Here’s what we love about food in Philadelphia: everything. No, seriously. From the street vendor’s commonest cheesesteak to the most subtly spiced French-Asian hybrid delicacy, it’s all good. But some of it? Some of it is awesome. So here are 50 suggestions for dishes, ranging from sophisticated to speedy, that you’ve just got to try—whether you’re in town for the day or here for keeps.
Fried chicken at Federal Donuts
1219 S. Second St. 267.687.8258. federaldonuts.com
Why it’s great : It’s a gusty move indeed to try to bring the heretofore niche glories of Korean fried chicken ($9–$17) to the masses, but that’s exactly what Federal Donuts has done here, and with gusto. Shattering skin, incomprehensibly moist flesh, and a use of spice unrivaled anywhere.
What to have with it : Doughnuts, of course ($1.25–$2 each). OK, not with them, but afterward. And it doesn’t matter what kind, either: Indian cinnamon, Creamsicle, vanilla-lavender and more. They’re all hot, unexpectedly complex miracles.
Beer-battered fish and chips at Dandelion
124 S. 18th St. 215.558.2500. thedandelionpub.com
Why it’s great : In a world where so many versions of this English classic are flaccid and vaguely depressing, Dandelion’s Chatham cod is meaty and perfectly crunchy, and the fries—well, they are what all potatoes wish to become when they die. ($19.50)
What to have with it : A beer, preferably one of the hand-pumped casks here. Cellar-temperature ale with a great plate of fish and chips is one of the top pairings in the world.
Roast pork and roast duck noodle soup at Sang Kee
238 N. 9th St. 215.925.7532. sangkeechinatown.com
Why it’s great : The hangover remedy of choice for a generation of Philadelphians is as good today as it’s ever been. The honey-sweet pork, the funky cuts of duck, the fat globules glistening atop the broth: It’s a better remedy for a rough night out or a cold winter afternoon than any over-the-counter medication. Cheaper, too. ($7.25)
What to have with it : Hair of the dog: Beer. An ice-cold Tsingtao alongside this is perfect. So, too, is an accompanying dish of fried wontons.
Tacos at Taqueria La Veracruzana
908 Washington Ave. 215.465.1440.
Why it’s great : It’s hard to find a better way to spend $6 than on these three soft-shell beauties. My go-to selection includes al pastor (with pineapple), casing-less chorizo with its oil glistening at the surface, and jalapeño rellenos, whose queso fresco filling is almost—but not quite—enough to balance out the heat of that pepper.
What to have with it : Jarritos Tamarindo soda, and an order of the silky guacamole with just-oily-enough tortilla chips.
Pig’s head at Alla Spina
1410 Mt. Vernon St. 215.600.0017. allaspinaphilly.com
Why it’s great : Because it’s a whole pig’s head, that’s why. Because all the little succulent bits and pieces that you usually don’t get a chance to chow on—the nubs behind the mandible, the tongue like a piece of candy, the pillowy, almost gamy eyeballs. And because with its glistening, taut skin, it’s a pork-lover’s fantasy come to life.
What to have with it : Beer. Or lambrusco. Just make sure there are bubbles and enough acid or bitterness to slice through all that succulence.
Cheesesteak Pretzel at Philly Pretzel Factory
1532 Sansom St., 215.569.3988, phillysoftpretzelfactory.com
Why it’s great : If we were recommending, in and of themselves, those archetypal Philly street foods, the cheesesteak or pretzel—and we will soon—we’d send you elsewhere. But what if you want the sublime experience of having a hot, gooey Philly cheesesteak baked right goddamn inside your pretzel? Here’s a hint: You do. ($3.50)
What to have with it : The Factory’s just a take-out counter, so pop a few doors down the block and pick up one of the city’s best milkshakes at 500 Degrees. Recommended: chocolate banana ($5.75) or dulche ($5.50).
Chicken and waffles at Sbraga
440 S. Broad St. 215.735.1913. sbraga.com
Why it’s great : An occasional special on the new “breakfast at dinner” menu at Sbraga, this is reason enough to skip your real breakfast and hold out the 12 hours until dinnertime. The chicken itself is majestic—textbook crust, generous meat—but laid atop the waffle and dragged through the foie gras butter, it’s astounding.
What to have with it : Spirits magician Anwar Morgan mixed up, tableside, a maple-bacon rye manhattan that echoed even more flavors of the breakfast table, and re-imagined one of the great cocktails in a wholly new, thoroughly exciting way.
Lardo Pizza at Barbuzzo
110 S. 13th St. 215.546.9300. barbuzzo.com/barbuzzo
Why it’s great : Anything with “lardo” in the name is OK by me, but this pie sails even beyond the majestically succulent heights its name implies. And while the combination of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, taleggio, rosemary and artichoke is near perfect, it’s the lardo cured in-house that blasts it all into the stratosphere. ($14)
What to have with it : A brightly acidic red wine or, perhaps even better, a hoppy beer to cut through those pieces of lardo.
Bone marrow at Bibou
1009 S. 8th St. 215.965.8290. biboubyob.com
Why it’s great : Sauteed with homemade breadcrumbs, a gorgeous selection of mushrooms that changes regularly, shallots, garlic, parsley and heaping portion of love, this bone-canoe plating is toe-curlingly delicious. If there’s one dish in the city worth demolishing your cholesterol count for, this is it. ($24)
What to have with it : Wine, wine and more wine. (Bibou is a BYOB.) There are a number of directions you could go with this dish: A crisp white to cut through the food’s richness, an earthy red to pair with it, or a glass of Champagne, which to me seems just about the perfect choice.
