Like any Northeast Philly native, I appreciate a good diner. But compared to the five that I frequented growing up, Mt. Airy’s retro Trolley Car Diner might as well be a four-star restaurant. I mean, hell, there wasn’t a single crotchety, musky-smelling, raspy-voiced old waitress in the place.
After scanning their menu’s array of classic diner eats and treats as well as some 250+ beers, I was ready to get inside the kitchen, roll up my sleeves and learn to fry something gorgeously greasy. Maybe a burger. Or an omelet. Or both.
Trolley Car’s head chef, Dwight Forrest, however, had a much different plan. Rather than going with a generic diner staple, he opted to highlight Trolley Car’s selection of less traditional fare. And instead of testing my culinary skills by having me prepare the dish step by step alongside him, Dwight decided to test my gastrointestinal fortitude by feeding me plate after plate of food.
To backtrack a bit: The dish at hand was stuffed portabella, which Dwight notes is the restaurant’s simplest vegetarian entree. Now, on my personal list of least favorite foods, mushrooms rank pretty high—right after raw oysters and wasabi peas. But ignoring the deep fryer full of perfectly golden, batter-dipped French fries to the right of me and the juicy stack of bacon on my left, I tried to keep an open mind. It was so open, in fact, that as Dwight explained how portabella mushrooms were a great substitute for a lot of meat-based dishes, he managed to briefly trick me into thinking that they were actually somehow “beef-like.”
ME: What makes portabella mushrooms different from other mushrooms?
DWIGHT: It’s really hearty. Almost like a burger.
ME: Really? So what does it taste like?
DWIGHT: It tastes like a mushroom.
ME: Umm… is there any way to make it taste less mushroomy?
I couldn’t believe how much mushroom-related knowledge Dwight has acquired during his 25 years in the biz. For instance, did you know that we’re less than an hour drive from the “Mushroom Capital of the World?” (Note to self: Check off Kennett Square, Pa., on my list of places to visit.) After listing the variety of ways mushrooms can be cooked—fried, sautéed, broiled, steamed, etc.—Dwight stressed that the most important thing to remember is that they will only ever get softer, never harder since most contain 60 to 90 percent water. In other words, the longer you cook the portabella, the higher your chances of being left with “a tired, mushy dish with lettuce in it.” Funny, I thought, that’s exactly how I would have described a mushroom salad. Is that wrong?
As I sliced into the finished portabella, exposing its silvery core, I swear a chill shot down my spine. All I could think was: mushroom mushroom mushroom mushroom. But I reminded myself that the whole point of this column is for me to challenge my taste buds, and I soldiered on—discovering that, with the Parmesan cheese and balsamic glaze largely cloaking the veggies and shroom, it actually made for a pretty good salad. I’m guessing Dwight must have noticed my inner turmoil, though, because a few minutes later, he and his sous chef emerged from the kitchen carrying two more steaming plates of food: Maryland seafood gnocchi and a barbecue beef brisket sandwich.
Digging into the gnocchi first, the super-light red sauce proved to be an ideal base given the heavy and seemingly bottomless heap of pasta, Atlantic salmon, lump crabmeat, shrimp, corn and peppers. Also, the accompanying slices of garlic bread may just be the best I’ve ever had. Moving on to the beef brisket, the sweet and spicy punch of Trolley Car’s honey chipotle barbecue sauce in between not one, but two creamy layers of Muenster cheese sent my taste buds on a wild, but surprisingly pleasant ride. My photographer and I spent nearly an hour passing the dishes back and forth, moaning with fullness after every bite until we were slumped over in our red-upholstered booth in a food paralysis.
Of course, that didn’t stop us from capping off the meal with Trolley Car’s strawberry milkshake, aka “The Marilyn.” It is, after all, the ultimate diner staple. And hey, if I’m going to learn to eat all these “grown-up” dishes, I think I should get to indulge my child glee too.
Find this week’s stuffed portabella recipe, plus all the other dishes Nicole has learned from Philly chefs so far, online at forkingstupid.com.
Dinner with Luke Palladino