DAVID MAIALETTI and MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographers
Mayfair Diner, China Gourmet, and Picanha Brazilian Grill
Immigrants add amazing flavor
Thursday, March 16, 2017
I was chatting about the state of Northeast Philly food over creamy crab cakes and crispy potatoes at the Mayfair Diner with a regular known as “Gumbo Bob” when longtime waitress Betty Woods overheard our conversation. I had identified myself as an Inquirer reporter but, well, she hadn’t heard my name …
“I don’t like Craig LaBan because he’d never come to a place like this,” Woods said with the kind of conviction that comes from presiding over a diner counter for 46 years. “He only writes about fancy, expensive places in Center City, and he’d look down his nose at us. But this is where the real people eat!”
Ah, the world of an anonymous critic, where honest opinions often go both ways. But let’s get one thing straight: I'd come to celebrate the Northeast and one of the last stalwarts of its diner culture, not to bury it. Too many of the great diners that fed its post-WWII working-class boom with affordable and scratch-cooked American meals have faded beneath waves of fast food, changing demographics, and shifting tastes. But the Mayfair, judging by my pleasant lunch and Gumbo Bob's steady devotion, is one of the few that has changed little, despite a change in ownership after decades under the watch of the same family.
What has changed drastically, however, is the face of those "real people" of the Northeast, where nearly 30 percent of the 200,000 residents who live north and west of Roosevelt Boulevard are foreign-born. And that stunningly diverse immigrant infusion has transformed this vast and too-often ignored swath of the city into a positively thrilling culinary destination for international flavors.
For two months, I feasted on Uzbek kebabs and Brazilian churrasco, Transylvanian stuffed cabbage, stellar Vietnamese banh mi, and flaming Portuguese sausage. I tasted the authentic offerings of Russian markets, a growing Chinese corridor with some of the city's best seafood and dim sum, and a South Indian community that produces the hard-to-find dishes of Kerala -- not to mention an Indian cheesesteak wrapped inside a dosa crepe. With side trips to some of the area's more traditional spots, from classic cheesesteak and hoagie delis to Italian gems, kielbasa corners, craft beer pioneers, and, yes, some still-great diners, rarely has a Philly eating adventure been so fun. There may be no Philly food destination more dynamic than Northeast Philly.
Transylvanian stuffed cabbage from Cafe Lava, 13033 Bustleton Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia.
Take a trip to Transylvania at this sprawling modern cafe, where chef and co-owner Chris Anton pays homage to his homeland with Transylvanian stuffed cabbage (sour, not sweet, with house-fermented kraut) served with a hearty scoop of Romanian-style mamalyga polenta and rustic house-baked sourdough. The huge menu ranges across the former Soviet landscape to Moscow-style pelmeni and borscht, as well as a Transyl-riff on Georgian khachapuri stuffed with sheep and cow’s milk cheese. Also, the grilled ground mici kebabs and ceafa pork steak come with a good garlic sauce. “If you ever need vampire protection,” says Anton, “we have it.”
Julia Bratiunuk (right) makes a toast at the Passage Restaurant on March 11, 2017. They were there for an 80th birthday party.
Most Ukrainian spots in the Northeast are more banquet halls than a la carte restaurants, but chef Oksana Nazaruk’s lavishly decorated little BYO(Vodka) is a notable exception. She has a wonderful touch with classics like beef borscht, vareniki dumplings stuffed with cabbage and potatoes, blini crepes wrapped around chicken in creamy mushroom sauce, and some mini-potato pancakes dolloped with salmon caviar that can’t be missed. Stay tuned for a massive new sibling, Royal Passage, to open soon at 9309 Krewstown Rd., with high-tech stage shows and some molecular gastronomy fusion promised from chef-partner Taras Zhemelko.
The exterior of Uzbekistan, 12012 Bustleton Ave, Northeast Philadelphia, on March 9, 2017.
