Phamily and Phood in Philadelphia!
That's a lot of PH.
When I was a kid, I went to Philadelphia quite often. My grandmother, Phyllis Sanders, lived there until she moved to a retirement home in Medford, NJ. So, growing up in New York City, we were able to get out there much more frequently than my cousins who lived in Texas. I vaguely remember doing some sightseeing from time to time. My parents wanted to be sure their kids were experienced travelers, so even if we were visiting family they’d often make sure to include some sort of cultural element in our trips—also, kids get bored easily. Of course, I don’t remember too much of these trips. I was pretty young (like 10) when she moved out of Philly. That said, when I found out that the National Federation of Tourist Guides Associations was having their biennial conference in Philly, I was thrilled for the chance to explore the city as an adult. So, I went ahead and booked the whole block offered, which included an extra day before the conference started.
Of course, I stupidly forgot that one of those cousins who lived in Texas as a kid now lived in Philly as an adult…and so I could have just crashed with him! While I may have wanted to stay at the hotel for the conference anyway, with any better planning I wouldn’t have accepted the work that I did the weekend following, and I could have enjoyed a few more days in what is now a serious foodie town! But I don’t want to complain too much, as I’m grateful for the time I did have, which happened to start off with the most beautiful weather! My first two days walking around this pedestrian-friendly town, it was an uncharacteristically warm 70-75 degrees! Warmer in February than it was all March!
There were a few other colleagues arriving when I did, but not all of them were able to play—by which I mean eat—because they were stuck in important meetings while the weather was giving us life! One of the free colleagues organized a meetup at the famed Pat’s King of Steaks for some classic Cheesesteak eating. Now, I know that a lot of people are going to freak out about how it’s not that good and it’s a tourist trap, etc. But, I was a tourist! As I explained to the front desk, I understood this experience would not be reflective of even the kind of cheesesteak you might find at the local pizza place or deli—or almost any other establishment serving food—but it was an experience I knew I needed to have at some point in my life. Because, while I’m sure that my parents took my sister and me to see the Liberty Bell, I’m also sure they did not make any efforts to feed us cheesesteaks from a place as tacky as Pat’s. It’s like the people who come to NYC and want to eat at Lombardi’s or Grimaldi’s or even Patsy’s. Go for it—understand what it is, and then move on. And that’s what we did. Jeremy is another NYC Tour Guide, and a junk-food aficionado, which was why I trusted his judgment and was happy to follow him to this triangle of meat sandwiches that has been featured on so many food tv shows for their rivalry as much as anything else.
After plowing through the Whiz Wit and Fries, I offered to follow him to his next destination—something called Magic Gardens. We enjoyed walking through the old Italian section that has clearly been changing into more of a Mexican hub. We got to take in some interesting architecture as well as a preview of what we were walking towards. Unfortunately, Jeremy hadn’t done enough of his homework ahead of time to realize that we were actually showing up on the one day that they were closed. So, we took some pictures from the outside—which my cousin assures me was probably enough—and after catching the whiffs of a legit jerk grill that we were too full to be able to indulge in, we decided to head to City Hall.
Along the way, we discovered that Big Gay Ice Cream has an outlet there AND there was NO LINE!! So, we decided we had enough room for dessert by now, and each got a cone. It was truly perfect weather to be walking around in Philly, although we both noted how dark the streets actually were. While we have skyscrapers in New York City, we also have much wider streets which actually allow for some more light—especially in the parts of town that have lower buildings. But once we got to City Hall there was some more sun to be seen. We walked a little further together, but then we went our separate ways—as a woman named Adrienne, growing up in the 80s and 90s, I had no interest in visiting the iconic Rocky site that Jeremy was headed to. Plus, I wanted to visit a place that actually had some relevance to my life.
Before going to Philly, I had my Dad track down my Grandmother’s old address without making it known to my mother. I thought it would be cute to get a picture taken in front of the building. So, when I got there, I asked a nice couple to take my photo. They were young, and the girlfriend gave my phone to her boyfriend—insisting “he’s really good at this”—but he wasn’t. I glanced at the photos just quick enough to mutter out a polite thank you—as it’s what my Grandmother would have wanted, but I knew these were not photos I’d be sharing with anyone. I was bummed and I had clocked that one of the places recommended to me by one of NYC’s busiest Food photogs, Clay, was right around the corner—so I went and got myself a tasty cider while I watched the Philadelphians pass me by.
