Taste: Dining Scene: Second Helpings

Three neighborhood institutions — Murray's, Tacconelli's and Sang Kee — strike out into unknown territory: the suburbs and South Jersey

Located on the outer edges of Chinatown, Sang Kee, until its late-’90s renovation, defined hole-in-the-wall, with its crowded 120 seats and unadorned white walls. Now the restaurant’s dining room features eight-foot windows offering a view of the vacant lot across 9th Street. A big-screen TV fills one wall of the dining room with Wheel of Fortune. But the long-necked duck carcasses hanging in the front window are the only necessary decoration. On the table, crisp, flavorful Peking duck is served in two abundant courses — with scallions and sweet plum sauce for Peking duck rolls, and in a ­pepper-studded stir-fry — to be washed down with Chinese beer. The lengthy menu ventures into pig’s-blood territory, but this is an accessible restaurant for the uninitiated. Spicing is minimal in most dishes; the cold sesame noodles marked on the menu with a chili pepper warning taste more of sweet Jif peanut butter than heat. Four blocks away, at the Reading Terminal Market, the Sang Kee stall highlights the restaurant’s popular noodle dishes, with equally little concern for decor.

Pig’s blood isn’t on the menu at the Sang Kee in Wynnewood, but the duck is unchanged, prepared each day at the Chinatown location. Prices can be slightly higher than the under-$12 entrées in Chinatown, but are still very reasonable, with a feast of savory pork-stuffed eggplant, garlicky Chinese greens, crunchy salt-baked shrimp, and too-sugary lemon chicken totaling less than $50. There are TVs here, too, but they create a modern feel, set into a stone bar lining the dining room and tuned to rapidly flickering music videos. In designing this suburban Sang Kee, owner Michael Chow didn’t seek to recreate the Chinatown experience. The high ceilings and stone walls make for a hectic, dimly lit dining room that has more in common with the restaurant’s fellow Main Line BYOBs than with its Philadelphia duck house predecessor.

Back in Bala, Teti is explaining the Murray’s tradition. “We’re a deli,” he says, before noting that the new Chester County deli has 90 seats in three spacious, bare-brick-walled dining rooms, courtyard seating, and a full bar, a decor that better fits the expanding restaurant scene in West Chester. The menu at the new location is virtually unchanged from its Main Line roots, but it is the experience of eating at Murray’s that Teti is most concerned about re-creating. “You’ll still get the same kind of shtick from your deli man,” he promises. “And the waitresses are as kind and gentle as you remember.”
But the people who will fill the new Market Street Murray’s may never have visited the original location. As these Philadelphia neighborhood classics expand, they’ve had to adapt their traditions to a new clientele. A Chinatown hole-in-the-wall enlists an interior designer to make its mark in Wynnewood. A Port Richmond rowhouse with a creaky old oven needs updated appliances to compete in Jersey.

In West Chester, as the Teti family made final preparations for the Murray’s opening, one question remained: Should the sign — no neon here, instead a 12-foot vertical version, black with gold lettering — read “Murray’s,” or “Murray,” as it does in Bala Cynwyd, where, the story goes, the “S” burned out and was removed years ago? “It’s so classically Murray’s,” Bob Teti’s wife, Gayle, said. “But will the people in West Chester get it? How much like Bala Cynwyd do we want to be?” On opening day, the sign read MURRAY.

The Originals
Murray’s Restaurant and Delicatessen,
285-287 Montgomery Avenue, Bala Cynwyd; 610-664-6995.
Tacconelli’s Pizzeria, 2604 East Somerset Street; 215-425-4983.
Sang Kee Peking Duck House, 238 North 9th Street; 215-925-7532.

The Sequels
Murray’s West Chester, 125 West Market Street, West Chester; 610-696-5040.
Tacconelli’s Pizzeria, 450 South Lenola Road, Maple Shade; 856-638-0338.
Sang Kee Asian Bistro, 339 East Lancaster Avenue, Wynnewood; 610-658-0618.