Lamb is the theme at this authentic Uzbek restaurant -- in fragrant rice pilafs, homemade noodle soups, steamed manti dumplings, and skewers over the charcoal grill, which sends lamb smoke puffing out the chimney of this old-world Bustleton Avenue cottage that one can smell from blocks away. The hot round bread alone is worth a visit.
A mixed grill of Uzbek shish kabobs (chicken, lulya, lamb, and skirt steak) from Shish-Kabob Palace, 1683 Grant Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia.
Good ingredients and cooked-to-order freshness are the keys to the exotic Uzbek flavors from chef-owner Daniel Yukhananov, a Bukharian Jew from Tashkent. The cumin-flecked lamb pilaf is outstanding (see accompanying recipe), as is the Bukharian beef variation greened with cilantro. All outstanding are the homemade soups (lamb dumpling chuchvara), flaky triangular samsa pastries, slow-steamed manti, and flavorful kebabs served beneath a fistful of onions. Also, don’t miss the home fries with sautéed mushrooms.
The dining room at Suzani Art Cafe, wrapped in Uzbek tapestries.
Suzani serves an Uzbek menu of rice pilafs, dumplings, and skewers similar to others in the neighborhood (though it is particularly known for its warm beef tongue in mushroom sauce). What’s most notable, though, is Suzani’s uniquely beautiful and evocative dining room wrapped in a patchwork of Uzbek tapestries.
Lamb kufta kabobs from Judah Mediterranean Grille in Krewstown Shopping Center, 9311 Krewstown Rd. in Northeast Philadelphia.
This Israeli-style grill from Yalli and Mike Avitan serves an extensive menu of glatt kosher meats and traditional Jewish dishes, from aromatic veal and turkey shawarma served over silky hummus to spiced lamb kofta kebabs, spicy shakshuka tomato stew baked with eggs, and a distinctive mashed eggplant-tahini starter. Soulful soups, like mushroom barley, also nod to some Ashkenazi flavors. BYOB is encouraged, but it must be kosher.
Syrian-style kibbeh stuffed with aromatic ground beef and almonds at Al Sham, 6738 Bustleton Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia.
This longstanding grill anchors the heart of the Northeast’s Middle Eastern commercial strip. Now run by a Bangladeshi chef and his Malaysian wife, it serves a wide range of well-cooked regional favorites, from Syrian-style kibbeh stuffed with aromatic beef and almonds to crisp falafel with moist and vividly green centers to excellent Palestinian-style hummus and baba ganoush, and a flavorful mixed grill.
The cheesesteak dosa with a side of goat curry dip from Ateethi, 9321 Krewstown Rd. in Northeast Philadelphia on March 9, 2017.
Stray from the typical menu items (and weekend buffet) at this South Indian restaurant from two generations of the Joseph family. Head instead to the distinctive flavors of their home state of Kerala, where beef (allowed due to a large Christian population) comes stewed Ulathiyathu-style in a spicy coconut gravy; thick kingfish steaks are braised in a Kerala curry with the deeply earthy sourness of black tamarind, a dish best eaten with kappa, boiled yucca mashed with coconut milk and aromatic curry leaves. For the ultimate Philly-Indian fusion, try the dosa stuffed with Kerala-spiced Philly cheesesteak with a side dip of goat curry.
The no-frills dining room does mostly take-out, but there are seats, and its Kerala-style south Indian cooking is worth the visit, especially for a spicy beef fry tossed with shredded coconut chips, delicious coconut-stewed chicken Varutharacha, and what is absolutely the flakiest layered porotta bread I’ve ever tasted.
The mixed Pakistani Grill from Zaika, 2481 Grant Ave. in Northeast Philaldelphia.
Pakistani cuisine is similar to Indian food, but as evident at this Grant Avenue eatery connected to a market and halal butcher, the cooking is meat-centric and with a spicing that can have more edge. Go for the sizzling mixed grill to get the full effect of pungently flavored but tender meats. For something unique, try lamb or bony goat stewed in tangy gravy thickened with urad split lentils. Biryanis are also recommended.