As I drank my afternoon away, I made plans to meet up with my cousin for some drinks. I was still full from that cheesesteak! Jono suggested we meet up at a place called Good Dog unless I could find some al fresco dining along the way—but much like my hometown, all those seats were claimed the minute people got out of their offices. So, after I was told to obey the rules—I guess, like a good dog—I found a spot at the bar and tried some local PPA—which is a thing I didn’t know existed. Philly Pale Ale anyone? When Jono got there we grabbed a booth and ordered some food—although I was still pretty full, so I only got some veggie latkes, which were decent. I’d already moved on to a better beer as well—sorry, Philly.
Jono shared some of his gripes about the life and people in Philly, and also the news that he’s planning on moving back to the West Coast in a few weeks, so it was a good thing I caught him! We decided we didn’t want to fall into the bad graces of this bar by lingering longer than we were welcome, so we picked up his bike and then went to a dive bar, called Dirty Franks for a final round or two before we called it a night—before Jono did anyway. I was now hungry for real food. And on my way home I saw another Tria, which I considered dropping into for some eats, but I wanted to drop my bag off at the hotel and figured I would be able to find something near there—I was wrong. We were staying at the Wyndham Historic District, which is the part of town that shuts down (at least in terms of food) early. So, I ate some crappy food and called it a night so that I could wake up for my food tour at Reading the next morning.
It’s been a while since I’ve been traveling on my own, and so I haven’t been able to do the one thing that I almost always want to do when I’m in a new city—go on a food tour. And it turns out that many of the food tours in Philly don’t run through the winter! So, while I wanted very much to try Taste4Travel, I was only able to book the Philly Food Tour at Reading Market—but it worked out just fine—even if I freaked out the guide at the end when I explained to her what it is that I do and what I was there for. It was me and a couple from Canada, who I slipped my business card to for their next visit to NYC as they said they always go on food tours when they travel. I was impressed by the amount of food our guide provided, given the price of the tour, but I definitely would have added more food and charged more for it, if I were in her position.
Naturally, I stayed on after the tour to grab up some more grub before moving on to check out some of the other places that Clay had recommended for me to check out. I decided I would do lunch at Rooster Soup Company, and then go for a tahini shake at Goldie, which was just upstairs from Rooster. I sat at the counter of this very cute diner-style restaurant, and when the server came over I told her what it was that sent me there—the new chef who’d recently moved from another restaurant. She suggested I order the special, which would be added to the menu soon—a smoke trout tartine, with some greens. Perfectly light, given what I’d already consumed since arriving! I also decided to go for one of their signature bloodys, that not only paired perfectly with my lunch but was designed to combat food waste—PLUS the whole meal—aside from being insanely affordable by NYC standards, would contribute a portion of the proceeds to good causes.
The manager at Rooster chatted me up a bit and gave me his own suggestions on where I should go to eat and drink if I was able. So, I took his card and compared it to some of my notes from Clay and made a plan of attack for the rest of my free time—which was mostly just Friday. But, not before I would get my Tahini shake! I really thought that I was doing the smart thing by taking this shake with me on my walk back to the hotel—I had to get some work done before I could go back to the leisure aspect of the trip. This was a bad idea. About halfway through the shake, I began feeling lethargic. It was delicious and creamy and had bits of halva crumbles on top that I struggled to dig out when I got to the bottom—but it was definitely not a power shake by any means—even the mocha aspect was of no help—except in the department of flavor.
After powering through some computer work, I decided I would treat myself to a local restaurant that has an outpost in NYC but was so close to the hotel that it seemed stupid not to. I didn’t need much when I went to High Street on Market, just some coffee, and their bread plate—sounded perfect to me. The Iced Ginger Spice Latte was just what I wanted, and the bread was all very different and perfectly baked, but the butter was right out of the chiller, so I couldn't really do anything with it. I walked around the nabe and headed back to the hotel before changing for the opening reception, which was held at the Philadelphia History Museum.
