Chain restaurants are a ubiquitous fact of suburban life. But they don't all have to be a soul-sucking exercise in cookie-cutter mediocrity. Here are a diverse handful of rising groups of local independents who've managed to multiply without sacrificing the essentials of identity and heart.
This fast-growing chain with roots in the Mexican state of Michoacan has appeared at the perfect moment in our region's Mexican education. The local taqueria scene has grown rapidly in Philly over the past 15 years, and enough mainstream audiences now crave the authentic flavors of an al pastor taco wrapped in the earthy softness of fresh corn tortillas, that the Americanized polish of, say, a Chipotle, is no longer required to win a devoted following. And that's exactly what El Limon delivers, a collection of pleasant but utilitarian dining rooms paired with consistent taqueria fare built on fresh ingredients, bold flavors and traditional ideas. These kitchens do an excellent job with all the classic meats-al pastor, carnitas and smoky chicken tinga. I've been especially impressed with the hand-pressed sopes, the simple freshness of the marinated shrimp tacos, the crackly crisp tostada rounds, and pretty much anything in the excellent tomatillo-tanged salsa verde.
The soaring vaulted ceiling, stone masonry and ice bank decked with Mediterranean seafood at this mini-chain evokes a Greek vacation, even if they are a slightly more casual, ever-so-slightly-less-expensive version of Estia downtown. They are still some of the best destinations anywhere for whole Greek fish-lavraki (branzino), tsipoura (dorado), fagri (snapper)-butterflied cooked over the coals to minimalist perfection, glossed with lemony olive oil, oregano and capers. Other Greek classics are also well-wrought, from flakey spinach pie to tender octopus, lamb chops and moussaka, plus tomatoey shrimp Saganaki. Also, don't miss the addictive Estia chips or halibut souvlaki, which is not available in Center City.
Can real food - seasonal, local, scratch-made, and creatively presented - survive in the suburbs in a way that feels accessible to a wide audience weaned on chains? The answer is yes. And co-chefs and co-owners Josh Lawler and Todd Fuller have cracked the code, transitioning from their fine-dining backgrounds to create a perfect neighborhood restaurant with their second edition of F&F Tavern.
This Pennsylvania counterpart to the South Jersey original feels more polished than Cherry Hill from the get-go, with refined recipes and ingredient sourcing, informed service, a wide-ranging drink program built on local craft beer and produce-forward cocktails (arugula gimlet anyone?), and a diverse American menu that delivers quality at every level, from garlicky roast pork sandwiches to seafood specials and homemade desserts - and with a greater sense of value than ever.
Lawler says their local produce costs about 30 percent more than what he could get from a Sysco truck, with a lack of standardization that often requires more skilled prep. But the multihued tomatoes burst with the juicy payoff of a nearby farm's summer ripeness, scattered atop creamy burrata streaked with balsamic.
And the value is still here: You can get out of happy hour with an outstanding burger and local beer for less than $10, a gorgeous crab cake full of sweet-lump crustacean for $15, or linger over a hearty plate of juicy Berkshire pork chops with creamed local sweet corn flecked with shishito peppers for $23.
The fritters might change daily on the must-order "Breads & Spreads" starter platter (ours were filled with quinoa bound with moist eggplant), but there's always a fresh-baked pita ringed by smoked paprika hummus, tangy red pepper romesco dip, chickpea fries, and pickles. Juicy hay-baked chicken, tender ribs glazed in birch beer barbecue sauce, and 24-hour onion fresh-made chips are other hits.
One can also serve a family of four for $40 with the nightly comfort-food takeout "bundles." The Monday fried chicken special, which pairs a whole bird with biscuits, two sides, and a dessert (doughnut holes with caramel!) was one of the most satisfying quality food values I've devoured all year.
