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The best things Craig LaBan ate in 2019

After eating upwards of 400 meals this year, our restaurant critic picked the very best bites.

The best things Craig LaBan ate this year.
The best things Craig LaBan ate this year.Read moreInquirer Staff Photographers

I started the year with a hearty appetite for eating adventure, and by December’s end, 2019 had certainly delivered.

I tasted culinary wonders high and low, from city to suburbs, and on a whirlwind trip to Tel Aviv. After 400-plus restaurant meals in the past 12 months — for bell-rated Sunday reviews, Crumb Tracker clues, and more — including 150 or so meals for this year’s Cravings! Dining Guide, a handful of flavors never left my mind. Cue the highlight reel!

Bite of the Year: The Italian hoagie at Pizzeria Beddia (1313 N. Lee St.)

Chefs got serious this year about revamping the hoagie, with places like Angelo’s Pizzeria South Philly, Liberty Kitchen, and Stina all adding key upgrades, from fresh-baked rolls to hand-stretched mozz. But the most memorable hoagie moment for me came with the hoagie omakase tasting at Pizzeria Beddia. Yes, the pizzas are great. But the quest to perfect and put the blue-collar hoagie on a special-event pedestal? That’s birthright work in a genre too often overshadowed by convenience-store mediocrity.

There’s a wacky sense of showmanship to the preposterous notion of making hoagies the centerpiece of a $500 multi-course omakase feast for six (which also comes with a round of drinks, pizza, apps, dessert, and nibbles). But Joe Beddia and hoagie master John “Hoagie Wan Kenobi” Walker deliver the crusty goods, using exceptional house-baked seeded rolls that come meticulously layered with three different kinds of stuffings. There’s a vivid veggie at its vine-ripe height during tomato season, and a sultry tuna hoagie amped with an edgy hit of smoked fish.

But the classic Italian is what got me, precisely because it looks remarkably familiar. Every detail, though, is so perfectly tuned: the sheer pink sheets of spicy capicola and sweet mortadella peeled straight off the slicer, summer-ripe tomatoes, a cushion of shaved iceberg adding spring beneath the young provolone. And it’s all framed by the delicate fresh crunch of both top and bottom crusts, which still resonates in my mind months later. This is not so much a “fancy” hoagie as the classic reimagined as its best self.

Venison scrapple at Elwood (1007 Frankford Ave.)

Most everything you need to know about Elwood is clear the moment the meal begins, when a rack of antlers comes to your table, its prongs bearing crispy brown cubes of venison scrapple dabbed with spruce jam. Elwood’s rustic, Pennsylvania-inspired cuisine is not for the squeamish. But that scrapple is downright delicious, made from farm-raised red deer meat simmered in broth and coarsely hand-chopped before it’s mixed into a cake with cornmeal, sage, and buckwheat. It’s more like a meaty pâté than the industrial mush of its supermarket counterparts. More importantly, this freebie to start the meal is emblematic of the nose-to-tail craft of chef Adam Diltz.

Morning buns at Bloomsday Cafe (414 S. Second St.)

The morning bun at Bloomsday Cafe rises from the counter to greet me like a spring-loaded swirl of brioche optimism, simply begging to be chosen. I look away, pondering the squat raisin Danish or a more sensible choice like avocado toast or a chia bowl. But that sugar-crusted tall bun keeps catching my eye, its pastry coils bounding high above its paper cuff and tilting playfully my way.

Back at the table, when I tug at my bun’s top knot, a wisp of cinnamon steam rides out on a ribbon of laminated dough that unfurls, then quickly disappears, in a sticky caramel fingertip finish. This house-baked delight from pastry chef Sofiane Bellal is so delicious — as is the tight rosetta traced in foam by barista D’onna Stubblefield across the top of my macchiato — that it’s easy to imagine making breakfast in one of Bloomsday’s cushy banquettes a habit.

The Ripp Burger at Ripplewood Whiskey & Craft (29 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore)

Chef Biff Gottehrer’s master-stack beauty, layered with molten Gouda and smoky-sweet pads of fried Lebanon bologna, delivers satisfaction in a major way. I took my time savoring every morsel of this new burger idol — its dry-aged beefy oomph, its pillowy soft pain au lait bun (somehow still able to absorb all that juice!), delicate butter leaf lettuce, tangy pickled red onions, and caper-filled special sauce. Is that an echo of smoked tomato in the background harmonizing the bologna? Oh, yes. Yes, it is.

