Cradle of liberty, blue-collar Valhalla, celebrity chef homestead— Philadelphia’s reputations precede her. From the outside looking in, it’s natural to earmark only the extremes of the Philly food scene — its gritty, charmingly combative sandwich craft (of course cheesesteaks, and roast pork with broccoli rabe) and its immediately recognizable big-name chefs (Jose Garces, Georges Perrier, Marc Vetri). But there’s a vibrant, head-spinningly diverse eater’s universe that exists in the in-between, one that guidebooks and concierge desks too often gloss over in favor of telling you how to get to Pat’s and Geno’s.
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Philly is brunch-obsessed, perhaps to a fault — wait, you want me to loiter on the sidewalk in the rain for how long before I can stick a fork in a frittata? But Cafe Estelle is worth it, and if you drop in on a lull you won’t have to wait at all. (Good luck with that.) Marshall Green’s place has a tremendous word-of-mouth reputation — has to, since it’s located on the ground floor of a demure condo complex in an odd area between two neighborhoods. He does everything himself: baking his own breads, cold-smoking salmon (in a tin-can smoker in the parking lot), curing bacon, and mashing together an intoxicating scrapple, the PA Dutch gnarly-bits specialty that’s required a.m. eating for out-of-towners. Green’s way with eggs (like the poached “Eggs Juan” special, with scratchmade brandade and smoked paprika/roasted tomato hollandaise) keeps the bleary-eyed brunchers lining up, and genuine hospitality (the servers insist you pour yourself a gratis cup of coffee to go after you pay) keeps them coming back.
444 North 4th Street
You’ll find this style of warm, spare corner restaurant all over the 215, but only Meme (pronounced may-may) is run by the delightfully outspoken David Katz. The restaurant is named in honor of the chef’s Moroccan-Jewish grandmother. It is not a kosher-friendly operation, though — Katz is a pork freak (he started an citywide trend in ’09 when he invited a crew of chefs to crank out a five-course “pig dinner” in his kitchen), and one of his best-loved dishes is Wondra Flour-dusted sizzling mussels served in a hellishly hot cast-iron pan. Katz cooks how he talks—honestly and a bit brashly—and there’s plenty of incongruity on a Meme table, where you might spot a plate of delicate agnolotti resting next to a big honkin’ marrow bone sliced lengthwise. On Thursdays—and Thursdays only—Katz serves fried chicken—and fried chicken only—for lunch. I think it’s the best in the city.
2201 Spruce Street
Tai Lake Restaurant
Chinatown here is tiny, but there’s plenty to love about it, and the seafood-centric Tai Lake is at the top of my list. It’s classic: fish tanks in the foyer (including one filled with frogs — vest-wearing servers will fill a clear plastic sack full of live croakers and stroll it through the dining room back to the kitchen), round banquet tables, cold Tsingtaos, and just enough English to make it all work. There’s a good chance a few people in your party will get their food well after you do; this is the perfect opportunity to gloat about your crab-asparagus soup, spicy soft-shelled crab, shrimp-stuffed hot peppers, and whole grouper while your friends sit there seething. Also worth noting: It’s open every night until 3 a.m.
Tai Lake Restaurant
134 North 10th Street
Koo Zee Doo
Husband-and-wife team David Gilberg and Carla Goncalves cooked together in various Philly kitchens before opening Koo Zee Doo — a playful phonetic stretch-spell of cozido, Portuguese for “cooked” — in 2009. Since that time the duo’s done wonders familiarizing Philly diners with the flavors of Portugal, preserving tradition all the while. Those upper-20s/low-30s entree prices sound high, but know that the portions are across-the-board enormous, ladled into brimming earthenware dishes designed to be passed around. Can’t-misses include the silken chicken gizzards, braised in vinho verde; the crispy baked duck rice, dressed with a fan of tender breast meat; and the manly bife a Portuguesa, picanha steak sided with fried eggs and potatoes and topped with crinkled ribbons of presunto (Portugal’s prosciutto). And don’t forget Carla’s fresh-baked breads, including the coarse, cornbread-like broa—it’s perfect for sopping up sauces.
Koo Zee Doo
614 N 2nd St
People know Southwark, which opened in 2004 but wouldn’t look out of place in 1914, for its cocktails. And it’s not just hype; the aproned barmen, led by Kip Waide, mix a Sazerac or a Last Word better than anyone, and I’ve never seen any of them use a jigger. But it’s also a great restaurant, with a small, thoughtful menu from chef/co-owner Sheri Waide, Kip’s wife — she did “farm-to-table” before the phrase became a business card cliche. There is no burger, but edible stalwarts include Sheri’s clams in a vermouth and chili-butter broth and the farmhouse platter with charcuterie from sous chef/meat ninja Nick Macri. Recent highlights from him include a fiery ‘nduja (a spreadable Italian cured meat) and a salami flavored with hops.
