Fishtown's Hot Potato Cafe went from spud dud to potato palace overnight.
Editor's Note: PW's Brian McManus reviewed the Hot Potato Cafe in the summer of 2007. He didn't like it. In May of last year he was invited back by the producers of Kitchen Nightmares after a relaunch spearheaded by curse-happy Scotsman and world renown chef Gordon Ramsay. The review that follows is for his return visit. The Hot Potato Cafe episode of Kitchen Nightmares aired Friday on Fox. See the show below.
The average American eats 140 pounds of potatoes a year. That potato fact—and several others—is typed on the new placemats at the once-dreadful, now welcoming-and-delicious Hot Potato Café.
But the placemats aren’t all that’s new. This is the mother of all turnarounds, people!
Some history: Two summers ago I reviewed the HPC. Things didn’t go so well. The potato soup tasted of bacon grease and was a thick, gloppy mess. The green beans were cooked to mush. And there were a couple culinary inventions—buffalo chicken dip, a crab dip—that defied all logic. Hot Potato Cafe even managed to burn a grilled cheese that first go around, and at my review’s end I wrote, “The warm and helpful waitstaff at Hot Potato are about as nice as they come, exhibiting the exact tone you'd expect from a joint aiming to be a neighborhood standby. If only the kitchen would give them some help.”
Well, that help has come, and what a difference it's made.
The change is immediate. Hot Potato’s reworked their entire interior even, and it's rather spectacular (save for a couple cheap looking paintings)—chocolate brown walls adorned with potato sacks; potatoes in mason jars line shelves; a giant sack of potatoes sits atop the hostess’ desk; potatoes, potatoes and more potatoes; and a comfy, chic waiting area (with free, melt-in-your-mouth potato cookies!).
That anyone would actually wait to eat at Hot Potato two years ago is unthinkable. Not so now.
So what of the food? The menu is a study in the potato. If there are 5,000 varieties of spud (and there are…thank you, informative placemat!) then Hot Potato does its best to knock out a good percentage of them. Of the 25 dishes on offer at Hot Potato, 21 contain potato. If the Atkins Diet is dead (and it is), the new menu at Hot Potato defecates on its grave.
There’s potato soup, potato filled pierogies, five types of “loaded” hot potatoes, two types of potato salad, fingerling potato hash with chorizo, potato bread, mashed potatoes, fried potatoes and fried sweet potatoes. If Bubba Gump were obsessed with potatoes and not shrimp, Hot Potato Café is the restaurant he would’ve opened. (Well hello there, reference from 1994!)
But the remarkable thing about the menu’s apparent lack of diversity is that each potato dish manages to hit its own note. Our waiter Brian (who, incidentally, was my waiter at my first dinner at HPC) suggested my dining companion and I try one of the potato salads. We went with “No 1” and were rewarded with a fresh, olive-and-feta-spiked purple potato salad that was as gorgeous to look at as it was delicious to eat. Simply wonderful, purple potatoes and green beans all glistening like jewels.
Potato soup was silky smooth, a healthy dollop of whipped cream and tiny dice of chives singing out in the middle of all the richness; pierogies sit atop a bed of perfectly caramelized onions, and are little pillows of potato-filled heaven; the grilled fish (on this night, mahi) and chips are light and fresh and, at $14 for a sizeable hunk of protein, quite a steal; shepherds pie—it too suggested by helpful Brian (Brian’s are so smart!)—was the best I’ve ever tasted. During a lull in service between app and entrée we were even treated to a tin of sweet potato fries, a more nutritious take on an old standard that owes its ubiquity on several menus across town to the fact that it seldom disappoints.
For dessert we had both the deliciously rich butter cake and risked the starch coma, and had the sweet potato cheesecake to boot, which had an odd orange-y zest to it, but was good and comforting nonetheless.
Again, the mother of all turnarounds. I’ll be back (I simply NEED to try that sloppy joe loaded potato), and, if the excitement in the neighborhood about the restaurant’s relaunch is any indication, I’ll be getting to know that waiting area pretty well.
The average American eats 140 pounds of potatoes a year. Well, thanks to HPC, the residents of Fishtown will surely double the national average.
Brian McManus visited Hot Potato Cafe in 2007 and found the food, as you can read below, less than desirable. He was invited back after Gordon Ramsay's retooling of the restaurant and menu. His review of that trip will appear tomorrow in advance of the third season premiere of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares at Hot Potato Cafe.
The Inquirer reports a negative review from Philadelphia Weekly helped bring the popular Gordon Ramsay show Kitchen Nightmares to town to fix the Hot Potato Café.