 4th Street, 215-923-8327;

Le Castagne
Everything but the kitchen sink is homemade here, but the toothsome pastas at this Chestnut Street Italian are the real standout. No shape is too challenging for chef Brian Wilson, who even rolls out homemade rigatoni. Equally impressive are the flavors: spaghetti sparked with chestnut flour, and gnocchi al tartufo bianco, with truffle flour enhancing the body of the little melting dumplings. 1920 Chestnut Street, 215-751-9913;

Darling’s Coffee House & Famous Cheesecake
Breakfast at New Orleans classic Brennan’s may not be an option, but you can have your bananas Foster locally — and less expensively — as a rich cheesecake topping at Darling’s. The rush of buttery brown-sugar sweetness is more reminiscent of Jackson Square than Rittenhouse Square, but it partners perfectly with a robust cup of La Colombe Corsica. Look for a second location soon near the Franklin Institute. 404 South 20th Street; 215-545-5745.

Gallagher’s Steak House
The staff at Gallagher’s, the area’s latest red-meatery, is justly proud of the buttery, house-aged sirloins, insanely rich creamed spinach and Napa-heavy list of boutique wines. For a rousing game of name-that-celebrity, book an oversize booth — decorated with black-and-white photos — in the giant dining room. For intimacy — and a martini — with your filet, sidle up to the bar instead. Resorts Atlantic City, 1133 Boardwalk, Atlantic City, 609-340-6555;

Newly arrived chain restaurant
Bonefish Grill
Bonefish Grill gives seafood chains a better rep then the Red Lobsters of the world. Fish here is exciting, with seasonal ingredients and well-cooked catches like mahimahi and Gulf grouper. Pick your own combos, with tasty toppers such as warm mango salsa and lime/tomato/garlic sauce. Three area locations;

Bar food
N. 3rd
Finely tuned bar noshes and bistro-style main courses keep the artists and musicians who hang at N. 3rd well-fed. Chef Peter Dunmire’s feather-light fried calamari, ginger-spiked tuna burger, steak frites with red wine-shallot sauce, and steamed clams with chorizo and chili peppers go down easy with Belgian ales by the bottle and local microbrews on tap. 801 North 3rd Street, 215-413-3666;

Fat Jack’s
The hickory-smoked spare ribs at Fat Jack’s will please the purist who likes meat that clings to the bone yet yields easily to the bite. Once the fat melts away, all that’s left is tender pork, and plenty of it, nicely caramelized from a dry rub that includes brown sugar, cayenne and paprika. Even without the optional sweet Kansas City-style sauce, these ribs rock. 1261 Blackwood-Clementon Road, Blackwood, 856-309-7427;

An indulgent tumble of tastes and textures, the duck confit salad combines crisp duck skin and shredded dark meat with mixed greens, radicchio, and the pleasantly sour notes of blue cheese and pickled bing cherries. Chef-owner Nate Garyantes finishes it with a sweet, but not cloying, cherry-port vinaigrette that pulls it all together beautifully. 821 North Market Street, Wilmington, 302-652-8821;

Tommy DiNic’s
After perfecting the Italian-style roast pork sandwich, Tommy Nicolosi turned his magic touch to beef. The result: slices of ultra-tender first-cut brisket laid on a crusty Italian roll and moistened with the luscious braising liquid, a six-hour simmer of beef stock, onion, garlic, thyme, red wine and tomato sauce. Best savored with a schmear of Zayda’s horseradish; there’s no better sandwich anywhere for $6.75. Reading Terminal Market, 51 North 12th Street, 215-923-6175;

South Street Philly Bagels, Inc
We’ve been on a year-long search for a worthy bagel. It ended at this takeout shop, where house-made O’s have that right balance of salty, chewy interior and smooth exterior. Stick with the classics, or try a funkier version like French toast or peanut butter (613 South 3rd Street; 215-627-6277).

