Koo Zee Doo & Han Dynasty Among Several Philly Restaurants Serving Up Authentic Cuisines

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 12, 2011

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Totally skewed: Koo Zee Doo’s blood sausage and monkfish skewer.

Photo by Ryan Strand

It’s one thing to watch Andrew Zimmern on TV and convince yourself that you’d eat the same stuff he does, bravely setting aside the cultural predispositions that have been evolving in you since your first night in the delivery-room bassinet. But it’s another to actually do it, to muscle past the food fears and discomfort that play a very real part in how all of us see and experience the world.

So when I ordered the pig’s-blood soup two weeks ago at Abadia, in Porto, Portugal, it was still an abstraction, something I thought I’d taste, cringing through the first bite, taking a second (you always taste a new dish at least twice; the first bite is all about acclimation, the second is where you can pick apart its actual flavors and textures), and moving on to the beautifully nonthreatening back-up dish of caldo verde I’d also ordered.

And then it arrived—a thick, mahogany-toned bowl of what resembled nothing so much as a finely ground chile, but given serious added heft by the congealing thickness of, well, pig’s blood. Without giving it any more thought than necessary, I scooped up one heavy, barely moving spoonful and took a bite.

It was revelatory: a mineral, almost livery mouthful, scented with cumin and rich with the tang of iron. Five minutes later, I’d eaten half the bowl.

One of the great thrills of travel is the opportunity to experience these little moments of discovery. When we push ourselves beyond what we thought we were capable of, we not only find unexpected glimmers of what the world has to offer, but also parts of ourselves we didn’t know were tucked away inside.

I’m out of the country several weeks every year on tasting trips, and when I come home, I often find myself craving that same sense of discovery—or, at the very least, the chance to experience similar foods right here in Philadelphia. Luckily, there are more places to do that here than ever before.

Koo Zee Doo, for example, is not just an excellent restaurant in its own right, but it also provides a deeply accurate version of so much of the food of Portugal—a country whose culinary culture has, aside from certain enclaves in the Northeast and elsewhere, been generally underrepresented in Center City, Old City, NoLibs and the rest.

Like the best restaurateurs, however, Pastry Chef Carla Gonçalves and Chef David Gilberg, co-owners of Koo Zee Doo, don’t allow their respect for the food of Portugal to result in a static, calcified menu that’s out of touch with the prevailing culture of this city.

“I think that’s actually where we’re most different from all the other Portuguese restaurants, is that we’re not the sports-bar-type of restaurant with a five-page menu,” Gonçalves says. “You know, we’re like any other BYOB, no matter what the cuisine is. We focus more on the food than anything else.”

In other kitchens, that might mean catering down a lower common denominator and avoiding the dishes that could be more problematic for a domestic audience. But Koo Zoo Doo doesn’t do that, and one look at its menu, with its monkfish and blood sausage skewers, its braised chicken gizzards, shows that it certainly doesn’t shy away from earthier preparations.

But it also doesn’t only peddle in them, either. In fact, Portugal’s food scene right now is rather dynamic, taking influences from cultures all over the world. Koo Zee Doo’s menu reflects that aspect of the country, too, with its salt cod sashimi, for example. Still, it’s tradition that guides this NoLibs gem night after night. As a result, the food finds its success on two fronts: accuracy and relevance to the audience on this side of the Atlantic.

“I think we’re not really trying to change it up too much; we always try and honor the flavor base at least,” Gonçalves says. “We’re a Portuguese restaurant in America, so we’re just trying to stick to the authenticity, I guess.”

That devotion to authenticity has provided one of the more interesting, satisfying developments in our local food culture in recent years. In general, serious eaters used to have to venture to those far away enclaves to find a more accurate evocation of the cuisines they experienced while traveling. Now, however, opportunities abound.

One of the most lauded in recent years has been Han Dynasty, the Chestnut Street star whose food is changing what many of us thought we once knew about Szechuan food.

“I tell all my customers that this is what real Chinese food is,” owner Han Chiang tells me. “Like, whatever you think you’ve had [that’s] Chinese food is not. A billion and a half people in China have never heard of all those dishes you like.”

His refusal to sell the sweet-sticky dishes offered at so many Americanized Chinese restaurants has actually earned him a devoted following. His iconoclasm is one of the pillars of his success.

Han believes that other Chinese restaurants in the city are more than capable of preparing authentic Chinese food; the issue is that the front of the house is reluctant to sell it. He believes it’s his duty to educate his customers—and if that means losing some of them, so be it.

“I would say like 90 percent of the people appreciate it,” Chiang says, “and we get 10 percent of the people that don’t like people telling them what to do ...” Of course, there are some dishes he just can’t serve—he notes stinky tofu in particular—but, in general, he has managed to create a successful business, and serious, continued buzz, as a result of his unwavering belief in authentic food.

“I don’t care if you like it or not, I’m just going to tell you what I think is best,” he tells me. “If you don’t like what I’m selling you, don’t come back. This is what I’m going to do.”

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