Whether you want to be wowed with extravagance or are looking for a perfect plate of comfort food, here are the places giving us hope for the future.
No one is going to look back on last year fondly, especially in the hard-hit restaurant industry. Yet even during a pandemic, we saw new life — a kind of experimentalism and entrepreneurship born of perseverance. That makes us both hopeful about the future of Philly dining and excited to eat here right now. Whether you want to be wowed with extravagance or are looking for a perfect plate of comfort food, here are the places — pop-ups, coffee shops, food trucks and, yes, restaurants — that are serving exceptional food in an exceptional time.
“Korean-ish” takeout from Peter Serpico
Peter Serpico is the kind of chef who spends days and days and days on a single dish. Obsessing over it. Fine-tuning it. Throwing it out and starting from scratch if it so requires — whatever it takes to get the dish exactly right. And he always, eventually, gets it exactly right. That was the secret to his success on South Street for all these years. When COVID forced Serpico (the restaurant) to close, he reactivated the space as Pete’s Place, a “kinda Korean” (his words) takeout operation that specializes in tsukemen-style kimchi noodles, spicy pickled pepper ramen, Korean fried chicken and the like. And though the food may be different, his dedication hasn’t wavered a bit. He’s still chasing perfection, even if it’s takeout. Order online at petes.place.
A sandwich shop with a fine-dining brain
Every good sandwich starts with good bread, and the best sandwiches start with the best bread. And at Huda, chef-owner Yehuda Sichel (formerly of Abe Fisher) makes pound-for-pound the best sandwich bread in the city. The sliced kind is sourdough (which he learned to make at the beginning of the pandemic, just like all of us — except he mastered it), and he tops it with seasonal goodies like apple butter, cheddar and roasted Brussels sprouts, or cheffy things like house-smoked lox and mushroom butter. The buns are milk buns, of course (all sandwich buns are milk buns in 2021): fluffy and feathery, yet strong enough to hold a hefty cut of grilled swordfish over Napa cabbage slaw, or a crispy fried hunk of maitake mushroom with Mexican torta fixings. You could order a drink and a side of chips. But again, it’s 2021. Make it a side of lamb chops. Because at Huda — and we’re not joking here — you can order a side of lamb chops. Two of them, glazed in sweet chili. 32 South 18th Street, Center City.
A Sri Lankan initiation
When you order takeout from Sri’s Company — on Instagram or Facebook, via DMs — you’re probably going to order a curry. It could be a chicken curry, or a potato curry, or a snow crab curry, if you’re lucky and they’re in season. And that curry won’t taste like any you’ve ever had in this city, because the intense hum of cinnamon and deep spice is purely Sri Lankan — a cuisine born from the country’s geographic circumstance, influenced heavily by the spices and cooking styles in South India and Southeast Asia (but not defined by them, and with Dutch and Portuguese cuisine weighing in, too). Before Melissa Fernando’s pop-up, you couldn’t find Sri Lankan food in Philly. There was no masala vada, no rice noodle breakfasts, no chicken and roti casseroles. But you know, Philly’s different now. Multiple locations; @sriscompanyphilly.
A favorite restaurant, reimagined
It’s really hard to pull off what chef-owner Pat O’Malley has pulled off at Fitz and Starts. Because Fitz and Starts used to be Hungry Pigeon, a restaurant this magazine once touted as the best in the whole damn city. Last summer, there was some chef drama, and an ownership change. O’Malley went from a co-owner to the sole owner, and he kept the Pigeon name while he finalized a new identity. He beefed up the bakery side of things (playing to his strengths as one of Philly’s best bakers). He added a wine shop; he retooled the business model — in lieu of tipping, there’s a 20 percent service fee added to each check. He changed the name. And just like that, Fitz and Starts picked up exactly where Hungry Pigeon left off, back on the list of the places we just plain love. 743 South 4th Street, Queen Village.
Detroit-style pies with a mission
In a more just world, a Detroit-style weekend pop-up pizzeria doing crab and vodka-sauce pies, frying never-frozen wings, and spinning milkshakes made with local ice cream wouldn’t be such a novelty in Philly’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. In a more just world, we’d have better systems in place for the formerly incarcerated attempting to reenter the workforce. In a more just world, all restaurant owners would pay all their workers a living wage. That ain’t the world we live in — at least, not yet. But because of chefs like Kurt Evans, who’s bridging those divides with a revolutionary business model that addresses all those issues head-on — and who hopes for a full-time grand opening here soon — we get to live in a world that’s that much better. 2804 West Lehigh Avenue, North Philly.
Honest-to-goodness venezuelan eats
Amid all … this, Ardmore’s food scene quietly and quickly morphed into maybe the most exciting foodie hub on the Main Line. And there’s no better example of its ascension into restaurant stardom than homespun restaurant Autana, which lures the arepa-hunting, tequeño-hoarding, patacon-inhaling denizens of our region into traveling from the city to the suburbs for an unabashedly authentic taste of Venezuelan cuisine. 6 Station Road, Ardmore.
A proudly Ethiopian all-day cafe
It’s exciting when a restaurant opens that’s so proud of itself. Proud of its purpose. Proud enough that it stays open from breakfast to dinner, giving each meal of the day its due respect, from bowls of soft cracked wheat topped with vegetables and beans in the morning, to the big family-size platters of spongy injera soaking up all the spice and heat of the stir-fried tibs at night, to the coffee — flown all the way here from back home in Ethiopia and house-roasted, so it’s bold and fresh for us when we return the next day. And the day after that. 5121 Baltimore Avenue, West Philly.