A.C. restaurant, non-casino
When the casino DINGDING! is ring-ringing in our ears, we head over to Girasole for some A.C. downtime. House-made pastas are well-portioned and lightly sauced, fish specials are seasonal, personal pizzas are from a brick oven, and warm beef carpaccios, flavored with fruity oils and sweet veggies, are a must. Pick a wine from the varied list before returning to the land of DINGDING! free watered-down rum-and-cokes. 3108 Pacific Avenue, Atlantic City, 609-345-5554;

We’ll admit it: There are days that Matyson seems to be the Philly Mag cafeteria. But that’s a testament to the restaurant’s talent, not its proximity to the office. The BYOB skillfully fills the long-neglected noontime niche between four courses at the Fountain and a foil-wrapped sandwich from Anna’s cart. Now if they would just bring back the near-perfect $12 steak frites, with that mountain of truffle-scented, tempuraed red onion rings … 37 South 19th Street, 215-564-2925;

Noodle house
Royal Noodle House
We know, we know: It’s in the Showboat, and it’s not even in the House of Blues. Still, this tiny, boxy Asian bistro channels a thoroughly mod Shanghai noodle bar, with its minimalist white window-screen wall, cozy booths, and open kitchen exhaling a constant cloud of soup-produced steam. Head-on jumbo shrimp, egg noodles with oceanic baby bok choy, and beef broths that’ll cure what ails ya arrive — even at two a.m. — faster than you can say “rice vermicelli.” Showboat Atlantic City, 801 Boardwalk, Atlantic City; 609-343-4000.

Original Soup Man
You know him as the Soup Nazi, the inspiration for that enduring Seinfeld character. Now soup chef Al Yeganeh’s a franchise, with a stand at the Willow Grove Mall. The “rules” — “Pick the soup you want!” “Have your money ready!” — are posted, but the staff has none of the caricatured brusqueness. While there’s no line around the block here, the soups, especially the signature bisques, are hearty and satisfying, loaded with identifiable vegetables. Grove Food Court, Willow Grove Park Mall, 2500 Moreland Road, Willow Grove, 215-659-5880;

Birthday cake
The Bakery House
When we discovered that this unassuming storefront bakeshop in Bryn Mawr made the to-die-for chocolate cake served at a tony Main Line 40th birthday party, we rushed to place our own orders. The cakes are dense yet airy, with chocolate buttercream icing that’s just the right balance of sweet and creamy. The bakery may be staffed by college kids, but these cakes are pure grown-up fare. 604 West Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr; 610-525-4139.

Monday-night dinner
The loneliest night of the week for most restaurants (and restaurant customers) finds the bar at Ansill hopping with foodie cognoscenti and off-duty chefs. Owner David Ansill and chef Kibett Mengech dare to serve offbeat meats like lamb’s tongue, boar belly, sweetbreads and tripe; they turn venison into tartare, and marrow into a topping for toast. The intriguing craft beers and wines by the glass will take the edge off the odd-meat-virgins’ terror. 627 South 3rd Street, 215-627-2485;

French fries
The Idaho spuds here are hand-cut into long matchsticks, sans skins, then fried up right in plain old canola oil. They come out golden, with an even, crispy exterior and an invitingly fluffy interior. And they earn our highest compliment: They taste like fast-food fries! 24 North Merion Avenue, Bryn Mawr, 610-527-7700;

Sweet potato fries
We’ve sampled many eateries’ attempts at this nuevo fry, and the offering here is the best we’ve had. Crunchy on the outside, they’re soft — not soggy or greasy — on the inside. The secret? When it comes to sweet potatoes, frozen fries actually work better than fresh. 931 North 2nd Street, 215-629-0500;

We tasted almost a dozen brands of locally made hummus before settling on this creamy, intensely garlicky chick-pea spread produced by Broomall-based Sun-Ni from a family recipe. The original version was the favorite, but the sun-dried tomato flavor came in a close second. (The roasted garlic version was actually a little too intense for most of us) Available at Fresh Grocer and select ShopRites;

Healthy dinner
Good to Go Delivery
In the past year, several area entrepreneurs have made businesses delivering freshly made, healthy meals to those of us who are always on the go — or want the weight to go. They’re not cheap, but they are convenient. The best of them is Good to Go, whose daily delivery (breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks from $27.95 per person) includes detailed nutrition labels, careful reheating instructions, and options like artichoke and red pepper frittata, asparagus-stuffed flounder and mushroom lasagna. 302-778-4663;