Tilefish with fish scale crunch at Hiroki (1355 N. Front St.)

Raw fish is the obvious star among the sushi wonders at Hiroki. But I can’t stop thinking about the meaty hunk of Japanese red tilefish that was panfried with its scales still on so that they rippled across the firm white flesh with a feathery crunch. The dish requires 24 hours of brining, then thorough drying before it’s finished in the pan as one of several cooked items in the 20-course omakase. It was like eating the ultimate fish-in-its-own-chips.

Quesadillas with fresh huitlacoche and handmade Oaxaca cheese at South Philly Barbacoa (1140 S. Ninth St.)

By now, you expect the lines for the lamb tacos. But South Philly Barbacoa’s limited menu has expanded to include quesadillas, which benefit from the same extraordinary masa and are especially notable because they showcase fleeting seasonal ingredients and the rare bonus of Oaxaca cheese hand-stretched at the restaurant. The freshness adds sweetness and luxurious texture as the mozzarella-like cheese melts, accenting the quesadilla’s griddle-roasted fillings. None was more memorable than fresh huitlacoche in late August. The fungus swells on corn into black and powdery gray kernels that are usually sold jarred. When fresh, it has a firm yet juicy texture and — once shaved off the cob and sauteed with sweet white kernels, garlic, and herbaceous epazote — it lends the quesadilla’s filling an inky-black, earthy depth that’s as magnetic as any truffle.

The khao yum kamin rice salad at Kalaya (764 S. Ninth St.)

I could have chosen any of a dozen Southern Thai specialties from Kalaya for this list, which is why Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon won my nod for Chef of the Year. But I can’t stop thinking about her extraordinary khao yum kamin rice salad — a scoop of turmeric rice ringed by a pinwheel of vegetables, shaved coconut, two kinds of baby shrimp (dried and fried), and red chilies. It’s a beautiful rainbow to behold.

But when Suntaranon mixes in her mysteriously complex palm sugar dressing, a dark syrup infused with funky fish budu, galangal, kaffir lime, lemongrass, and pineapple cores, the salad hits another level. Each forkful of ginger-scented rice carries a chorus of textures, the threads of green mango crunching against thin-sliced long beans, watermelon radish, juicy cucumbers, and those tiny crustaceans, shined in a glaze that simultaneously delivers sweetness, spice, and an insistent whiff of the ocean.

Chicken riggies at Cry Baby Pasta (627 S. Third St.)

On the menu, it’s known as “rigatoni, vodka sauce, pancetta, smoked chicken, cherry peppers.” But Upstate New Yorkers will immediately recognize this legendary dish by its nickname, “chicken riggies,” and acknowledge immediately that co-chef David Gilberg is one of their own.

For me, it was a revelation: toothy, house-extruded rigatoni cradling nuggets of pancetta and shreds of smoked chicken, all basking in a blush sauce whose measured richness was lit by the magnetic spice of tangy cherry peppers. My lips curled into a smile almost by reflex at the unexpected sting of the chili heat, which, in turn, compelled me to return immediately for another bite. And then …? We decided to take a summer trip to Upstate New York, during which I discovered Cry Baby’s chicken riggies are, in fact, some of the best around.

Oatmeal soufflé at Vernick Coffee (Comcast Technology Center, 1 N. 19th St.)

It was a big year for Greg Vernick, who brought two new restaurants with memorable flavors to Comcast’s new skyscraper. The first came during breakfast at Vernick Coffee, where the chef somehow managed to make oatmeal a gravity-defying feat. He takes the steel-cut variety (commonly served elsewhere as a variation on wallpaper paste) and transforms it into an ethereal soufflé that suspends the nutty grains in a citrusy sweet cloud, with a poof of maple-sweetened whipped cream on the side for added depth.

Crispy beignets and spicy clam ragout at Vernick Fish (1876 Arch St.)

Reinventing the Philly fish house was on tap for Vernick’s second Comast act as he revived the tableside Dover sole for two and a baked oysters Philly dish seasoned to evoke a South Philly pork sandwich. My favorite dish, though, was the spicy clam ragout that came in a little copper pot beside four hot pillows of deep-fried savory beignets. I ripped off the ends, filled them with ragout, and devoured them fast — the ultimate clam hot pocket.