I thought the venue was a great spot for this opening reception—where we were even greeted by an actor portraying Ben Franklin. The room has a nice big map of Philly on the ground which was very cool—and I was even able to find a river with my surname! Who knew how deep my heritage ran here?! The most surprising thing for me here was that our caterers served much better Philly Cheesesteaks than the one I’d consumed the day before. They had mini rolls so that you could try a couple of different fillings—which I naturally did. And they made sure not to pre-fill any of the sandwiches, which is key to maintaining the integrity of the bread. Plus the meat was perfectly seasoned and tender, which must be quite a challenge when feeding a large group. So many thanks to Campo’s! And to whoever donated the free wine that we enjoyed—and even brought back to the room with us as we tucked in for the evening with face masks, junk food, and Three Billboards!
The following day was filled with sessions that I don’t think most of you will care about…so I won’t bore you with them. In the evening we received a nice little bus tour of Philly as we made our way to their relatively new Observation tower. Sadly, it was not a very clear night for us—but it’s still a pretty cool spot and we got to spend even more time with our nations favorite Franklin. Our dinner was at an Italian unremarkable restaurant which had the space to accommodate our group. But we managed to round up a small group of the more youthful attendees (from NYC) who were interested in attempting a night out on the town despite the spitting weather.
We trekked through the damp to get to a seemingly cool speakeasy type of place. Located in their Chinatown, it’s called Hop Sing Laundromat, and naturally, it has nothing but a light outside to indicate its presence. We were all very bad tour guides who didn’t do our research before arriving there, and one of our group was armed with her big professional grade camera. We rang the bell outside, as instructed by a sign, and while we waited for our photographer was inspired by the sight of another of our colleagues and how her umbrella caught the red light. She went to make the shot right as our gatekeeper popped his head out to get a headcount. I nudged our photog, but it was too late. He saw the camera and shut the door. Defeated, we considered some other bars (including the one from Sunny), but we also were tired and moistened, so we returned to the hotel and had a nightcap in the hotel bar—catching up with a couple others from the conference.
After the conference ended the next day, some people grabbed the sad-looking bag lunches and joined in on the tours that were offered through the program, but I had my own agenda that was centered around my dreams of achieving an edible euphoria. There were still so many places on my checklist and I didn’t have to be back home until Saturday morning—I considered staying the night, but knew I’d be unhappy if I didn’t sleep in my own bed before having to make it to work. I plotted my adventure, said so long to most of my colleagues and journeyed off to the feeding frenzy that I made my Friday!
I knew that the end goal was to be able to make it back to the hotel area by 5 pm, so that I could try to get into the famed Zahav, which I was told is sometimes possible to do if you arrive right when they open. So, I decided to plot out my day, by going to the restaurant furthest from the hotel first and working my way back. I could have taken public transit—and I considered it, but figured for my health’s sake it was probably best if I just walked my way through the whole day. Despite another dreary day, I bundled up and headed out to Res Ipsa Café where I was told by more than one person that their breakfast sandwiches were on point. However, it was 1 pm and I’d actually already had some eggs for breakfast, so I was more intrigued by the fried green tomato sandwich, served with their smashed potatoes and then I ordered a biscuit to go, as I had to know what all the hoopla was about. The sandwich was good, but as I watched my neighbors enjoy their breakfast selections, I was envious of their choices—mostly because I was too eager to bite into mine, which is the cardinal sin when consuming cooked tomatoes—and sure enough I burned some taste buds and the roof of my mouth! The flavors were all very good, and I was happy with my choice, but the ratio was slightly off—I wanted more filling. But, after I took a bite of the biscuit, all was forgiven. I understood why people loved these buttery, melting treasures made with love and flour. I knew I had a lot more ahead of me, so I tactfully put the biscuit away—for me to eat the next morning back in my NYC apartment.
