Craig LaBan’s year in Philly food 2021
Highlights and reflections on the year in food.
I had plans for a celebratory meal with two friends at a hot new restaurant to cheer the end of this comeback year for Philly dining. But the reservation got canceled when the place temporarily closed due to a breakthrough COVID case on staff. Our Plan B restaurant? Temporarily closed, too. Same reason.
And then? Oh no... Are we back to the beginning of this whole pandemic mess with an evasive new variant that’s put even fully vaccinated people at great risk of infection? Are we really confronting renewed concerns about indoor dining, again? Yes, we are, even if a city vaccine mandate is finally coming in January — I welcome it — it’s clearly too late. (I advocated for this in August.)
It is easy to grow dispirited by the slingshot of back-to-2020 emotions I’m suddenly feeling as I now pull on extra layers and bundle-up once again for winter outdoor dining. But fire up the heaters, folks, because I’m still coming! We’re not back at the beginning. Not at all, given the scientific wonders of vaccines that have given us the tools to minimize the threat of more serious disease — even if, after nearly two years of vigilance, I’m still keen to avoid it.
But short of vanquishing this virus, we’re now forced as diners to confront a new rhythm of life in an ongoing pandemic, with temporary closures, frequent testing and precautions in order to eat out and support our restaurants through another surge. And I’ve hardly lost hope. If I can take any lessons from 2021, and the six months of quasi-normalcy for in-restaurant experiences we enjoyed between June and December, it is that all the efforts to persist are worth it.
I ate so many wonderful meals over the past year, I was reminded of how much joy and community dining out brings to our lives. And I was inspired by how many of our culinary talents were determined to take the leap to keep going and remain among the brightest lights in a moment shadowed with struggle. It was never easy in 2021, even when it might have seemed effortless on my side of the table. But so many found a way to deliver, and did it spectacularly.
Here are just a few of the most memorable highlights.
Best New Restaurant: Her Place Supper Club
In a year when nothing was business as usual, it’s only fitting that the best new restaurant began as a 22-seat pop-up BYOB that captured the intimacy of a passion project, the spirit of flexibility in ever-changing menus and hours, and a charming chef-owner whose staff managed to make everyone feel like they were part of a dinner party. That person is Amanda Shulman, the 29-year-old Penn grad and alum of Vetri and Montreal’s Joe Beef who’s channeled some serious Italian and French chops into a style that’s all her own, built on clever comforts, great ingredients and a penchant for updated retro flavors (halibut in Riesling sauce; tomato cobbler; pork sandwich-stuffed meatballs; oysters Rockefeller) on prix-fixe menus that change bi-weekly. Her acorn squash filled with molten fondue showered with truffles was my favorite dish of the year. And now that pop-up has graduated to the next phase. “I can’t say exactly what we are, because we have more freedom to do weird stuff if we keep it untraditional,” says Shulman. “But we’re sticking around for the foreseeable future.” Her Place Supper Club, 1740 Sansom St., herplacephilly.com
Meal of the Year: Friday Saturday Sunday
The pandemic forced many ambitious restaurants to get lean and refocus on tasting menus, and no place did it with more elegance, inspiration and polished teamwork than Chad and Hanna Williams’ intimate townhouse restaurant in Rittenhouse Square. From a bite-sized biscuit dabbed with beef tartare and caviar to the caramelized crunch and pudding heart of the cannelé finale, every course there was a perfect, unexpected little chapter in one big beautiful story of a meal. Truffled sweetbreads over caramelized plantains. Tiny empanadas stuffed with crispy pig face from chef de cuisine Sashia Liriano and pastry chef Amanda Rafalski. Liriano’s BBQ veal cheek, whose smoked pepper-black plum sauce was inspired by FSS’s earlier pandemic barbecue pop-up, was the most memorable plate of all, its tender meat wrapped inside a leaf of chard beside a crispy mille-feuille of shaved yam that, when pressed, fanned out into a silky puree of more yam. Friday Saturday Sunday, 261 S 21st St.; fridaysaturdaysunday.com
Rising Star Chef: Thanh Nguyen of Gabriella’s Vietnam
Philadelphia has one of the largest and longest-established Vietnamese communities in America, and plenty of wonderful restaurants serving pho, banh mi and broken rice platters. But few, if any, in the city are cooking the kind of contemporary food reflecting the current regional trends in Saigon and beyond like what Thanh Nguyen has brought to East Passyunk Avenue. Begin with her vermicelli platter laden with fried tofu, pork patties, blood sausage and a pungent shrimp paste dip for sharing. Then move on to the wok-fried soft shells, the crispy mini-banh xeo crepes, and a fern dumpling feast of tiny cups filled with steamed rice cake discs topped with ground dried shrimp, pork cracklings splashed with a shimmer of nước chấm. Gabriella’s Vietnam, 1837 E Passyunk Ave., gabriellasasian.com
