Philadelphia Restaurant Review: Spice 28
The world is flat.
It’s been seven years since Thomas Friedman broke that news, but the phrase just won’t go away. Anybody can come from anywhere to compete with anyone—and every episode of Iron Chef reminds us that it’s no different in the realm of chefdom.
But Spice 28 takes that simplified notion one step further. At this mod new Midtown spot—whose blond wood canopy and perforated wall panels glisten in a shifting LED rainbow like some Scandinavian architectural pavilion floating toward the Orion Nebula—there are two executive chefs orchestrating what amounts to two separate menus.
Each chef proves just how flat the world has become. The enigmatically named “Mister Ma” is a Chengdu native who came to America courtesy of the Panda Express chain (which helped him get a green card) and eventually found his way into New York City’s well-regarded Grand Sichuan empire. He cooks Sichuan food here. Meanwhile, Danny Teng, a “half Thai and half Chinese” native of Malaysia, churns out a sort of greatest-hits collection of pan-Asian and Asian-fusion fare.
“In Center City, there is just so much competition,” says co-owner Jack Chen, who also owns Chinatown’s Sakura Mandarin. “To be outstanding, we felt we needed two chefs.”
The competition couldn’t be much closer. Spice 28 is right around the corner from the marquee restaurants of 13th Street. Stylewise, it’s second to none of those neighbors. Foodwise, it’s an Off-Broadway production by comparison.
But Off-Broadway has its merits—price point not the least of them—and Spice 28 has swiftly become a go-to spot for group office lunches and birthday dinners.
I’ve liked the Sichuan side of things the best. Dry-pot lamb was electric with ginger and Sichuan peppercorns. That ma la tingle also permeated one of the best (and prettiest) ma po tofu presentations I’ve ever tasted.
But Sichuan is more than just hot-and-numbing, and so is chef Ma’s cooking. The sourness of his quick-blanched, chilled potato shreds was bewitching. The sweet-hot cucumber salad? It’s on par with the version served at Han Dynasty.
With one exception (delicate Peking duck crepes), Teng’s fusion on the other side of the kitchen is eclipsed by his Thai and Malay standards. These range from a tom yum soup whose bold sourness and amped-up lemongrass aroma are like fists on your lapels, to merely serviceable stir-fries. He does terrifically fragrant scratch curry pastes that could use more heat (especially the green), but that same mildness is a credit to his roti canai. And his pad Thai (unlike the one at Jane G’s) nails the sweet-salty-sour trifecta just right.
Parlay that with Spice 28’s strong Sichuan showing, and you’ve got yourself a worthwhile exacta—two wins in a place where one might have been surprising enough.