Meats cook on spits over charcoal inside Picanha Brazilian Grill at 6501 Castor Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia.
The Northeast’s Brazilian-style churrasco trailblazer is still one of the best. It may lack the upscale ambiance of chains like Fogo de Chao or Chima, but I far prefer it for the quality and value of the well-seasoned meats (especially the signature picanha top sirloin) cooked over real charcoal and sliced to order for $8.99 a pound or $25 for all you can eat. The buffet of salads, sides, and black beans is true home cooking, and the flan is one of the city’s best (see accompanying recipe). Bring your own cachaça for caipirinhas, or try a fresh exotic juice like caju made from cashew fruit.
Picanha being sliced off skewer at The Taste of Brazil, 6222 Bustleton Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia.
An evocative Rio wall mural puts you in the mood for a carnivore’s feast at this bright and tidy churrasco chain. It’s similar in concept and quality to Picanha, and although I prefer Picanha’s beef by a small margin, the side buffet at TOB was a little more refined. Also, another amazing flan.
Bustleton/Robbins Shopping Center, 6222 Bustleton Ave. Visit website
Three Chef’s Bistro
CRAIG LABAN / Staff
The bright, modern dining room of Three Chef's Bistro, 2453 Grant Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia
This bright strip-mall cafe from Brazilian chef Luciane Sa and her Portuguese chef husband, Luis Sa, is a pleasantly modern and upscale departure from the usual churrasco houses. The menu nods to both nations’ cuisines, as well as to local organic produce and healthy alternatives (detox smoothies, acai bowls). But I loved more indulgent specialties, like the irresistible truffled yucca fries and a juicy cut of cooked-to-order picanha on the Brazilian BBQ platter served with stellar black beans and rice, fried banana, and a crunchy dusting of toasted farofa cassava flour. Dulce de leche crème brûlée is the star dessert.
Assorted Colombian pastries at Delicias Criollas Bakery.
This small bakery has been turning out traditional Colombian pastries for a decade, including outstanding chicken and beef empanadas served with a side of zippy house hot sauce. Grab a good strong cup of Colombian coffee and bring it home with a sugar-dusted doughnut stuffed with dulce de leche.
Flavorful Colombian-style whole chickens come off the grill at On Charcoal.
An open charcoal hearth behind the counter is the feature at this Colombian grill house, where baskets of whole chickens slow roast and steaks for the traditional bandeja paisa combo plate come with sausage, beans, and fried egg. Don’t miss the griddled white-corn-flour arepas stuffed with cheese.
Storefront of Miracles Jamaican Restaurant & Bakery.
This humble Caribbean take-out has a warming box full of tempting meat pies. But the real draws are the spice-encrusted jerk chicken with peas and rice and, especially, a soulful oxtail stew whose aromatic gravy, redolent of allspice, chilies and thyme, is the best part of the dish.
A dish of Peruvian mixed seafood ceviche at El Balconcito, 658 E Godfrey Ave. The restaurant serves a mix of Portuguese and Peruvian cuisine.
The Lawncrest original began as a destination for traditional Portuguese food, and the cod fritters and paella are still great. But as the current Peruvian owners expanded to a second branch on Castor Avenue and soon an Old City outpost this summer, they’ve emphasized their own cuisine, from chickens “a la brasa” (marinated three days before a slow turn on the rotisserie), to huge piles of seafood served either fried (jalea mixto) or bathed in the salty-sour elixir of a leche de tigre marinade for a ceviche laced with cilantro, lime, crunchy red onions, and starchy kernels of giant Peruvian choclo corn.
Paella Valenciana from Tio Pepe, 6618 Castor Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia.