Chicken Champ: Jerk fried chicken at Kingston 11
I love so many of the traditional Caribbean flavors that Abbygale Bloomfield is cooking over at her Instagram-famous Jamaican takeout in Southwest Philly, from the city’s most sublime stewed oxtails to superbly tender curried goat. But it’s her signature jerk fried chicken that I truly dream about. The bird is brined overnight with pimento berries and habaneros before it’s deep-fried to a greaseless crust that blushes orange with imported Jamaican spices. Bloomfield’s new company, Worthwhile Foods, now sells jerk fried chicken mix online, along with bottles of her zesty Main Squeeze jerk sauce, to make it at home. Kingston 11, 6405 Woodland Ave., kingston-11-jamaican-restaurant.business.site
The Philly Sandwiches Remastered
Was there a better year for sandwich energy in America’s greatest sandwich city? No. And most of my faves were, in fact, classic genres perfected, from the meticulously built Italian hoagie at Castellino’s Market (255 E. Palmer St., castellinos.square.site) in Fishtown to the soulfully retro remakes the Miglino family is giving to thick-cut roast pork sandwiches and the classic pizza steak at new Dolores’ 2Street (1841 S 2nd St., on Meta). I’ve even got a favorite new cheesesteak in Northeast Philly with the Don Cheech at Cafe Carmela (2859 Holme Ave., cafecarmelaphilly.com). The annual late summer window for heirloom tomato BLTs at Middle Child (248 S. 11th St.; middlechildphilly.com) produced a sandwich filled with such a gorgeous kaleidoscope of tomatoes, it was among the most beautiful things I ate all year. And at Sweet Amalia Market & Kitchen (994 Harding Hwy. (Route 40), Newfield, N.J.; sweetamalia.com), every one of chef Melissa McGrath’s sandwiches was a masterpiece (including her Italian hoagie) and her ability to translate the seafood bounty of New Jersey into exceptional fried oyster and clam rolls was unparalleled
Best Restaurant Revamp Irwin’s
The city views were already sweet from Irwin’s eighth floor bar perch atop the Bok Building. But the addition of chef Michael Vincent Ferreri, who brought the handmade pastas, agrodolce chicken and seasonal salad magic (that caponata!) along from now-closed Res Ipsa, has made it one of Philly’s best all-around dinner date destinations. Grab a Zio Ubriaco cocktail and get the fritto misto. Irwin’s, Bok Building, 1901 S. Ninth St., irwinsupstairs.com
The most obvious pasta answer now is Fiorella (817 Christian St., fiorellaphilly.com), Marc Vetri’s high energy pasta bar where chef Matt Rodrigue’s crew serves perfect cacio e pepe, legendary sausage rigatoni and the fleeting seasonal wonders of delicate fig-stuffed cappellacci draped in speck. This year’s most distinctive pasta, though? That would be the rye-infused gnocchi sardi at Messina Social Club (1533 S. 10th St.; messinasocialclub.com), whose caraway-scented pasta nubs are topped with a sweet-tart ground beet “Bolognese,” pickled mustard seeds, fresh horseradish, and pumpernickel bread crumbs — an unconventional but harmonious combo that distills chef Eddie Konrad’s personal history (Polish-Italian heritage, plus training at Del Posto and Laurel) into one extraordinary bowl of noodles.
Pickleback Meets Raw Bar Black Squirrel Pub & Haunt
What could be a better start to a night at the pub than a shot of Irish whiskey chased by pickle juice? The answer is an Oyster Back at the Black Squirrel in East Falls (3749 Midvale Ave., blacksquirrelphilly.com) where chef Arthur Cavaliere floods a Cape May Salt on the half-shell with mignonette made from pickle juice and serves it atop a bed of ice beside a bracing shot of smooth Jameson Irish whiskey.
Chinatown’s New Prince of Peking Duck Lau Kee
Between COVID and an ugly wave of anti-Asian sentiment, it was an especially rough year for Chinatown. But my family kept the neighborhood’s restaurants busy, especially while researching an extensive Chinatown takeout round-up. I was especially thrilled to find a new favorite Peking duck house at Lau Kee owned by Chuien Liu, who spent two decades mastering duck at Sang Kee. With tender meat redolent of a ginger-five spice marinade and glossy dark skins that snap from an elaborate preparation (the duck is blown up with an air pump then dipped into sweet vinegar before roasting), these mahogany beauties are among Philly’s finest birds. Lau Kee, 934 Race St., 215-201-3511.
Birria Booms But Also...Veggie Mex?
The nationwide birria craze, with braised beef tacos and consommé being served everywhere from South Philly (Juana Tamale, Philly Tacos, El Molino Tortilleria, Mi Pueblito Tacos truck) to the Jersey Shore (Taqueria Rendon, which, as I documented in a 10-restaurant round-up this summer, has become one of the region’s most compelling epicenters of great Mexican cooking. Also, some of my most memorable Mexican flavors this year were vegetarian. The married chefs Mariana Hernandez and Julio Rivera have mastered the minimalist art of sopes (among many other specialties), and their pop-ups, formerly known as Last Abuela, are always worth seeking out. Meanwhile at Sor Ynez in Kensington, chef Alexis Tellez has been serving memorable vegetarian versions of tlacoyos, “alt-pastor” cauliflower tacos and a vegan mixiote masterpiece wrapped-up inside a steamy banana leaf.