Cambodian prahok kteah at Sophie’s Kitchen (522 Washington Ave.)

I ate up pretty much everything that chef Sophia Neth made with electric variations on the Cambodian spice paste called kroeung — its hand-pounded garlic, ginger, and kaffir lime flavors animating everything from pumpkin stir-fry to grilled chicken skewers. Most irresistible, though, was the classic crudité dish of prahok kteah. This meaty, ground pork dip blends two kinds of kroeung paste (red and a turmeric-tinged yellow) with palm sugar, coconut milk, and fermented mudfish paste (prahok). And the flavor, as you scoop it up with slices of raw eggplant or crunch sheets of raw cabbage, is one of unusually magnetic savor, its caramelized sweetness hedged by a red chili glow and a subtle tidal twang.

Pommes Anna with Époisses at Forsythia (233 Chestnut St.)

There is a strong bistro current running through the cassoulet and bouillabaisse tureens at Forsythia. But it would be wrong to imply chef Christopher Kearse has abandoned the modernist gastronomy he was known for at Will BYOB. Those techniques are used here simply in pursuit of a larger culinary point. For example, sodium citrate — a casein-bending salt used to produce Velveeta — allows him to transform oozy French cheeses like Époisses into frothy white sauces that are remarkably light but still genuinely potent. I’d normally object to messing with such a legendary cheese, but Kearse’s Époisses was haunting, aerating the washed-rind cheese into a pungent white fog that rolled off the towering pommes Anna — a butter-crisped scroll of shaved potato — for the greatest side dish I ate all year.

Upside down jawn pizza from Angelo’s Pizzeria South Philly (736 S. Ninth St.)

Danny DiGiampietro’s pizzas exude a personality much like his own: bold, brash, and infinitely ambitious, with a deeply crusty savor and a commitment to no-shortcut cooking. Mozzarella? He makes his own. His pizza dough takes two days to develop the big holes that lend it a crunchy chew. I loved the spice bomb of his round diavlo, whose zesty arrabiata sauce is amped with fresh sausage and enough long hots to give it a proper South Ninth Street swagger. Even better is the upside down jawn, a sauce-topped square of cheesy pan pie that has the heft, crackle, ooze, and zing to earn it signature status amidst Philly’s pizza pantheon.

Brunch bomboloni at Fiore (757 S. Front St.)

As an all-day cafe with an Italian twist, Fiore has every meal covered with something fantastico, from flaky pistachio-stuffed cornetti at breakfast to elegant handmade pastas at dinner. Brunch is the only time, though, to score one of pastry chef and co-owner Justine MacNeil’s bomboloni, the fresh-fried doughnuts she stuffs with seasonal delights. I’m still dreaming of the fritter I devoured in late summer stuffed with fresh almond cream custard and sour plum jam.

Chocolate tamale at Condesa (1830 Ludlow St.)

The mill-your-own movement has landed in Philly big time, from bakeries (Lost Bread Co.) to restaurant pasta programs (Vetri) and taquerias (South Philly Barbacoa) who know that fresh ground is best. But Condesa, which mills both its own nixtamalized corn and Mexican cacao pods, combines those two into one deliciously vivid dessert with its chocolate tamale. It’s simultaneously more corny and more chocolatey than anything I’ve consumed. And when it emerges from its steamy corn-husk a rare shade of deep purple, it tastes like a divine brownie baked by Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of wisdom. A scoop of honey-drizzled peanut ice cream on the side lends yet another earthy shade.

When I think back on 2019, I’ll never forget the remarkable flavors of a lightning trip to Israel with the crew from Zahav, following Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook with three of their young chefs as they did research for several new restaurants (K’Far, Merkaz, and Laser Wolf) in Philadelphia. The journey through 36 places in three days was as memorable for its pace as the foods themselves, but I memorialized each one in this tick-tock timeline of our rolling feast: umpteen bowls of hummus, Yemenite soups, tangy kubbeh, shawarma, sweet knafeh, and Palestinian pot pies stuffed with lamb kebabs on cinnamon sticks. I never did get the errant streak of chocolate sauce from that Jerusalem rugelach out of my shirt. But as Cook told me, looking at the stain, “You’ll always have Israel!”