Hang out in the downstairs sports bar to watch Portuguese soccer and shoot pool with a bottle of Sagres beer, then do a Lisbon double take at the pretty, old-world dining room upstairs fitted with lampposts, fresh flowers, and a timbered ceiling. Orlando Jacome’s menu is pure Portuguese tradition, from the chorizo flamed tableside over brandy to savory grilled quails, authentic hunks of bony salt cod (an acquired taste) and gorgeous pans of moist paella studded with fresh seafood and hunks of pork.
An exterior view of P2, a lounge at Macaroni’s, at 9315 Old Bustleton Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia on March 8, 2017.
Please do not mistake this impressive independent for the similarly named national chain. Twins Davide and Gianni Primavera’s elegant destination is one of the undiscovered gems of the Northeast, having been transformed over 24 years from a small BYOB into a handsome full-service Italian with more than 100 indoor seats and a spectacular back patio lounge (P2) enclosed in glass that rivals any Center City space. The dining room menu is built around quality updates to Neapolitan American home cooking: Sunday gravy (see accompanying recipe), house pappardelle with duck ragù, zesty chicken Sicilian, calamari with peppers. The separate P2 lounge features excellent Neapolitan-style wood-fired pizzas, some of the best chicken wings around (tossed in spicy sweet agrodolce), plus a standout craft beer list.
Moonstruck Restaurant, 7955 Oxford Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia, on March 9, 2017.
With its distinctively retro chrome-and-mirrored dining room, the original DiLullo’s in Fox Chase was a posh pioneer of authentic Italian cooking when it opened 38 years ago with famed author Marcella Hazan as a consultant and Aliza Green as chef. And though the clientele has aged (owners Claire DiLullo and Toto Schiavone appear timeless, however), the spot-on cooking from chef Guy Jean Baptiste is as impressive as ever, from an outstanding fresh pappardelle with duck ragù to the paper-thin layers of eggplant Parmesan, a rich crock of polenta baked beneath truffled mushrooms, seared tuna loin, a perfect pork Milanese, and a chalice of tiramisu that’s impossible to stop eating (see accompanying recipe). It’s a special-occasion option as good as any in nearby Cheltenham.
Charlie’s Pizzeria is on Roosevelt Boulevard near Adams Avenue.
Philly’s pizza revolution has made Charlie’s 60-year-old tradition seem like an anachronistic relic from the era of Chef Boyardee. The sauce is a hint sweet. The dough is a little bready. And yet ... there is just something great about these fresh-made pizza pies that still captures the genuine taste of a Northeast Philly era gone by.
Tomato pie from Gaeta's, 7616 Castor Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia.
This classic Rhawnhurst pizza shop, which dates its bakery history back 75 years, still makes what I consider the best tomato pie in the city. There’s just something about the dough’s pan-charred corner edges, and especially the deep red hue of the herb-flecked tomato sauce that explodes with a deeply zesty resonance on my taste buds. It’s not too sweet, it’s not too thick. It is absolutely just right.
This lively cafe specializes in everything but pho, including what may well be the best banh mi in town (lots of pate and mysteriously crunchy lunch meat for the special; moist dark meat for the chicken hoagie). But it also serves a formidable bun rieu (tangy seafood soup) and an outstanding bun cha ha noi, the rarely seen but incredibly flavorful grilled pork, meatball, and noodle dish made famous recently by President Barack Obama and chef Anthony Bourdain’s televised meal together in Vietnam.
827 Adams Ave.
CRAIG LABAN / Staff
The house pho (menu item P1) with fresh herbs and a side of nuoc beo from Pho Nam.
There are better-known pho halls on Adams Avenue, including the upscale style of Pho Ha Saigon and the classic minimalism of pioneer Pho 75. Neither, though, produced a soup with nearly as much small-batch savor and beefy complexity as the relatively new but more modestly appointed Pho Nam, which serves its with bountiful fresh herbs and superbly tender meats. Try it with nước béo, a side dish of rendered beef fat steeped with scallions to give your pho an extra-rich boost. The lemongrass-grilled short ribs with broken rice are also superb, as is the “Golden Bags” fried wonton starter.
