Food and restaurants with Craig LaBan

Food and restaurants with Craig LaBan

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    afternoon my hungry friends and welcome back – welcome back!! - to the last Philly
    food chat of August.
    Hard to believe, but it’s been a few weeks since we last
     And though I was on a great road trip vacation to visit family Michigan, I have to admit I missed you all (…at
    least a little bit!) Is summer really coming to a close so soon? Ugh.
    I can’t
    stand it.
    This is my favorite time of year, when the tomatoes are ripe, the eggplants
    are plump and none of my football teams have yet to lose a real game.
     That bliss is so darn fleeting. 

    I hope you’ve
    all had a great break, as well, and I’d love to catch up on some of your
    favorite bites, drinks, new places and meals since we last spoke.
    Also, did
    your summer travels take you to one incredibly memorable meal? I’d love to hear
    about that today.
    Good dining tips near the turnpike for road trippers still on
    their way…let’s hear those, too.
    I’ve got a couple to share in a moment. 

    But first,
    let’s get back to Philly with a few things I’ve written on the local scene
    since we last spoke.
    There was my positive report on the excellent banh mi and other
    Vietnamese street foods at
    Same Same in Northern Liberties, and my somewhat disappointed
    take in
    Imli, the new Indian BYO in Queen Village that was not the South Indian
    venue that I’d been hoping for based on early reports.
    We also have not yet had
    a chance to discuss my review of Ardmore’s
    Tired Hands Fermentaria, the
    incredibly ambitious new brewpub from Jean Broillet IV where the creative brews
    never failed to impress me but the taco-based menu still needs consistency
    Other smaller pieces worth noting – my Drink pieces on Pa’s first bourbon
    in 40 years from Pittsburgh’s Wigle distillery
    and 2
    nd Story’s PA Lager brewed entirely from locally malted grains. 

    Also, there
    was this larger
    feature on the local re-invention of Cypriot-style haloumi
    through a collaboration between  Valley
    Shepherd Creamery and Zahav’s Michael Solomonov.
    It’s an excellent sheep and
    goat’s milk cheese that crisps on the outside when cooked but doesn’t
    completely melt away - perfect for grilling season – but also a fascinating
    tale of how world events sometimes shape our local foods.

    Today also
    marks the return of everybody’s  favorite
    Philly food hunt game – the Crumb Tracker Quiz. Be the first to name ALL THREE
    PLACES IN ORDER where I ate these dishes, and win  a prize: 1) Miso-glazed eggplant (hint: ate this
    in the PA ‘burbs); 2) Blackened catfish with cauliflower, okra and “comeback
    sauce”; 3) A South Jersey taco trio…(hint: this taqueria is not far from the
    Ben Franklin Bridge)… ready, set…start crumbing! 

    Miso-glazed eggplant... in the PA burbs.. 

    catfish with cauliflower, okra and “comeback sauce”

    South Jersey taco trio…(hint: this taqueria is not far from the Ben Franklin

    While you folks are nibbling on all that, I just wanted to note a few highlights from my road trip west to Michigan and back….

    Highlights near the PA turnpike:  lunch at the Brownstone Café in Middletowne (not far from Harrisburg) – good home cooking with homemade pies and PA Dutch flair, including all you can eat “pot pie” Wednesday special served the PA Dutch way, with noodles.  (

    -Out of the Fire – in Donegal, near Pittsburgh, good seasonal New American cooking with emphasis on smoke and mushrooms. Great mushroom soup, excellent smoked salmon sandwich, and these totally addictive “mini-pork shanks” cooked Asian style with a sweet and spicy noodle and peanut salad. It's open for lunch, which is good for day-travelers. 

    Our dinner at Justin Severino’s Cure was easily one of the best meals of our
    trip, and one of the best I’ve ever eaten in Pittsburgh.
    Very cool, edgy spot
    in the emerging Lawrenceville section of the ‘burgh with focus on cured meats
    and Italian-inflected cooking.
    I was most impressed, though, with Severino’s
    novel seafood twist on charcuterie, which he called salumi di mare: salmon
    tartare spiced like nduja.
    . and this swordfish Finocchiona, in which the fish
    is cured and dressed in a hail of fennel (pollen, brittle, relish).
    Such a Mediterranean flavor. Such a
    vivid, memorable and beautiful dish.

    swordfish finocchiona at Cure in Pittsburgh

    We had
    numerous other memorable meals along the way… our annual pilgrimage to
    Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor (pasta sale! pastrami!), fresh pitas still puffing hot from the hearth at the
    strip mall Middle Eastern place near my parents house in the Detroit suburbs,
    our annual stop to Iva’s retro-chicken dinners heading north in Sterling.
    But… it was our trip to
    the western side of the state around Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo that really
    impressed me.
    The folks there call Grand Rapids “Beer City USA”, which to a
    Philadelphian, is fightin’ words.
    But wow. They have over 30 breweries
    within an hour of Grand Rapids – including some biggies, like Founder’s and Bell’s.
    what I like to drink in summer, though – Belgian-style farmhouse ales – I was most thrilled
    with Brewery Vivant and especially Jolly Pumpkin (actually closer to Ann
    ) Got a chance to drink this Fuego del Otono as the sun set over the West
    Bay off Lake Michigan near Traverse City while eating a meal at JP’s Mission Table on the Mission
    Peninsula. I must say, it was a perfect summer moment.
    (even if beer was a notch better
    than the food