1442 Marlton Pike E. (Route 70), Cherry Hill, 856-356-2282, visit website
Han Chiang gave Center City Philly a thrilling wake-up to true Sichuan spice at his original Old City spot-and helped spark the trend towards more authentic regional Chinese cooking in the region. Now that he's expanded to eight locations, including two in New York, it's easy to forget it all began in the Philly suburbs, in particular in Exton, where Han's mom still runs the show (and the Lions Head meatballs are always on the menu. The overall experiences vary a bit too much to universally maintain the original 3-bell rating. But with a menu that allows patrons to customize the proteins and spice levels for 14 classic styles, Han Dynasty remains the region's standard for exciting Sichuan flavors, from the ultimate dandan noodles to fiery wings and cumin lamb dialed up to a "10.
With 13 locations in three states (including one in the works for Center City), America's seventh-largest brewpub chain has earned national kudos for its polished dark wood decor and ability to balance well-crafted core beers with creative specials from talented individual brewers. They're comfortable and accessible, with food that's generally better than at most chains, even if the huge menu sometimes panders to trends (pumpkin sriracha wings; dandan noodles) and falls back on too much sweetness (ahi tuna salad) for my taste. I've enjoyed the fish tacos and jaegerschnitzel. And service is reliably informative about the beers, which always offer edgier offerings to balance reliable classics like Pig Iron Porter.
Can a serious restaurant survive and thrive at the mall? Princeton’s star Scott Anderson is giving it a compelling effort with this airy King of Prussia sibling to his Central Jersey original, where a flexible menu of gorgeous plates in various sizes and diverse international influences finds a delicate balance between accessibility and modern culinary craft. Chef Craig Polignano riffs on tartare, with warm lamb and raw tuna, as well as a Thai-spiced grilled calamari show Mistral’s edgy side, while a standout burger with bacon jam, pineapple-chili-glazed chicken wings and a flatiron steak with potato pave suit more traditional tastes. Great cocktails, a focused but outstanding wine list (with a genuine somm to point out that Corsican rosé), a breezy dining room and an expansive patio view of the high-rent valet lot add to this ambitious new project’s potential as a post-shopping oasis to dine.
Philadelphia's fast-growing funky brunch chainlet has brought its updated diner fare and over-stuffed French toast to the historic tin roof bones of the former Woolworths store, which, if you can stand the noise, is a fun spot to bridge the breakfast-lunch divide. I generally resist Sabrina's fondness for goofy pile-it-on combo specials, and lean more towards reliable classics like the Mel's chicken cutlet sandwich, Islander grilled tuna sandwich, Southwest Buffalo chicken cobb salad, big omelets, and breakfast items with a Mexican twist, like the Barking Chihuahua and huevos Rancheros.
There are a number of Indian chains vying for the tandoori dollars of the Philly suburbs, and the Saffron group is one that consistently serves a broad menu that hits a nice middle place between authentic Indian flavors and milder American tastes. At a recent visit to the golden-hued Bala location, we enjoyed the fluffy-centered samosas, comforting yellow dal, tender bone-in tandoori chicken sizzling over onions on a steel platter, and the wafer-like curl of a masala dosa with funky sambar and coconut chutney dips for a convincing South Indian touch. The chana masala chickpea stew managed to be vividly flavored without being imposingly spicy. The typically spicy lamb vindaloo was one noticeably under-powered disappointment. But the specials are often rewarding, and that night's offering did not let me down, an unusual trio of minced chicken patties lit with Indian spice and a refreshing raita yogurt drizzle.
In one of our scene's most unlikely evolutions, this '80s counter-culture pioneer of sustainable local food in University City has morphed under current owner Marty Grims into a pair of powerhouse Main Line hubs, where the brass button-cashmere crowd drinks martinis and dines in oversized living room furniture surrounded by whimsical dog art. Despite the culture shift, and perhaps because the mainstream has now embraced it, the White Dog remains true its organic mission with creative New American food built on quality ingredients. A recent meal in Haverford was satisfying, with truffled Kennett Square mushroom soup, mini-latkes draped in smoked salmon, tender Asian duck skewers over soba noodles and a memorable "Twenty Layer" lasagna. With entrée prices routinely tipping into the $30s and above (the burger starts at $19?!) it feels a bit overpriced. The White Dog's enthusiastic new audience, though, clearly doesn't blink.