501 Adams Ave.
CRAIG LABAN / Staff
Cambodian seafood noodle soup (#15) at Nam Vang.
Hidden away behind glass walls on the inner corridor of the Farmer’s Best Asian market, this no-frills cafe serves Vietnamese fare but also specializes in Cambodian flavors, like grilled beef sticks (#11) and a remarkably delicate seafood noodle soup (#15) filled with shrimp, scored curls of squid, and scallops bobbing in a broth aromatic with cilantro and roasted scallions.
The dim-sum cart at China Gourmet (left to right, top row to bottom): Lotus Leaf with Sticky Rice, Watercress Dumpling, Beef Ball and Chicken Feet. Middle row, left to right, Fortune Dumpling, Short Beef Rib, Shrimp Shao Mai, and Shrimp Dumpling, and Bottom row left to right, Pork Bun, Beef Tripe, Bean Curd Skin Roll and Spare Ribs Tips.
This year-old Cantonese entry to Bustleton Avenue’s mini-Chinatown makes some of the finest, freshest dim-sum in town, significantly better than neighborhood mainstay Jade Harbor. But it’s the live seafood tanks crawling with giant crustaceans – 12-pound lobsters and 10-pound king crabs – that are a special draw. Chef-owner Mink Feng clearly has the talent to cook them, able to turn one giant crab (running about $400) into a multicourse feast to feed 10. A Hong Kong-style duo of a considerably smaller Dungeness crab and a lobster, flash fried in a microcrust beneath seasoned ground pork, was one of the more memorable dishes I’ve eaten this year. The very tasty, crispy “duck chins” are also an authentic specialty.
A mixed platter of Hong Kong-style BBQ meats - crispy pig, honey lacquered pork and roast duck - from 1st Oriental Restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia.
This two-month-old arrival to the 1st Oriental Supermarket complex from a veteran of Chinatown’s Rising Tide will be adding dim sum soon to its authentic Cantonese menu. But it’s already notable for its array of Hong Kong BBQ-style meats, including a wonderful honey-lacquered pork, crackly crisp pig, and juicy roast duck.
2842 St. Vincent St.
Morning Star Pastries
This simple corner cafe is more than just a bakery for traditional Hong Kong-style pastries and stuffed buns. It’s a de facto community center for Chinese locals old and young who come for simple and incredibly affordable home cooking, including a rustic beef noodle soup so aromatic with Chinese herbs and spice it’s practically restorative.
Sweet Lucy’s BBQ on State Road near Cottman Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia.
Still smokin’ and growing in size, the bright and cheery industrial space filled with picnic tables at Sweet Lucy’s remains one of Philly’s best destinations for genuinely smoked barbecue. Everything is solid, but the tender pulled pork (splashed with Carolina-style vinegar sauce), smoked kielbasas, and exceptionally moist chickens are notable. The meat-studded Smokehouse chili, wings, and bacony Brussels sprouts are also notable.
The Bridesburg platter, a kielbasa sandwich/pierogi combo, with a draft of lager at the Bridesburg Bottle Shop on March 8, 2017.
Built into the front of an old auto body shop turned food truck commissary, this friendly bottle shop and comfort-food grill from Chad Weizer and fiancée Ashley Lewis is an unusual and vaguely hipster surprise for the isolated old-school Polish enclave of Bridesburg. But prices are fair, and local pride is showcased nicely with the Bridesburg platter, a sandwich with outstanding kielbasa from Robert Lachowicz down the street, sweet onions, and handmade pierogies from the Mom-Mom’s food cart. Choose from six rotating drafts or 100 other choices in the fridge, and hang out in the varnished knotty-pine room for a while.
Mike "Scoats" Scotese holds an empty firkin above his head during a Friday the Firkinteenth event at his Grey Lodge Pub.