    Ok, folks... that's my postcard from vacation. Now back to you... what's up? 
    Welcome back, have you checked out Vault Brewing in Yardley, I went for the mosaic IPA, but was very impressed by the food, The brown sugar buffalo pizza, and pickled celery that came with the cauliflower app were the standouts, but impressive food overall

    Hi Mike H! No, I have not yet been to Vault in Yardley, but have definitely been enjoying the beers that they submitted to the Brewvitational this spring and last. Their Triticum American IPA came in 6th place (out of 30) in the wheat beer competition. And I think their coffee-stout in a can is pretty impressive too. Shake it, and it has a creamy texture when you pour it. I need to check out the brewpub, though, along with a dozen other new ones that have opened in the past year. Thanks for the recs. 
    What do you think is the best value in the city? By that I mean the best quality to price ratio.
    Value is such a relative term, Hank, that we can definitely argue over the criterion. Most all of Chinatown is an incredible value, for that matter - with Tasty Place and "Chinese Restaurant" (the little nook between Empress Garden and the fish market by the Chinatown gate) being among my favored bargain haunts. Washington Avenue is full of other good pho values, though I think the soup is better on Kensington Avenue (see my pho piece earlier this year.) But right now, in Center City, I still don't think there is a single value better than what you get for $10 (or less) at Dizengoff, with the world's best hummus and some farm fresh topping (changes daily), pickles, Israeli salad and a fresh pita baked to-order.   An entire meal, skillfully handmade and full of flavor just doesn't come along for that price often. That said, there are some halal carts around town (including the one across from my office) that does a fried fish platter with rice and chickpea stew, plus a cold bottle of water, for $5. That's pretty hard to beat, too... 
    Best quality to price ratio is either Zahav's $45 Tayim menu, or Abe Fisher's $39 menu
    On the ambitious dining front, the Cook n' Solo guys definitely deliver. Those tasting menus are fantastic values. Haven't been back to Modo Mio in a long time... but McAndrews' 'turista' menus for $35 were always a very good value. 
    Went to SouthGate, it is good, but I was hoping for a little more authentic, inexpensive and divey than what they offer. Still good for what they offer though.
    Well, you're never going to out-dive Tangiers Cafe, which is what it replaced, so there's no point in keeping it deliberately shabby. That's a great corner tavern space, and it was due for a major update, so I will not begrudge SouthGate a little polish. They put a lot of work into that space, which needed to be stripped down to the studs and totally remade. As for 'authenticity' my understanding is that Soutgate was going for a modern update, with a Korean twist on the gastropub. Liberties are allowed. If you want authentic Korean food, head to N. Philly (Every Day Good House, Kim's, Seo Ra Bol, Jong Ka Jib). I haven't been yet, but am still very much looking forward to tasting SouthGate. 
    I'm going to guess that those tacos are from San Lucas?
    1. Woojung 2. The Fat Ham and 3. El Taco Loco. Boom!
    Boom! back at you Mike. You got one of them correct - the Fat Ham - but not the other two. I had a pretty nice lunch at the Fat Ham a couple weeks ago before heading out for vacation (was scouting a pour of the Wigle bourbon)......The service behind the bar was so-so, but the food was great, the fish perfectly blackened (vivid seasoning, without tasting burnt) and all the veggies nicely roasted. The cauliflower was a nice northern touch to the Southern menu. Definitely some finesse on that plate. And I'm glad to see someone doing right by catfish, which is rarely done well around here. 
    Did you make it as far west as the lake? There is a great brewery in Sawyer MI called Greenbush that gets served in NW Indiana. There is a lot of good beer and wine to be had from there.