Filipino food that knows no bounds
This roaming pop-up has such a good time tweaking and toying with Filipino cuisine (think: pork sisig tacos on Barney-purple ube tortillas; chicken wings tossed in an oh-so-Filipino adobo glaze; banana egg rolls that eat like doughnuts). The crew behind Tita Emmie’s doesn’t seem to be trying to achieve any sense of purity or authenticity or tradition. In fact, they seem to be cooking in spite of all that. Multiple locations.
So a fishmonger opens a seafood restaurant …
In Season 5 of Queer Eye, the Fab Five designed and built Alma del Mar in the Italian Market, then left it up to owner Marcos Tlacopilco (who opened Italian Market staple Marco’s Fish & Crab House almost 20 years ago) and his family to make it a success. That they did, with a killer brunch of souped-up waffles, bacon banana French toast, and, at dinnertime, one of the greatest whole snapper presentations — grilled and lacquered with a citrusy achiote sauce, served simply with grilled pineapple — in all of Philly. 1007 South 9th Street, Bella Vista.
Because there’s always something new
Some days, you’ll go to River Twice and eat local trout, pickled and then grilled over white birch — a bowl of Robuchon-style mashed potatoes and caviar on the side. Other days, it’s an order of hash browns completely inundated with uni and white truffle, followed by a cured and slow-roasted leg of lamb for the table. Sometimes, it’s just a cheeseburger, and other times, it’s a muffaletta sandwich at lunch. You could eat at River Twice seven days a week and have a different meal all seven of those days. The menu (or is it chef and co-owner Randy Rucker’s kitchen?) has a short attention span in the best way, constantly chasing the ingredients, not of the season, but of the moment. 1601 East Passyunk Avenue, East Passyunk.
A pizzeria that’s made for dough nerds
It’s not Detroit-style. It’s not Neapolitan. It’s kind of New York-y, but not really. It’s both artisan and everyday — as if the dudes behind your neighborhood pizzeria went to some prestigious pizza school, won a bunch of pizza awards, and decided to open a place of their own on a quiet corner in Fitler Square. 240 South 22nd Street, Fitler Square.
Destination dining in Delaware
It’s hard to eat at Le Cavalier without feeling just a tiny pang of guilt: that in the age of COVID, we still get to snack on lobster tails poached in warm butter (those of us willing to travel to Wilmington, at least). That we still get to drag our knives across the crispy skin of the whole branzino just to hear the crackle. That we’re not even so much chewing our food anymore — instead, we’re letting the little nubs of Parisian gnocchi with lump crab and caviar melt away on our tongues. The longer you’re there, though, the more that guilt starts to feel an awful lot like gratitude — that even in a year devoid of experiences, this one still exists. 42 West 11th Street, Wilmington.
A cult classic comes to town
It used to be so annoying to have to drive out to Princeton or the Whole Foods in Spring House to get our hands on Alex Talbot’s award-winning fried dough creations. So we couldn’t be happier that he’s established a residency at ITV Philly, Nick Elmi’s East Passyunk cocktail bar that’s currently on a COVID-inflicted hiatus (but still offering takeout cocktails and snacks). Talbot’s doing his thing there every Friday, Saturday and Sunday till sellout. And remember: Curiosity Doughnut devotees are planners. The lines will be long, and the doughnuts will sell out fast. Inside ITV Philly at 1615 East Passyunk Avenue, East Passyunk.
A heartfelt Haitian-American experience
The word “lakay” translates to “home” in Haitian Creole. That’s what chef Chris Paul named his pop-up restaurant, because to him, Lakay is a return to roots. Through grilled whole porgies marinated in garlicky epis and crispy conch fritters splashed with mango-habanero sauce, Paul is taking his years of culinary training and his experiences in and out of restaurants and applying them to the food of his childhood — the food of his home. Follow @chefchrispaul on Instagram to see where Lakay pops up next.
Birria tacos — and only birria tacos
Used to be you had to know someone who knew someone in Philly if you wanted to eat birria tacos — a special kind of shredded meat taco (goat, beef, pork or lamb, but usually beef here. The dish, born in Jalisco, Mexico, is soaked in jus and served with consomé.) And then, late last year, all of a sudden, for reasons that can’t be explained, birria started appearing on menus across the city. In our opinion, Mi Pueblito Tacos, the evenings-only, weekends-only food truck in South Philly, does birria best. 1812 South 7th Street, South Philly.
Not your average everyday coffee shop
It’s a coffee shop, sure. But calling it that would be reductive of Mina’s World — less than a year old and already such an important part of the surrounding community. Owners Sonam Parikh and Kate Egghart made their small, happy space into a combined coffee shop/marketplace/community food fridge/snack emporium (with pakoras and samosas fried daily by a nearby Indian grocer) — a.k.a. the center of the modern Cedar Park universe. 511 South 52nd Street, West Philly.
At this minimalist pizza and wine restaurant in Kensington — millennial bait, at this point — from the ReAnimator Coffee crew, the pie dough is sour and naturally leavened; the toppings — kale and fermented chilies, or fennel cream and fontina — are both elevated and smart (without being, you know, too smart); and the wine is, as you’ve come to expect, au naturel. 310 West Master Street, Kensington.
Published as “Where to Eat Now!” in the January/February 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.