This rollicking bi-level gastropub from Mike “Scoats” Scotese was one of the pioneers of Philly’s craft beer revolution, with signature events like “Friday the Firkinteenth” that draws beer geeks from across the region for a cask beer extravaganza (usually with 25-plus varieties) every Friday the 13th. Considering the beer flowing here, the kitchen does more than it needs to, with indulgent scratch riffs on spring rolls (stuffed Cubano-style), a quality rib-eye cheesesteak (with fried salami and better-than-Whiz house cheese sauce), a burger blended with smoked brisket, plus some genuine efforts for vegetarians, including fried Buffalo cauliflower, chipotle-fried tofu with Brussels sprouts, and vegan scrapple tacos.
The juicy roast pork sandwich at Three Monkeys Cafe.
I can imagine missing a train from nearby Torresdale station on a sunny day when I could sit in the al fresco “Monkey Court” and Tree Bar patio of this quirky restaurant tucked away between I-95 and the Delaware River. The long beer list has worthy options (Chimay and a nice amber “Horny Monkey” ale made for the bar by Stoudt’s). The ornate 1890s-era tavern is a funny contrast to the Key West theme outside, but cheery servers make guests feel at home, and the gastropub menu tries hard with fresh chips served nacho-style with toppings (a.k.a. “chimps,” best with crab and cheese), huge burgers (if only they could cook it med-rare), and one of the juiciest roast-pork sandwiches around.
Hop Angel Brauhaus, 7980 Oxford Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia, on March 9, 2017.
This is a good example of an old-school institution, Fox Chase’s Blue Ox Brauhaus, that was given a new name and beer-centric update from the crew behind Grey Lodge. The core menu still features German classics with schnitzel, spaetzli, and wursts, elaborated with mussels and American bar food (Hop tots with cheese and sausage), as well as live music and a sunny outdoor beer garden.
The everything-spiced duck breast cooked perfectly pink (medium) at the Blue Duck.
File this ambitious New American BYOB under “pleasant strip-mall surprise.” Co-owners Joe Callahan and chef Kris Serviss are among the few restaurateurs bringing Center City-style creativity to their old neighborhood, with a menu built on crazy burgers and fun comfort-food updates, often with a fatty pork belly and duck thrown on top. Some modest progress has been made since my two-bell review in 2015, softening the mood (though now it’s a little too dark), refining the house pastas, and adding an everything-spiced duck breast I’d return for. Some inconsistent execution, though, still hold the kitchen back from its full potential -- though not from expanding, as the Blue Duck will open a Center City branch soon.
This sprawling Holme Circle seafooder run by a second generation of the Calloway family, which began in the Northeast in 1970, is a pleasantly maintained destination for straight-ahead American fish-house fare, including creamy seafood bisque, excellent lump-filled crab cakes, a popular grilled salmon, and outgoing service. A separate Burger Bar annex added in 2010 with good, thick Angus patties offers some casual turf to complement the surf next door.
The Crabfries sports-bar empire began at this unassuming but always packed corner tavern in Mayfair. And the spice-dusted, crinkle-cut spuds in cheese sauce – without a trace of crab – remain one of the most overrated things in Philly food culture. That said, this bi-level corner taproom remains a genuine down-to-earth Northeast neighborhood touchstone with other assets, including steamed whole crabs (decent), a great beer selection, and better-than-average hot Italian sandwiches of roast pork and beef that are the big menu’s most reliable hits.
Mini crab cakes with roasted red pepper tartar from the Ashburner Inn.
This Holmesburg mainstay near the prison and Pennypack Creek is the kind of shamrock-bedecked tavern where seniors in golf caps pack the midday bar to watch spring-training games on the big-screen TVs, simply rapping the counter with an empty bottle – “Hey, Lenny!” – when they want another light beer. Only two of the 20 drafts are local brews (“Go to Fishtown for that!” advised my neighbor). The Ashburner’s wood-fired oven, however, happens to turn out some very respectable, crisp-bottom pizzas, and the crab cakes with spicy red pepper tartar sauce are full of flavorful, sweet crustacean and zing.
