Finally, something good in Point Breeze.
It’s hard to imagine a better accompaniment to a good pint of beer than American Sardine Bar’s eponymous sandwich. For $2, you get a soft-crusted, compact sandwich boasting a salty and piquant mash of that still-unfortunately-maligned fish, bright and crisp with onion, hearty and tamed with sliced hardboiled egg. It arrives on a plain white plate, devoid of garnish and utterly confident in its simplicity. With a beer—maybe a draught of Fegley’s Brew Works Second Coming, the crisp, easy-drinking EPA from Bethlehem, Pa.—it’s perfect, and the price can’t be beat.
This is where the food at American Sardine Bar is at its most rewarding: as accompaniments to its thoughtful selection of suds, including a broad range both on tap and by the bottle. For all the press and drama that preceded its opening late last year, and for a handful of issues that still need to be worked out in the kitchen, it’s nice to see a restaurant like ASB pop up in Point Breeze—a neighborhood with its own share of troubles. This is a bar first and foremost; the food seems best when considered in that light.
Eating here is a two-faced experience, both forward-looking and retro, a throwback to a time when comfort trumped detail, but of-the-moment in its occasional willingness to leap-frog convention and play in the sandbox of more modern flavor combinations.
How else to explain the Frosted Flake-crusted and fried PB and J? It’s a dish whose list of ingredients reads like a greatest-hits gathering of American childhood favorites, but it’s certainly not something that most of our mothers would have thought of doing. Or that sardine sandwich, which references a whole range of favorites, from tuna salad to kippered herring on bread.
It’s with the simpler constructs that ASB is at its most charming. Brussels sprouts are straightforwardly conceived and wholly successful, robust half-globes with oyster sauce and tossed with sliced Thai chilies. The result is like a vegetal freebasing of umami, and just when you think it’ll all be too rich, the prickle of acid and heat from the chilies comes swooping in to clean up.
Grilled cheese embodied the holy trinity of sensations for this Norman Rockwell construct. The bread had been perfectly crisped up in copious amounts of butter, the cheese tucked inside stretched from the teeth with each bite as if performing for a commercial, and the tomatoes, even out of season, brought enough acid to balance out the fattiness. Quintessential beer food.
There were a few unexpected shortfalls. Much-lauded onion rings, the edges of their batter all lacy and snappy, could have been fried 30 seconds longer, which would have allowed that crispness at the edges to extend all the way to the soggy equator of batter circling thick-cut onions.
Cooking temperatures could use some tweaking, too. The open-faced chicken sandwich sang a nicely patriotic tune with all the flavors of a classic American dinner—bird, mashed potatoes, mushroom—but the chicken had been roasted just a touch too long and was dry as a result. Pittsburgh cheese steak, piled high with fries and slaw in the Primanti Bros. style, was anchored by too-chewy beef. Braised pork was better, but still a bit tough. Fortunately, that sandwich was saved by a generous slathering of Boursin cheese, overpowering on its own but perfect with a chocolatey Bell’s Kalamazoo, its own coffee and bitter chocolate notes amping up the meat’s character.
More than anything, though, what matters most here is how well the food works with the real centerpiece, the real reason most people will likely end up stopping by repeatedly: to enjoy a few beers with a bite to eat. Between the laid-back and friendly service, the cozy vibe downstairs, the live-music-conducive upstairs and the serious and boisterous conversations I’ve seen crackling at the bar, it’s accomplishing just that.
American Sardine Bar
1800 Federal St. 215.334.2336. americansardinebar.com
Cuisine: American comfort.
Hours: Daily, 11am-2am.
Price range: Most dishes under $10.
Atmosphere: Cozy and comfortable, with a TV-free bar downstairs and live music upstairs (stop by for the schedule).
Food: Some hits, some misses, but nearly all of it partners well with beer.
Service: Laid-back and friendly.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014