Mama’s Vegetarian
It’s not about the falafel — crisp chick-pea fritters fried to a deep brown — as much as it is about the falafel sandwich at this line-out-the-door kosher storefront. Inside a house-made pita (go for the sweet wheat), the falafel itself is hidden from view — but not from taste — beneath hummus, shredded cabbage, diced cucumbers and tomatoes. Don’t miss the lush eggplant salad when it’s available. 18 South 20th Street, 215-751-0477;

Villa di Roma
Tourists might flock to Ralph’s up the street, but locals who know — and don’t want to spend a fortune at nearby Saloon — head to the Villa. The marinara, served on everything from chicken parm to steak pizzaola to our fave, the linguine Abbruzzi, is the perfect blend of robust garlic, fruity olive oil, parsley and, of course, lots of crushed tomatoes. Buying and freezing quarts to-go ($7) means a quick, delicious meal anytime. 936 South 9th Street; 215-592-1295.

Brown Betty Dessert Boutique
The cupcakes are as broad-brimmed as a church lady’s hat — the better to hold generously applied chocolate, cream cheese or vanilla buttercream frostings. Co-owner Linda Hinton Brown and her small crew of bakers are equally meticulous with their fancy cakes and delightful old-fashioned pound cakes, all named after great homemakers from Brown’s family. (Listen to “Aunt Eva Says,” a pineapple-packed pound cake.) Our pick: the chocolate-on-chocolate cupcake. Liberties Walk, 1030 North 2nd Street, 215-629-0999;

Beer bar
South Philadelphia Taproom
The Taproom is a welcoming island of excellent beer, great food and good times in a sea of bare-bones South Philly watering holes. Thirteen taps and more than 60 bottles offer a rotating hit parade of local brews, like Sly Fox’s Saison Vos, and international icons, like Westmalle Trappist Tripel, tempting even cheap lager junkies to turn to premium ales in record numbers. (We love SPT’s jukebox, too!) 1509 Mifflin Street, 215-271-7787;

Fisher’s Soft Pretzels
No more arguing about whether the “classic” Philly pretzel is the street-cart break-off kind or the super-greasy Auntie Anne’s variety. This Amish establishment has been rolling out the perfect pretzel forever: soft, sizeable twists, offering all the girth of the break-offs plus a sweet, slightly buttery (not too greasy) taste and crispy bottom. Mustard optional. Reading Terminal Market, 51 North 12th Street, 215-592-8510;

Pretzel, updated
Pretzel chips
It’s about time Philly’s famous nosh was updated. Leave it to a Princeton snack-maker to devise a way to morph the pretzel into a thin, crisp cracker. At area ShopRites and Costcos.

Though your pretty little up-selling waitress at Stephen Starr’s Mediterranean entry will probably frown, two non-ravenous people can make a meal out of Tangerine’s $28 meze platter. (A few Hendricks-gin-spiked Damask Rose cocktails don’t hurt, either.) The platter is packed with house-made baba ganoush, hummus, roasted peppers, lots of pita and an impressive selection of cheeses, but the real star is chef Todd Fuller’s selection of salamis, made in the basement below. 232 Market Street, 215-627-5116;

Iron Hill
Many brewpubs do beer just right and food so wrong, but 10-year-old Iron Hill gets our stamp of approval on both fronts. While most of the sandwiches and appetizers hit the mark, we suggest a couple of wood-fired pizzas (go for the Lejoin, made with shrimp, bacon, scallions, horseradish and mozzarella) with a round of Iron Hill’s award-­winning Pig Iron Porter. All brews are made on-premises, and if your crowd includes teetotalers or kids, they’ll love the homemade root beer. Five area locations, with a new Phoenixville location due to open in September;

Adventurous dining
Banana Leaf
At this new Malaysian outpost, owned by a former Penang chef, fish head curry, “treated duck web” and salted whole frog aren’t a challenge for Fear Factor contestants — they’re what’s for dinner. The friendly servers will steer you toward — or away from — some of the menu’s even more interesting delicacies. 1009 Arch Street; 215-592-8288.