House-cured soppressata from Dattilo's Italian Deli, 8000 Horrocks St. in Northeast Philadelphia.
The “Main Event,” decked with marinated artichokes and sweet roasted peppers, anchors the hoagie menu at this Rhawnhurst mainstay, a classic market hub with some of the region’s best Italian bakeries and imported products that feels like the Claudio’s of the Northeast. But don’t miss the real treasures: the outstanding house-cured salumi (soppressata and Toscano) and fresh-made mozz, ricotta, and scamorza cheese.
Angelina DeNofa of DeNofa's Italian Deli with her fresh-made Italian sausages on March 8, 2017.
Angelina DeNofa has been crafting some of the best fresh Italian sausage in town for 41 years, made according to the Abruzzi family recipe she brought as a girl from her native Longano. But the fresh hoagies are also exceptionally well crafted, with subtle touches like bruschetta and olive spread for the old world, two kinds of provolone, and a special dressing that adds a layered zing to the standard Italian. I’m also a fan of the Italian roast beef sold cold and thin-sliced by the pound that, when reheated in a side of gravy, I call a “Tacony Dip.”
The Polish hoagie from Robert Lachowicz Quality Foods.
The Polish neighborhood of Bridesburg gets less attention than nearby Port Richmond, but this 71-year-old corner deli makes some of the finest kielbasa in the city, as well as a larger lunch-meat variation, Krakowska, that lines a stellar “Polish hoagie” sparked with horseradish-cheese and pickles.
This gleaming neon-and-stainless-deco-steel beacon of 1930s Americana has somehow managed to escape the precipitous decline of other classic diners snapped up by the Michaels Group. You’ll encounter regulars at the 24-hour counter, who come like clockwork for their favorite soup du jour, not to mention personable waitresses with four-decades-plus experience who swear that little has changed since the Mulholland family sold the business and that the kitchen still makes everything in-house, from the soups to the tartar sauce and hand-breaded mozzarella sticks. My meal there wasn’t comprehensive, and desserts unfortunately aren’t baked in-house. But I was impressed with the simple satisfaction of a crab cake duo that was moist, full of sweet crab, and affordable in the diner tradition.
The 56-year-old Dining Car is one of the last of the great old diners still serving up honest-to-goodness, homemade American comfort favorites, from the French onion soup to the city’s creamiest chicken croquettes, outstanding pancakes, and a textbook example of a carefully built turkey club sandwich that somehow managed to feature a ripe tomato in winter. If there’s a better example of a Philly diner still holding on to classic traditions, I haven’t found it.
Owner Dennis Fink (right) and Tim McCafferty at work at Fink's sandwich shop on Jewelers Row.
Ever since Fink’s closed its Jewelers Row location, I’ve been craving these unique hoagies, the Italian distinguished by olive spread and sparky crumbles of sharp provolone. Get there early, though. When the seeded Liscio rolls run out, Fink’s stops for the day.
A classic cheesesteak made from fresh-cut rib-eye at Joe's Steaks + Soda Shop.
Owner Joe Groh now has a larger, newer shop in trendy Fishtown. But there is still a special savor to the house-cut rib eye steaks expertly grilled (with deeply caramelized onions) in the front window of the Wissinoming original, which still feels like the 1949 soda shop Groh purchased from his mentor Samuel Sherman. The name may have been changed from Sherman’s controversial nickname (Chink’s), but Joe’s still cooks what is easily one of the best classic steaks in Philly. The shakes are great, too.
This massive (and recently renovated) market sells products from across Asia, as well as a wide selection of fresh greens, seafood, and produce comparable to some of the best spots on Washington Avenue. The management is also very helpful to English-only speakers.
2842 St Vincent St
Nuno’s Meat Market
CRAIG LABAN / Staff
Nuno's Meat Market, 7731 Castor Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia.