701 South 4th Street
Philly never knew it was missing a Cypriot restaurant until Konstantinos Pitsillides opened up Kanella. (The chef actually imports olives, pine nuts, and other raw ingredients directly from his father’s farm on Cyprus.) There’s incredible honesty and variety to be found at Pitsillides’s white-washed BYOB joint; one of the best ways to get the full experience is to stop in on a Sunday, when he offers a flat-rate mezze menu and barbecues sardines and quails over charcoal. For a hand-written glimpse into the chef’s mind, take a look at the screeds (Yelp being one of his pet topics) he scribbles down and tapes up in his kitchen window on the 10th Street side.
266 S 10th St
Han Dynasty of Philadelphia
Han Chiang will not hesitate to tell you that the dishes you’re ordering — at his restaurant — are crap. He’ll inform you the fried rice and lo mein he offers are for children and wussy grown-ups (see the menu’s “Kids/Baby Adults” section) and strongarm you into ordering like you’re a native of Sichuan — cold beef tongue and tripe slices soaked in chili oil, cumin-crusted lamb, kick-in-the-mouth flounder studded with lip-numbing peppercorns, pork in a garlic-laden hot sauce. It might be obnoxious if he wasn’t always right — this food is addicting, but Chiang’s ball-busting antics are just as big of a draw.
Han Dynasty of Philadelphia
108 Chestnut Street
Pretention-free Bodhi brews beans from Stumptown Coffee Roasters and brews them extremely well — a serious La Marzocco for the espresso, a Chemex fleet, and a pourover bar for the rest. The baristas here are friendly and down-to-earth, and the shop’s put together with handsome reclaimed materials; design geeks will love the custom light fixtures from Robert True Ogden. Its location on Headhouse Square — home to Philly’s biggest farmers market — has exposed its simple charms to a wider audience.
410 South 2nd Street
Philly’s exceptional reputation for beer is on display at this Fishtown pub, which pours 25 brews (a smart, ever-changing selection of local, American, and Euro crafts) in a room tricked out in an homage to industry (see the giant saw sculpture, etched with artsy hops, dangling above the bar). A big chunk of the beer scene, at least here, is about relationships, and Adam Ritter knows every brewer there is to know. Come Philly Beer Week, held every June, all the big names show up to Kraftwork for events, pouring rarities out of their personal cellars or collaborating on beer-paired meals with chef Brian Lofink.
541 East Girard Avenue
Run by a staff of sweet Polish-American teenagers in bright red polo shirts, Krakus is the first name in Port Richmond, Philly’s most Polish neighborhood. I get lost shuffling through the canned fish and condiments, perusing the smoked-meat deli case in the back (get a pound each of the weselna, or “wedding” kielbasa, and the bialowieska, lovingly translated as “Polish Slim Jim”) and flipping through (what I’m assuming are) Polish gossip magazines. But there’s also a small restaurant, called Staropolska, inside, perfect for filling up on pierogi, flaczki, golabki, red and white borscht, and any other generous plates they’re putting out Wednesday to Saturday.
3150 Richmond Street
John’s Water Ice
My favorite place for cups of frozen, fruity water ice (others call it “Italian Ice,” but no one here says that) is John’s — so very Italiano, so very Philly. The corner shop, which closes over the winter and reopens in early April, does only four base flavors — lemon, cherry, chocolate and pineapple — and for a few extra cents you can and should get a brown paper sack full of pretzel rods for dipping/scooping. Whenever the high-school-age staffers are done flirting with each other (it could be a minute, but come on, it’s cute), be sure to ask for a gelati — that’s half water ice, half ice cream — by name.
John’s Water Ice
701 Christian Street
Decorated with faded Parisian posters and Gallic tchotchkes, the charmingly-worn Lutecia features the best soups I’ve ever had, anywhere. Its very French owner, Valerie Blum, refuses to give up any details about how she does it, but it doesn’t matter — everyone, including me, continues to order bowls of her espelette pepper-kissed tomato bisque, even in the middle of the 100-degree Philly summer. The quiches and sandwiches are not to be missed, either, but the soups … fennel bisque, green lentil curry, goose and barley. I’ve had them all and I’m obsessed with each one.
2301 Lombard Street
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A lifelong overeater, Drew Lazor moved to Philadelphia from his native Maryland in 2002 to study English at La Salle University. He fell into covering the city’s intricate food scene — as is often the case with these types of things — by happy accident. He’s currently the Food & Restaurants editor at the Philadelphia City Paper, and founded its obsessively-updated food blog, Meal Ticket, in 2008. He resides in the Point Breeze section of the city with his girlfriend, two black cats and a fridge full of far too many cured meat products.