Every year, it seems, Philadelphia becomes an even better food city than it was before. And each December, I find myself thinking the same thing: This cannot be possible; we must have reached some kind of culinary peak.
But here we are, about to turn the calendar to the unthinkable-sounding 2014, and Philly has once again managed to top itself; from reinvigorations of familiar brands to relocations that miraculously managed to maintain the same level of quality—not to mention the introduction of several unfamiliar concepts that force us all to reconsider what we thought we knew about a particular regional foodway.
Here, then, are 10 of the most memorable dishes I tasted in 2013. They may not each represent the absolute best that I ate—though many of them certainly do—but they are all among the most memorable and the ones I wake up in the middle of the night dreaming about.
1. Spicy beef and tripe at Dim Sum Garden’s lovely new location. Dim Sum Garden, in its sweeping, significantly larger new digs on Race Street, is better than ever. Not only are the soup dumplings still the best in town, but they’ve added a few new treats to the menu as well. My favorite is the show-stopping spicy beef and tripe, a toothsome, explosively flavorful miracle of a dish, with tender tripe and beef-shank sausage, that embodies everything that the genius team behind Dim Sum Garden does so well.
2. Potted shrimps at High Street on Market. This uber-soulful replacement of what had been Fork:etc opened soon after I moved out of Old City—a fact that makes me inconsolably sad. Because the magic being woven here by owner Ellen Yin and Chef Eli Kulp is remarkable. The hand-hewn ethos underpinning the menu here is addictively embodied in the potted shrimps, a swirlingly wonderful preparation involving nutmeg, shrimp toasts, whipped foie gras, and, I’m fairly certain, speckles of fairy dust sourced from the gods on high.
3. The Towner at Shifty’s Tacos. So much about this taco should be so wrong. And yet, like forbidden love with a person you might not want Mom to meet, it feels so right. Spicy chicken nuggets are married to homemade ranch dressing, cheese sauce, a frizzle of iceberg and pickled onions to slice through all that richness. Something similar to this was my 14-year-old self’s fantasy after-school snack; the mid-30s version of me is furious I had to wait so long to experience its guilty, lip-licking pleasures.
4. The Chef’s Counter at Zahav. When one of the top restaurants in the city offers a limited-seating tasting menu, you can bet that reservations will be difficult to come by. The effort, however, is more than justified with this one, an hours-long culinary journey that changed the way I look at everything from hummus to lamb.
5. Hand-torn noodles at Cheu Noodle Bar. Comforting and adventurous all at once, this preparation crystallizes so much of what I look for when I’m in the mood for some stick-to-the-ribs goodness. The noodles, of course, are wonderful, but it’s the tightrope-like balance struck between the deep savor of the lamb necks, the sweetness of the dates and the bright, electric pickled mustard greens that I think about still.
6. Ozark Mountain pork at Fitler Dining Room. In a pig-crazy city like Philly, this dish may be one of the best around for getting your fill of swine. A confit of pork belly, a braised shoulder, garlic sausage and stuffed cabbage, all luxuriating on one glorious plate. I think we can all agree that the animal or animals that gave their lives for this plateful did not die in vain.
7. Konijn in het Zuur at Noord. Get past all those double-vowels and unfamiliar juxtapositions of consonants alongside one another, run to Noord, and order this immediately. Rabbit leg confit with smoked sausage and a sauerkraut-like accompaniment have no business being this transportingly magnificent. And yet, here they are: the stuff that an omnivore’s dreams are made of.
8. Roast pork at Sbraga. Chef Kevin Sbraga and his team have always crafted excellent food at their Broad Street restaurant. But this year, they somehow stepped up their game even further—they are right now cooking at a level that can only be described as transcendent. Their riff on Philly’s second-most-famous sandwich is not only delicious but witty, too: impeccably roasted pork, long hots and an accompanying provolone bread pudding. If this doesn’t make you smile, then this is the wrong city to be living in.
9. Toasts at Vernick Food & Drink. Much like the team at Sbraga, Vernick has also enhanced its already lofty game. And while so much of the menu is excellent here, the toasts provide that rarest of commodities: a perfect nibble to enjoy alongside an expertly crafted cocktail from the comfort of the bar. Snacking with your sauce is rarely this elevated.
10. Yassa chicken and fried broken rice at Kilimandjaro. Char-y chicken all swirling with Dijon mustard, garlic and more, bedecked with creamy, sweet onions and chased with a mouthful of peppery, oil-kissed rice of uncommon depth and expressiveness? Yeah, I’ll take more of that. Much more.
Finally, an honorable mention: Make sure to save room for the house-made pastrami at Citron & Rose. You owe it to your taste buds, and to your soul.
Wine with Mexican Food? Sí!