Hot dog
As bar snacks go, Alfa’s Ichiro, named for the Japanese baseball player, gets the pennant. Two sliced Hebrew National hot dogs, tempura-battered and deep-fried, are served with a variety of sauces. (Stick with the ketchup.) The Ichiro won’t fill your jones for a steamed vendor dog on a soft bun with mustard and relish, but it will satisfy the 1:30 a.m. urge to put something — other than Alfa’s watermelon martinis — in your belly. 1709 Walnut Street; 215-751-0201.

THE Pierogie Kitchen
Forget Mrs. T’s. Eastern Europe’s dumplings go gourmet at Roxborough’s Pierogie Kitchen, where the 25 unusual options, sold frozen by the dozen, venture far beyond the traditional potato (though the potato pierogies here are the best in town) to such esoterica as spinach with Jack cheese, sauerkraut, and blue crab. For dessert: sweet potato, blueberry or prune. 648 Roxborough Avenue, Roxborough, 215-483-5301;

Estia Dark and incredibly strong
, the Greek coffee at Estia offers a bracing end to a night of lavish seafood indulgence. The fine grinds are boiled with water and sugar in a pot known as a brik, then poured into a small porcelain cup, with the grinds settling at the bottom. If any of the Greek owners are about, they may even offer to read your fortune in the grinds. 1405 Locust Street, 215-735-7700;

Mexican restaurant
Taco Riendo
Yes, we’ll head to 5th Street north of Girard in search of the authentic, exuberant Mexican at this cheery, bilingual, cash-only taqueria. In fact, we’d move for the salmon taco alone. Neighbors indulge daily in steaming foil-wrapped burritos with fajita-style fillings, almost more than a dozen variations on the taco (including some unusual-in-the-U.S. beef options), and hearty breakfast choices. 1301 North 5th Street; 215-235-2294.

Adan Saavedra forms his filler-free Crab Cake Arcelia from jumbo lump crabmeat, crabcake mousse and a touch of mustard, presenting it grandly in a crisp baked-phyllo purse. The creation is best when it rests on a grilled portabella mushroom cap and Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, surrounded by a vibrant carrot-curry sauce. Such an elegant dish looks right at home in the slightly formal white-tablecloth dining room, where Saavedra seamlessly merges French technique with the ingredients of his native Mexico. 6516 Castor Avenue; 215-533-0356.

Meat dish
Barclay Prime
The prime rib offered as an occasional special at Barclay Prime has a sensuously silky texture, quite a contrast from the dense beefiness of the restaurant’s dry-aged steaks. Searing, low-temperature roasting and a resting period take this massive 30-to-35-ounce cut from raw to rosy-rare perfection. It’s a $65 ticket to carnivore heaven, sized to make an impression, served with a side of sumptuous, creamy horseradish sauce. Plus, the leftovers make sublime sandwiches. 237 South 18th Street, 215-732-7560;

Meal under $10
Ikea You can buy a sofa for $200 and a clock for $2.99, but the most irresistible bargain at the you-could-live-here Swedish superstore is the six-pack of intoxicating oversize cinnamon buns ($4!). The fresh-baked smell lures you into the bistro, where Swedish meatballs with lingonberries, vanilla-sauced apple cake and shrimp sandwiches won’t break your bank. Don’t skip the fabulous imported-foods market. 400 Alan Wood Road, Conshohocken, 610-834-1520; 2206 South Columbus Boulevard, 215-551-4532;

Almost homemade dinner
Super Suppers
Food purists may scoff, but busy gourmets know the value of a dinnertime shortcut. The first South Jersey outpost of this popular franchise encourages fun — read: mimosas — while patrons “cook.” No slicing or dicing is required to prepare these healthy meals, designed to be frozen and reheated for quick, easy dinners. Bonus: Dinners average under $4 a portion. Ritz Center, 910 Haddonfield-Berlin Road, Voorhees, 856-784-4550;

John & Kira’s
Ditch the cherry-filled cordials. John & Kira’s (formerly Jubilee) makes ganaches with flavors like Hawaiian ginger, lemongrass, Earl Grey tea and lavender. Since John Doyle and Kira Baker-Doyle started producing exemplary chocolates out of their Feltonville space, other chocolatiers have popped up in Philly. But John & Kira’s is still the best. We just wish they’d open their own retail space so we could stop with the mail-order thing already.