This old-school butcher shop is the place to go to stock up for your Brazilian BBQ party, with excellent-quality picanha top sirloin (just $6.99 a pound!) and spicy house sausages to go with swordlike skewers for the grill and several choices of seasoned BBQ salts. Also a good source for uncommon Portuguese cheeses. (Also visit: Don Pedro Meats & Market, 6047 Castor Ave.)
Yes, Supreme does make pizzas, Brazilianized with hearts of palm, corn, and Brazilian cheese. But the real draw here are the warm cases brimming with Brazilian pastries stuffed with savory meats, Brazilian cheese puffs, and bags of airy tapioca flour breadsticks (biscoito de polvilho) to snack on with coffee.
7514 Castor Ave
Don Pedro Meats & Market
CRAIG LABAN / Staff
Both Portuguese and Brazilian-style sausages and meats are sold at this butcher and market, which also features in Latin products and produce.
Rieker's Prime Meats, at 7979 Oxford Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia, sells hand-made, authentic German luncheon meats and sausages.
You’ll still hear customers order in German at this 47-year-old Fox Chase institution run by a second generation of the Rieker family, which turns out a full butcher shop’s treasure chest of traditional brats, marinated meats and wieners, house-made spaetzle, and tangy German potato salad.
Spicy Kerala-style Indian snacks at Kuttanadu Super Market, 8923 Krewstown Rd. in Northeast Philadelphia. The market offers Indian grocery products.
In addition to all the usual spices, halal meats, fresh fish, and basmati found in many other Indian stores, this market specializes in hard-to-find ingredients from the south Indian state of Kerala, including rare black tamarind pods, and regional snacks like banana chips that I’ve become somewhat obsessed with.
8923 Krewstown Rd
CRAIG LABAN / Staff
A mixed box of mini-knishes from Lipkin's Bakery, 8013 Castor Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia.
One of Philly’s classic kosher bakeries changed hands last year, but it hasn’t changed in quality at all, still specializing in fresh challah for Shabbat, excellent seeded rye, respectable bagels, and especially a wide variety of mini-knishes stuffed with everything from kasha to spinach, mushroom, and “pizza” style (all significantly better when warmed at home).
It’s been a while since I’ve experienced gruffer service than Simon’s, but this cornerstone kosher butcher with roots in Kiev and Israel is still an essential destination for stocking up on flanken (Jewish short ribs) and meats for an Israeli-style grill party highlighted by patties and kebabs seasoned with shawarma or “Mizrachi” spice blends.
This longstanding Middle Eastern specializes in halal meats.
6746 Bustleton Ave
Jana Food Market
CRAIG LABAN / Staff
This is one of a couple of worthy Middle Eastern markets on Bustleton Avenue for house-butchered halal meats where the personable service will also guide you to quality Egyptian rice, Lebanese olive oils, spices, teas, jars of ready-to-roll grape leaves, and cute demitasse sets for Turkish coffee. (Also visit: Al-Amana, 6746 Bustleton Ave.)
6826 Bustleton Ave
CRAIG LABAN / Staff
Chicken Kiev to go from the prepared-foods counter at Bell's Market
My favorite of the Russian markets is always a destination for its extensive selection of feta (an entire aisle of choices!), an elaborate pickle bar (try the mushrooms and Georgian salad), rustic house-baked breads, a vast smoked-fish counter, Russian chocolates, and prepared foods, like samsa meat pastries and bake-at-home chicken Kiev.
Dried fish at NetCost, popular with Russian and Eastern European immigrants.
This bright and modern chain out of New York with two locations in Northeast Philly feels like the Russian version of Acme, with an extensive selection of smoked bacons and kielbasa (try the spicy Gypsy variation), frozen pelmeni dumplings in bulk, excellent fresh lamb, and a prepared-foods bar laden with myriad varieties of sweet and savory blintzes, as well as several variations of plov (pilaf).