Any burger at Pub & Kitchen
1946 Lombard St. 215.545.0350. thepubandkitchen.com
Why they’re great : The burgers here are reliably among the best in the city. And unlike so many others, these are all about the quality of the beef, not necessarily the baroque-ness of the toppings.
What to have with them : It’s a tough call here, but you can’t go wrong with a perfectly poured beer from their always interesting selection, or—and I’m generally not really a big proponent of cocktails with dinner—a barrel-aged manhattan, which really is that spectacular.
Crabfries at Chickie’s & Pete’s
Various locations. chickiesandpetes.com
Why it’s great : French fries with a choke-worthy helping of Old Bay seasoning can be found masquerading as Crabfries® on many menus around town, but the trademarked original lives at Chickie’s & Pete’s. Each basket of crispy-yet-soft deep-fried potatoes is bathed in a secret blend of delicious spices that stick to every nook and cranny of the crinkly-cut fries. Once it was served with only one measly cup of their pour-it-all-over-anything-you-order white cheese sauce, but the owners have finally come to their senses and doubled up the helping with each order. You’re welcome.
What to have with it : Who cares? TWO servings of cheese sauce!
El Ranchero at Sazon
941 Spring Garden St. 215.763.2500. sazonrestaurant.com
Why it’s great : It’s not just that this Mexican-style scramble is appealing to carnivores and veggie lovers alike, loaded with spicy chorizo, red and green peppers, jalapeños, onions and tomatoes. The real draw at this delightful Venezuelen BYOB is the quality of the ingredients. Chef Judith Suzarra-Campbell cooks exclusively with olive oil, locally raised free-range eggs, local dairy and produce, and has an extensive corn-based gluten-free menu. ($11.)
What to have with it : A mug of drinking chocolate made by Judy’s husband Bob, the “chocolate alchemist.” Try the Clasico (with five different cacao beans) or El Orgasmo (come to me, peanut butter, Kahlua and fresh banana). (Prices vary.)
Charbroiled pork banh mi at Pho Cali
1000 Arch St. 215.629.1888.
Why it’s great : The price of these forearm-long sandwiches recently went up ... to still less than $5. For that almost inconceivably low number, you get a generous helping of sweet-smoky pork, crisp pickled vegetables, and a bun toasted so perfectly that the crumb is still moist inside the wafer-thin warmth of the crust.
What to have with it : Sriracha. Not too much, of course, but a generous squiggle will set up the other flavors nicely.
Braised chicken and biscuits with herbs at The Mildred
824 S. Eighth St. 267.687.1600. the-mildred.com
Why it’s great : For $8, what you get is a filling, hearty cast-iron skillet of poultry love, replete with biscuits of greater soulfulness than most ever achieve. More, please!
What to have with it : A beer would be great, but a glass of amontillado or oloroso sherry, or even a slightly oxidized-tasting white, would be perfect. (Note: Brian Freedman consulted on the beverage program at The Mildred.) And make sure you get a basket of homemade bread to sop up all the wonderful leftovers sticking to the bottom of the dish.
The Catalan Express lunch at Amada
217-219 Chestnut St. 215.625.2450. amadarestaurant.com
Why it’s great : Not only is the price right—$14.50 for soup and either a sandwich or salad, plus an iced tea or soda—but the options are more than generous. I love the skirt steak pepito sandwich with Cabrales cheese and gorgeously caramelized onions preceded by caldo gallego, a Galician stew of ham and beans.
What to have with it : It may not be included, but since you’re saving so much money on the lunch itself, spring for a class of wine, preferably something crisp and refreshing, to wash it all down. Just because it’s midday doesn’t mean a drink is verboten.
Honey Dean sausage at Honey’s Sit ‘n Eat
800 N. 4th St. 215.925.1150. honeyssitneat.com
Why it’s great : There’s no shortage of great ground-meat products in this city, but this one ($3) is consistently one of the best. It’s an innocent-looking patty that packs a serious punch, the honey sweetness balanced out by a gentle spicy tingle. Dragged through a fried egg’s yolk at breakfast, it’s possibly the simplest, most heartfelt forkful you’ll eat all day.
What to have with it : The potato latke ($2.50), a fried wedge of crispety-crunchety carbolicious goodness.
Chinese Five Spiced Peking Duck Breast at Bistro 7
7 N. 3rd St. 215.931.1560. bistro7restaurant.com
Why it’s great : There’s a reason that Chef Michael O’Halloran’s Old City standout has been around for so long: Because it’s so consistently, remarkably good. And this dish embodies much of what makes it so: Generous seasoning, perfect cooking temps and the kind of complex flavor that keep you coming back for far more bites than you probably really need. ($32)
What to have with it : Find a bottle of good Pinot Noir, or a Bordeaux with a couple of years of age to it, pop the corks, and don’t get up till your plate is clean and the bottle is empty.
PW has compiled a list of the 50 best things to eat and drink in Philly rightthisverymoment. We’ve included—in no particular order—some entrenched favorites (Osteria pizza, Cape May Salts) but mostly illuminated the new and newly discovered: everything from offbeat beers (Alehoof Grut) to cheeses with stories to tell (Mancuso ricotta). They might just become your next favorites. They’re already ours.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
The Food & Drink Issue: Soul Food