After the savory, I wanted something sweet, so I walked over to the beloved Federal Donuts—well one of them, anyway. There are a couple of locations in Philly. While it’s obvious they serve donuts here—did you know that they have two different styles of donuts? Also, fried chicken! Which, I must say—was VERY hard to resist, but I figured I’ve gotta save some things for my next trip! It was also clearly time for more coffee, so after being given the rundown of donut styles from my lovely counter-server, I decided I would get some for now and then more for later—because I had to try as many as possible, right?! I picked two flavors of the old-fashioned (sugar-powdered) “Hot Fresh” donuts to help wash down my coffee and went with a half dozen of the newer (frosted) “Fancy” donuts so that I could get one of each flavor and bring back to New York with me—I was assured they travel well, and they did. It was not as hard as I anticipated it might be to eat the two donuts after already having eaten a whole sandwich and side of potatoes. The flavored sugar was pretty sweet, so they paired really well with the coffee and I really liked the cookies and cream flavoring. I certainly took my time, as I had it to take, and realized that there was another stop I could make which wasn’t necessarily a part of my original plan. I went back to my Grandma’s old apartment building and decided to just go for silly selfie instead of trying to trust a stranger. Then I went and got a drink—to space out the eating.
Tria had another location right across the street from the English pub that I wanted to go to for afternoon tea. I figured that a wine bar would be a good spot for a possible dessert wine or something. And I stumbled into a very unique and lucky find! I spoke with the young bartender about what I was looking for and she suggested a Coffee Mead from Africa. I was initially confused and suspicious—thinking that it might be too sweet, but I was wrong! It wound up being the perfect digestive that I wanted. The flavor was round, but not overwhelming and it wasn’t at all syrupy as many an after-dinner drink can be. I hope that I can find this gem again…it would be the perfect gift for someone to buy me. Wink. Wink.
My one drink quickly turned into two, but then I closed out my tab so that I could move on to the British tribute with my father on the mind. The fun thing about The Dandelion is that it’s not just a little storefront that’s a part of some huge ugly tower (like what you might find in NYC), but it’s in this beautiful building that was redesigned perfectly to give you that feel of jolly old England before you even step inside. Combining two former residences this modern pub is back to its Anglo roots as you step inside to be greeted by a fireplace on the second floor in a very bizarre design plan that makes you climb stairs to go back down them again. I chose to sit in the bar area, where I pondered long and hard whether I could truly commit to a full English tea service, with several tiers of small bites—but given that I was determined to stuff my face at Zahav, I opted for some “small bites” and a tea cocktail because it was, in fact, tea time. While my waiter suggested it might be too filling, I decided to order the Welsh Rarebit, as I find it hard to turn down when I see it, and the deviled eggs. If you’re unfamiliar. Welsh Rarebit is essentially bread and cheese. And those are two quintessential ingredients for English eating! The chamomile lemonade cocktail was perfect as well. It was light and refreshing and made me feel like I was almost being healthy. I really loved the vibe in here and I will definitely come back for a proper tea time—when I can enjoy lots of mini sandwiches and perhaps some clotted cream. But, I was looking at the time and realizing that I should keep moving on as I had a fancy restaurant to get to for dinner!
Through the drizzling rain, I walked from S 18th Street to about S 3rd Street and made it to the back of the building where Zahav is located. I took shelter there for a minute so that I could reach out to another tour guide from NYC who was interested in joining me for some fine dining as well. Behind the restaurant is an architecturally interesting residential complex that looks like it’s right out of some modern critically acclaimed British cop drama—but perhaps that was just the tea and rain getting to me. Kristin, my friend, was on her way so I walked around to the front of the restaurant and was not surprised to see there was already a good number of folks there and it wasn’t even 5 pm. I checked in with the host who said that if my friend were to arrive within the next 5 minutes, we could be seated at the chef’s counter. Yes! She told me she’s just minutes away. After I checked out their resting rooms, they sat me at the counter where I could peer in to see the men at work while I waited for my friend to arrive, and as soon as I was biting into a couple of the fresh pickles placed before me, she did.
