As we enter the direst couple months of the restaurant world’s despair, with city dining rooms still closed and winter putting a chill on outdoor dining, I’ll make no apologies for my boundless appetite for Philly’s best takeout.
This list of recent favorites is focused on some of our strongest international kitchens, almost all family businesses that have persevered but need our patronage now more than ever. But as I happily grazed from Venezuelan arepas to grilled Northern Thai rice cakes, legit jerk chicken and a Mexican-themed stromboli, the notion of a “takeout compromise” hardly entered my mind. Just satisfaction to go.
After 16 years on Spring Garden Street, Sazón Restaurant & Cafe remains the local standard for Venezuelan home cooking — and serious chocolate craft, too. Chef and owner Judith Suzarra-Campbell draws on her upbringing both on Venezuela’s coast and in Caracas for a menu full of traditional flavors, from arepas made from ground fresh corn (”just like my grandma”) sandwiched around sofrito-stewed chicken to oversized Pabellón empanadas stuffed with black beans, shredded beef, and ripe plantains.
But it’s the asado negro I can’t stop thinking about, a stunning Caracas specialty of beef stewed in caramelized palm sugar and red wine that arrives sliced into tender tiles beneath a dark, syrupy gravy that’s both savory and sweet. Judith’s chocolate wizard husband, Robert Campbell, meanwhile, is crafting bean-to-bar delights that are a draw on their own, from truffles to single-origin bars and intense drinking chocolates — try the Classico standard — that made me realize takeout from Sazón may be ideal for this year’s Valentine’s Day meal at home.
Sazón Restaurant & Cafe, 941 Spring Garden St., 215-763-2500; sazonphilly.com
Don’t forget Chinatown! We haven’t. I dearly missed eating together with my extended family at Bai Wei on Christmas Eve. But we kept our long tradition alive by ordering a lip-tingling feast to go. Don’t miss the crispy diced chicken with chilies, the delicately flaky scallion pancakes, fragrant cumin beef (or lamb) with soft bao buns, or xiao long bao dumplings that (mostly) held their soup until they got home. The crispy-spicy Szechuan fish fillets, meanwhile, were a fine small dish stand-in for the massive spicy stir-fry bowls that Bai Wei usually cooks for much larger crowds.
South Philly has a Puebladelphia tradition of pizzerias with a Mexican twist. But year-old Chiquita’s, named for the daughters of Jersey-born Christa Estrada and her Mexican husband, chef Adolfo Estrada, takes it to the next level. You can get your pizzas topped with everything from mole to pambazo-style chileajo guajillo sauce and potatoes. But I really fell for the stromboli stuffed with al pastor, as well as the La Güera nachos loaded-up with chorizo, corn, and two kinds of Mexican cheese. The expansive menu includes spicy wings and classic taqueria fare, too. But next time, I’ll be getting the carnitas cheesesteak laced with stretchy Oaxaca cheese, and a jumbo fried quesadilla made from hand-pressed masa.
Chiquita’s Pizzeria & Mexican Grill, 746 Snyder Ave., 215-399-5716; chiquitaspizzeria.com
Much of the delight in Dana Mandi has always been the surprise of finding this lively cafeteria tucked behind a curtain at the rear of a West Philadelphia Indian market. Now limited to takeout and delivery, the Singh family’s Punjabi flavors still hold up as some of the city’s best flavor bargains and as some of its most vividly spiced Indian cooking, period. I covet flatbreads like the parathas stuffed with cauliflower and daikon radish, the tangy Punjabi kadhi, and vegetarian stews like the channa, saag paneer, and aloo gobi. For meat lovers, the so-called “dry” chicken tikka brought tandoor-singed chunks of meat that were still so juicy with marinade that they were actually anything but dry.
I used to make regular lunch trips to the tiny corner grill at 12th and Buttonwood known as Jose’s Tacos (subsequently renamed El Purepecha), when The Inquirer was still on North Broad Street. I’m thrilled to see married owners Jose “Alex” Medina and Janneth Lorena Sinchi have moved into a more ambitious space with a liquor license in the former Brick & Mortar. They can’t fully benefit until indoor dining makes a comeback. But a delivered meal reminded me why I got hooked on El Purepecha. The crispy-bottomed handmade sopes with chorizo were fluffy and fantastic. The well-built carnitas burrito mojado, meanwhile, was a revelation. This hefty bundle of tortilla joy came drenched “wet” with a vibrant salsa roja that was so good, it’s officially my favorite burrito in Philly. El Purepecha, 315 N. 12th St., 215-765-2369; orders.cake.net
Chef Chris Cho has become an Instagram star for his high-energy cooking demos of classic Korean dishes with a Philly swagger (”let’s cook this jawn!”) honed at his family’s original restaurant in Olney, Seorabol, one of our last bastions of charcoal-fired Korean BBQ. Cho’s Center City location has transitioned entirely to takeout and delivery during the pandemic and is serving some of the best traditional Korean flavors around. I crave his crispy kimchi pajeon pancake, but also the spicy pork stir fry called jaeyuk bokkeum, and, of course, the signature seared galbi short ribs. If you’ve got a crowd the likes spicy soups, the budda jjigae “Army Stew” — a fusion relic from the Korean War that blends American Army rations (hot dogs, Spam, baked beans) with a fire red ramyun noodle broth — is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. Seorabol Center City, 1326 Spruce St., 215-608-8484; srbtogo.com
“It’s all about peace, love, and reggae music!” says Hugh Walker, the chef at Reggae Reggae Vibes, which his cousin, Brenton Walker, opened six years ago on West Girard Avenue. You can taste that love in Walker’s jerk, a distinctively herbaceous blend of thyme , allspice, and Scotch bonnett peppers that takes on a deep whiff of smoke as the chicken is singed to a fragrant darkness on the charcoal grill. Hugh, who had a restaurant in Port Maria, also makes one of the best brown stew gravies I’ve tasted, its deeply caramelized base of scallions and garlic balanced with a saucy zing.
The oxtails are slow-stewed until they just barely cling to their star-shaped bones, awaiting a tug of the teeth. Hugh’s Philly salute is a jerked cheesesteak made with chicken, beef, or salmon. The standard with typical chipped chicken was better than I anticipated, the jerk sauce and Scotch bonnets adding an almost pepper pot zing. But it can get even better: On request, Hugh will pull the smoky bits of the real jerked chicken, instead.
I’ve worried during the pandemic about Philly classics like Villa di Roma, the DeLuca family’s Italian Market shrine to red gravy that’s always been very much an in-person experience. But, as I stood in Villa’s nearly deserted bar waiting behind a small line for takeout, I overheard Epiphany “Pip” DeLuca reassure a customer on the phone: “Don’t worry, we’re doing fine.” Some proof was in the takeout boxes I took home.
Brother Basil DeLuca’s famous meatballs were as good as ever over ricotta ravioli. The fried asparagus in scampi butter still had a semblance of crisp. Two of my favorite veal dishes — the Parm layered with an extra eggplant cutlet and the provolone-stuffed Bella Buca in a white wine spinach sauce — were also perfect. No, a Villa meal isn’t really complete until you can dive into a basket of fresh garlic bread beneath its wagon wheel chandeliers. But the tomato sauce spirit of this classic, to be sure, is still flowing strong.