    We travelled down the entire coast of Lake Michigan, and there seemed to be a great little brewery in every single town! Didn't taste Greenbush, but had lots of little breweries you don't see around here - Perrin, Short's, etc.. Was also impressed with all the great ciders they're making in Michigan and Chicagoland, including a funky, Basque-style cider (Sidra de Nava) from a cidery called Virtue (actually in Chicago) that I loved
    Where's the best place to get a Cuban downtown?
    That's a good question, and I'm momentarily at a loss... maybe the chat room can chime in? Rosa Blanca's was pretty inconsistent, but that's closed now anyhow. I wonder if they're any good at Mixto? Always thought the Cubanos were pretty good at it's parent resto in N. Philly, Tierra Colombiana.
    Just tried Whetstone's Pepper-Pot soup. I can't speak to historical accuracy, but it's delicious! The tripe is tender and flavorful enough that it might sneak past the timid without them even realizing what it is... there are hearty chunks of brisket and vegetables too, but it's the broth that's the real star, assertive with paprika. Enjoyed the roast beef sandwich too, but the roll is a little squishy and plain, and is in peril of disintegrating under the jus-bathed beef (and my own liberal application of horseradish.) It would be SO good on a Kimmelweck roll... Good beer selection and interesting cocktails too.
    thanks for this pepperpot alert, Jeff! Gotta love a kitchen that dares to go authentic and put some actual tripe in its pepperpot the way those Caribbean-influenced Colonials wanted it. I am really looking forward to this. Also, you're longing for a Kimmelweck roll betrays you as an upstate New Yorker, which isn't a bad thing when it comes to roast beef sandwiches. 
    Hey Craig, Same Same was awesome! A little awkward to order (was expecting more of a sit down, waiter service experience from former Koo Zee Doo spot) but best bun I've had by far in the area. No sriracha though?
    Glad you liked Same Same, Matt! I loved those banh mis, and they are another good example of how the value question can sometimes become twisted. You can find them cheaper on Washington Avenue, in the $5-$6 range. So is a $9 banh mi a "bad" value, even if I think it's better? I don't think so. I'll take quality over quantity any day. Of course, we've got a LOT of great banh mi in town - and the differences may be subtle. But those are the important, defining traits. The same is true for a great Italian hoagie. I will drive farther, and pay more, for a superior hoagie. The satisfaction of artisan craft - even on a sandwich - is value for me. 
    Hi Craig...can you please give us any great food recommendations for Ship Bottom (Beach Haven) and Ocean City, NJ. We're down here for 2 weeks and are looking for great food (especially seafood, but we'll go for anything great).
    DinPhilly - definitely check out Part 1 of my annual Shore Guide. This summer I hit two good places in Beach Haven, the Holiday Snackbar and the Triton Oyster bar. In Ocean City, don't miss Brown's for hot donuts in the morning, Hula restaurant for grilled ahi plates on the Boardwalk at lunch, Roma for far better pizza than Manco's (which I just don't get), and Cinco de Mayo for authentic Mexican on West Ave. Also, Voltaco's and the Sandwich Bar for hoagies, and the Naked Cafe for scones and coffee.. 
    do you think that Philly is approaching a limit to the new places it can support? How many more new places can we have without having every place spread thin and not have enough good help both in front and back of the house?
    A good question... and I keep thinking that after every year of tremendous growth that we've hit a limit. But I don't think so, not yet. Center City may well be locked down in terms of the number of spaces that are available. But some of the most exciting dining in town now is popping up in our emerging neighborhoods of South Philly (East Passyunk especially), Fishtown and now Kensington. As long as those neighborhoods continue to grow, we will see exciting new projects on the restaurant front. Brewerytown, West Philly, other parts of South Philly (Point Breeze) are also poised for more growth. 
    Hi Craig. C'mon, Manco's is an "experience". Actually we go to the one in Stone Harbor and speaking of which, have you tried Quahog's or Jay's on 98th yet? both very good.
    You are right on the experience... but that sauce from the hose tastes too much like ketchup  for me. Also, love Quahog's in Stone Harbor... the same owner has the Red Store in Cape May Point, which I reviewed in Part 2 of my Shore package. It might well be the best restaurant on the Shore at this point, with the Diving Horse (in Avalon) also in contention. 
    Craig, you mentioned Dizengoff being the best hummus in the word (which I wholeheartedly agree with! Props on being named Bon Appetit's dish of the year!) This year we've also been told we have the country's best pizza (Beddia) one of it's best cocktail bars (Hop Sing) there anything else that you feel Philly has the absolute best of in the country/world?
    Those are all great accolades for a town that doesn't normally get a lot of national love, or props for being the best at anything. But, I think you can definitely add vegan cooking to that list. What Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby have done at Vedge and V-Street has helped jumpstart the tremendous energy we're seeing in that niche market and that has actually and finally managed to leap that "niche" border... many of my food writer colleagues come to town and eat around for survey stories. Vedge is always on their post-list of most distinctive experiences, and many have acknowledge it as one of - if not the best - vegetarian restaurant in the country. 
    Way to hit it, Percy!! We finally made it back to Bluefin in its "new" location in East Norriton (as opposed to the smaller strip mall spot in Blue Bell. ) The fish was excellent as always, a real cut above for the suburban strip mall sushi genre. Good O-toro and fluke carpaccio, the ever-popular Marlee roll (crunchy stuff inside...), and the crispy noodle-wrapped 'spinning shrimp' app.  But  my daughter and I have become somewhat obsessed with this classic Japanese treatment for eggplant - simply roasted with a sweet miso paste on top. We've had it at every place around town, and Bluefin is definitely in the running for our favorite, alongside Fuji, of course. Which is so underrated. Also, with eggplants now totally in season, I plan to master this recipe at home. Will share recipe when I get it! 
    Craig, I was in Detroit for a Tigers game and ate at Selden Standard before hand. I have to say the food was amazing as was the small but well curated wine and beer list. I also had great service and the restaurant space is really nice (although not the best neighborhood outside). It's totally devoid of pretension. The vegetables are sourced locally and were fantastic. Some highlights included haloumi with melon and the rabbit ragu. Not sure if you've ever been in, but highly recommended if you're back in Detroit area again.
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