More Inspired Veg Cooking (& Drinking) Grilled bamboo hearts at Ember & Ash
It’s mostly all about the meaty bits at Scott Calhoun’s and Dave Feola’s adventurous offal-centric live fire kitchen blazing off East Passyunk Ave., where blood sausage, lamb tongue fries and “surf-’n’-turf” of sweetbreads and monkfish rightfully capture attention. But the most stunning dish was this absolutely gorgeous wood-grilled heart of baby bamboo, whose multi-chambered interior was filled with colorful dabs of housemade shoyu and cranberry hoisin over pureed apples that had been fermented like black garlic. Inventive veg treatments for cocktails, too, like the hay-smoked celery juice in the gingered sorrel #Phresh, elevated some of the city’s most intriguing non-alcoholic cocktails. Ember & Ash, 1520 E. Passyunk Ave., emberandashphilly.com
Dream Melon River Twice
Few chefs capture the fleeting seasons with as much spontaneous artistry as Randy Rucker. So it’s no wonder late July washes over me again every time I think about his treatment of heirloom cantaloupes, shaved into luscious orange ribbons that curled on a plate cradling the salty orange jewels of trout roe dabbed with the earthy spice of house-fermented sunflower seed chile macha. Sweetness, heat, acid and pop, all in one single bite of summer ripeness. River Twice, 1601 E. Passyunk Ave.; rivertwicerestaurant
No, I didn’t go vegetarian in 2021. In fact, I ate some of the best steaks ever during a chophouse swing that mooed over a deeply dry-aged porterhouse for two at Alpen Rose, a Japanese hanger steak bargain with black sesame tare at Royal Izakaya, and a superb strip steak-frites with marrow-enriched “Bordo” sauce at the Good King Tavern. I savored the earthy tingle of East African chilies and a whiff of black cardamom in chef Belaynesh “Bella” Wondimagegnehu’s modern twist on Ethiopian beef kitfo tartare, served over spice-buttered toast at Buna Cafe. And, of course, I’m always on the hunt for favorite new burgers. I found several contenders in 2021, from the massive smash patty at Huda, to the grass-fed beauty on a house-baked potato roll at Fitz and Starts, and the thoughtfully built simple classic at the Goat Rittenhouse. The region’s most spectacular new burger, though, requires a trip to Wilmington for brunch with Le Big Cav at Le Cavaliere, the French brasserie makeover for the Green Room in the Hotel Dupont, where chef Tyler Akin has produced one of the finest Big Mac upgrades I’ve ever devoured.
Local Cheese Evolves Perrystead Dairy
Pennsylvania’s artisan cheese scene lost a pioneer after the announcement that the goat cheese masters behind Yellow Springs Farm decided to sell and move on. Philly scored a major addition, though, with the arrival of Perrystead Dairy, an urban creamery in Kensington where cheese wizard Yoav Perry is already creating a lineup of cutting-edge American originals, from the gooey, wrinkle-rind cube of Intergalactic, to tomme-style Atlantis washed in sea water, spruce-wrapped Tree Hug and the Real Philly Schmear, a silky, spreadable answer to industrial cream cheese.
Speaking of cream cheese, Philly now has better bagels than ever with the arrival of Korshak Bagels (1700 S. 10th St.; korshakbagels.com), a much-awaited project from poet-turned-bagel meister, Philip Korshak, whose delicate-crusted, springy rounds benefit from a two day process and a nearly decade-old sourdough starter named Helen Mirren. Korshak sells his own schmears and fish, of course. But if I’m going all out for brunch, that demands a trip to the smoked fish heaven of Biederman’s Specialty Foods (824 Christian St.; biedermansphilly.com), owner Lauren Biederman’s cozy, well-curated homage to Jewish appetizing stores tradition, where resident “loxsmith” Gene Mopsik, hand-cuts more than a dozen varieties of prime Samaki smoked fish and whips what is now the most sublime whitefish salad in town.
A Jollof Rice Journey with Shola Olunloyo
I took a Jollof rice crawl with chef Shola Olunloyo through Southwest Philly and beyond tosavored some great renditions of the iconic West African rice dish at African Small Pot, Suya Suya West African Grill, Wazobia, Le Mandingue and others. But the best version, by far, was the next-level Jollof made by the Nigerian-born Olunloyo himself in the smoky, coal-fired hearth of his own backyard. It was undoubtedly one of the eating highlights of my 2021. And the best part? He shared his recipe, so I can plan to perfect my Jollof game, too, in case I happen to be eating a bit more at home in the coming winter weeks.