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Craig LaBan’s best of the best in 2021 dining | Let’s Eat

Also: What you need to know about Philadelphia’s forthcoming vaccine mandate, news about a food show set in Philly, and a history mystery about the Brandy Alexander.

Dishes from a tasting menu at Friday Saturday Sunday in Philadelphia.
Dishes from a tasting menu at Friday Saturday Sunday in Philadelphia.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

The pandemic didn’t hold back food critic Craig LaBan in his never-ending quest for deliciousness. Read on to explore his 2021 favorites. We also have COVID-19-related info surrounding Philadelphia’s forthcoming vaccine mandate, news about a food show set in Philly, and a history mystery about a classic cocktail.

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Mike Klein

Craig LaBan’s favorite dining experiences of 2021

While critic Craig LaBan ate wonderful meals over the past year, he writes, “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.” That said, Craig recounts his 2021 dining highlights at places such as Kingston 11, Gabriella’s Vietnam, Friday Saturday Sunday, and Her Place Supper Club — which, incidentally, is morphing from a pop-up to a full-fledged restaurant with a liquor license.

COVID-19 prompts more changes

Contributor Gene Marks explains the city’s vaccine mandate, as it pertains to restaurants. The mandate doesn’t fully take effect immediately. Through Jan. 17, restaurants can choose to accept a negative COVID-19 test within 24 hours of entry instead of proof of vaccination

By the time the vaccine mandate begins, Moses Smucker will be gone from Reading Terminal Market. The longtime merchant will close his lunch counter, The Grill at Smucker’s, on New Year’s Eve. He said he is tired of the restrictions surrounding COVID-19, and the new city rules will force food courts (such as the seating area at the Terminal) to cordon off its tables and station an employee to check proof of vaccination. Meanwhile, the rest of the market will be open to all. Asked if family could continue the stand in his stead, he told me: “They’re all too smart to be in this business.”

The recent surge in COVID cases has forced even more temporary closings, as many restaurants are taking off this week. (Some have chosen to close after one reported case, while others are closing only after they run short on staff; it can be a tough call.) The Food Trust has canceled Thursday’s farmer’s market in Fairmount (its other markets this weekend had been scheduled off previously).

‘Where Chefs Eat’ puts spotlight on Philly restaurants

Philadelphia’s dining scene goes front and center for a full hour on the Cooking Channel at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 29. Ted Allen’s new show Where Chefs Eat is based on the global restaurant guidebook of the same name. Michael Solomonov (Zahav, Abe Fisher, Laser Wolf, etc., etc.) plays tour guide, leading Allen and his camera crew to Kalaya (where they make dumplings and chat about her native Thailand) as well as Siddiq’s Water Ice, Perla, Federal Donuts (naturally), Pho 75, and Royal Izakaya.

A homegrown cocktail: The Brandy Alexander?

“Cocktail history is cloudy, competitive, prone to mythmaking, and dependent on sometimes centuries-old receipts very few folks have kept,” Philly author Adam Erace writes in his book The Cocktail Workshop. That murkiness extends to the Brandy Alexander, and Adam lays out a fairly convincing case that a bartender at the Racquet Club in Center City devised the Brandy Alexander in 1915 to honor Phillies pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander on the eve of the World Series. Alexander, by the way, won Game 1 over the Boston Red Sox but the Phillies went on to lose the Series, 4-1. As a long-suffering fan, I will note that it was 65 years before the Phils won their next Series game.

Trying a Dry January

Many people start the new year by abstaining from alcohol — the so-called Dry January. Some studies show that quitting drinking for a month can have health benefits, reports staff writer Aubrey Whelan. “One of the benefits of Dry January is using it as a way to maybe look at some of your substance use or drinking, and developing new habits,” said Erin Goodhart of Caron Treatment Centers.

A hot pizza delivered in about 10 minutes?

“Why can’t I get a hot pizza delivered when I want it?” was Adam Chain’s dilemma. The entrepreneur thinks he has the answer: He tricked out a van with an oven to bake pizzas en route to a customer and developed an app that allows ordering and payment. Muncho Pizza’s first truck is roaming the streets of the Fairmount neighborhood, promising hot pizzas in about 10 minutes.

Restaurant report

“Wouldn’t it be cool to open a ramen shop?” coffee shop owner David Backhus asked his friend, chef Michael Falcone, one day. Sure, but would the Pottstown area support such a idea? Turns out it has. Oori, their Korean-inspired BYOB noodle house, has just marked its second anniversary in a low-slung stand-alone building on Route 100, about 15 minutes north of the turnpike’s Downingtown exit. Takeout business is even brisker than dine-in, though I’d suggest sitting for the Korean fried chicken (offered with all kinds of wet and dry flavorings).

Sweet and spicy inform the menu, which changes occasionally. Highlights include the ramens (vegetarian and non), the dandan noodles or a somewhat newer dish called peanut noodles (that’s steamed broccoli, garlic peanut sauce, peanuts, and sweet soy glaze), or an entree like the blackened salmon with sweet chili glaze, rice, and bok choy. Bring a good beer for this one. It’s open nightly.

Oori, 2228 Pottstown Pike, Pottstown. Hours: 3-8 p.m. Sunday-Tuesday, 3-9 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday.

What you’ve been eating this week

Dishes enjoyed by readers include the cured salmon toast at the new Mighty Bread Co. in South Philadelphia (thanks for the Instagram share, @steadidead) and the XO shrimp at Chinatown stalwart Sang Kee (a hat-tip to @lipnerforyou).

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Happy new year.