Philadelphia eats

After Christmas I went to Philadelphia for a work conference to sell books and schmooze. Manning the press booth left little time or energy for hunting for good eats but the forces that be ensured I ate well. The exhibits hall and most of the conference events were in the Philadelphia Marriott — in other words, diagonally across the street from Reading Terminal Market. Parts food court, gourmet/specialty stores, and produce market, this place flows like free wine at MLA with cheap, delicious, local food. Too bad it closes before dinnertime, a policy that probably keeps the neighboring restaurants in business. Sandwich or hoagie joints are overrepresented there in the best way possible. My first meal in Philly was a DiNic’s pulled pork sandwich with sharp provolone. We got there around 2:30pm, just before they ran out of food, and ate our sandwiches counterside as they cleaned up, neither shooing us nor encouraging us to stay, just doing their thing. One of the guys was kind enough to sneak me some hot peppers for the second half of my sandwich since they ran out of “greens,” sauteed broccoli rabe. The porkiness was unadulterated and spot-on, the bun liberally saturated in meat juice, the cheese providing a welcome flavor boost. Nothing fancy or over the top but a most satisfying sandwich indeed.

For dinner I had the pleasure of meeting and dining with some of our authors at Alma de Cuba, a Stephen Starr restaurant.  I went to the hyped-up Morimoto during restaurant week a few years ago and left severely disappointed by a mediocre meal.  This night confirmed my suspicion that it makes no sense to stick to a limited RW menu when one is already committed to paying for a superior restaurant experience.  Might as well pick a night on your calendar that works for you, go to a restaurant you want to try, and pay a little above the RW price for the liberty to choose dishes that are probably why you are there in the first place.  Also, good wine helps tame the harshest critics.  The variations of ceviche at Alma are extensive, but the next time I come here I will not pass on the Oysters Rodriguez, which sounded fantastic: “crispy fried over fufu (mashed sweet plantains with bacon), sauteed spinach with horseradish and huacatay sauce.” But since I hadn’t eaten anything green all day, I felt obligated to start with a simply dressed salad, arugula with goat cheese balls and wild mushrooms. My main course blew me away, a simple but succulent generously apportioned duck breast paired with bi bim bap-style crispy rice with duck confit, scallions, raisins, and pine nuts.  Alternating bites of the sweet, tender meat with the flavor-packed, beautifully textured rice left me dreamy-eyed; the combination had such delicious culinary synergy and there was like a Pitt-Jolie kind of rightness to it.  My boss tried it and at once concurred and later on asked for seconds.  I like the idea of a simply prepared, high-quality protein served with more multi-dimensional sides.  I would have preferred a little more lighting in the restaurant, but as my mom says, everyone looks better in the dark.  The meal throughout had that great, elusive quality that whispers “linger,” and linger we did.  Alma de Cuba is definitely a restaurant I would come back to, as I have already suggested, even on my own wallet.

The next night I had another leisurely dinner, this time at White Dog Cafe, an adorable, inviting space tucked somewhere in the Penn campus.  It looks like a potential hole in the wall but the narrow red doors open into a spacious, almost cellar-like bar and dining area.  The bathrooms are labeled “Pointer,” “Setter,” “Democrat,” and “Republican” and the restaurant is obviously proud of its commitments to local and sustainable products and social activism.  The meal was not as memorable as the previous night’s, which is not a criticism at all.  The food was expertly cooked and the truffled mac and cheese with lobster was as luxurious as it sounds.  But aside from Craigie on Main (and I’m not even sure it qualifies), I don’t think most “contemporary American” places are worth the money — nothing against the restaurants, I just think something doesn’t really click with me or that I could cook most of the stuff without the frills at home.

My last day in Philly was chaotic and rushed but I managed to grab some of the homemade pasta salads I had been eyeing at By George! in the Market.  Some gnocchi in a tomato basil sauce and tortellini with eggplant = a delicious train ride back to Newark next to some envious strangers.  Oh and the classic chocolate chip cookies from the Famous 4th Street Cookie Co. are not to be missed.  By classic I mean crispy on the outside, warm and gooey on the in, better than any ccc I’ve had in New York.  And they’re made every 20 minutes or something insane like that. From what I’ve been reading, it might give any of those Serious Eats ccc championship contestants a run for their money.

Reading Terminal Market
51 North 12th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Alma de Cuba
1623 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

White Dog Cafe
3420 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

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