I knew that Kristin was a fellow food-lover, but I’d never really been to a restaurant like this with her and wasn’t sure if she was quite as open-minded as I. I was very hopeful that she would be willing to indulge in the chef’s tasting menu along with me. I mean, you don’t get to visit restaurants run by James Beard Award-winning chefs in NYC and enjoy a tasting menu for only $56 and the wine pairing for only an additional $27! Plus, I’d made so many decisions that day that I was ready to leave it to someone else. And the roasted lamb shoulder was only available with that menu. But, like many restaurants, you could only order the chef’s tasting if everyone in your party did. To my great relief, Kristin was just as excited as I was to try whatever the chef wanted to throw in front of us—and the bartender. So we went in—full tasting mode.
The first thing that was brought out to us was the Salatim which was 6 different small veggie dishes that all hit various flavor profiles—some sweet, some spicy, some mild, some sour. It was a great way to start the meal and cleanse our palates, which were ripe and ready for the smoothest hummus in the world when it came out with their homemade laffa bread. This hummus was so creamy and flavorful that I wanted to smuggle a bucket of it across the state borders—even if it’s not actually illegal it certainly felt like it could be. We couldn’t finish the salads, but we weren’t ready to give them up, so we just sort of pushed them to the back of the counter as we received our next dishes. First came the Fried Cauliflower, which was served with a bright green mint labneh that was the perfect bite to impress my dining companion who’s not often been a fan of the ingredient. But the next dish was one we were both anticipating: Grilled Duck Hearts. Now, I haven’t had these often, but when I have it’s always been at restaurants I trust to cook them just enough to achieve the perfect texture and pair it with flavors that complement its natural irony tinge. This was exactly that. The next dish was a wonderfully presented spin on a toad-in-a-hole with a delicately smoked fish on top. We were also given a Haloumi dish, which for me was the least exciting of all the plates we received. I think that it was just too salty for someone who’d spent the whole day eating lots of food. But maybe just, in general, it was a little too salty—like it could have benefitted from more sweetness to balance it out. But this was all a thing of the past when it was time to bring out our next dish. The main course that we didn't have even close to enough room for was the glistening roasted lamb served with Persian wedding rice, which I’ve now become an expert on after having consumed the dish many times IN Persia. While the rice was not as good as I have now become accustomed, the lamb was everything I could have ever wanted in a dish. The flavors were pronounced enough to complement the natural gaminess of the animal but were delicate in a way that you weren’t at all overwhelmed by it. And the meat itself was so well-cooked that it could easily be turned into a pulled lamb if you decided to attack it with a couple of dull instruments. We were both pretty full at this point, but felt it hard to pull ourselves away from this masterpiece. When the manager came over with our final pour of wine my friend asked him what they were thinking when they served us such a huge portion of food and he said: “I was thinking that you should have enough to be able to enjoy it again tomorrow for brunch.” And so we had them split up the remaining food and pack it up for us to take away.
But wait—there’s MORE! As if we hadn’t been well-fed already, they had dessert to send us! And not just one dish, but THREE. Three normal sized desserts! We both decided to order some Turkish coffee to help give us enough energy to roll out of the restaurant—and some digestives, because why not?! We’d barely spent any money on this feast in NYC dollars! The gorgeous desserts that were placed in front of us ranged from a pretty tasty but run of the mill Chocolate Olive Oil Cake when sitting next to the more Middle Eastern Malabi Custard and the very modern looking Pomegranate Sorbet that was topped with a Turkish Cotton Candy and was the perfect end to this very decadent evening. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to finish my trip to Philadelphia. So I didn’t. After hobbling out of Zahav, we gathered our belongings from the hotel where we had to sit a minute before hurrying off to the train station so that I could catch the next train out—since Kristin decided to book another night at a different hotel rather than trying to scurry back like my crazy ass.
I’m so grateful that I had a chance to revisit this town when and how I did. Not only to be there as an adult but to feel the presence of my loved ones around me—whether they were physically with me or not. I have a new appreciation for this city now, and I look forward to returning sooner rather than later—especially knowing how cheap it is to eat well there!
PS—for those wondering, the lamb lasted me another TWO meals at home!