“My colleagues in Harrisburg say they’re worried because they think my eating is out of control,” says Jared Solomon, a Pennsylvania state representative from Northeast Philadelphia. “I think they’re just jealous. Their districts just have Ruby Tuesdays. They don’t have the options I do. So what do you want from me? I’m enjoying it and I’m helping!”
Solomon has definitely been doing his part, working the political machine to direct grants for improvements to outdoor dining facilities to several restaurants within his 202nd District, which cuts from the Lawndale neighborhood down to Wissinoming Park. But he’s also been on a feasting mission with #northEATS, his Facebook campaign roaming from New Olympia House Restaurant (chicken souvlaki and cheesecake) to Philomena Santucci’s Square Pizza and China Gourmet (dim sum for the Lunar New Year), to remind people to support Northeast Philly’s stellar collection of independent restaurants — many of them immigrant-owned — that have struggled during the pandemic.
“We have the most diverse community in the city, and people travel for food,” says Solomon, who grew up over his great-grandparents’ kosher butcher shop, the W&G, in the Castor Gardens neighborhood. ”Food highlights all that is good about my community.”
I don’t need convincing. I’ve known since compiling my guide to 60 Northeast Philly restaurants a few years ago that this huge swath of Philadelphia is home to some of our most thrilling global flavors, from Brazilian churrascarias to Georgian bakeries, old-school diners, top-notch Vietnamese banh mi cafes, and destinations for Kerala curries. Some specialties, like the Brazilian steakhouses and buffets, will be best to revisit when I’m ready to experience them on-site again for inside dining. But as I went on my own #northEATS campaign through Solomon’s district and beyond to revisit some old favorites and newcomers for takeout, I discovered many of them are producing menus that travel well, easily making the half hour ride home without losing its appeal. Here are some of the highlights.
We usually come for the mixed grill of Uzbek kebabs at Daniel Yukhananov’s homage to his upbringing as a Bukharian Jew in Tashkent, and those meat skewers reheated surprisingly well. But the real takeout treasure here is a family-sized pan of plov that perfumed my car with the intoxicating smell of cumin-flecked lamb rice. Be sure to order at least an hour in advance if you want the large steamed manti dumplings, and don’t forget to also order the achik-chuck salad, lagman soup with handmade noodles, flaky samsa meat pies, and crispy rounds of Uzbek bread. Shish-Kabob Palace, 1683 Grant Ave., 215-856-3404; myshishkabobpalace.com.
Deeply smoky baba gannouj and super silky hummus topped with foul are just a few of the flavor memories Bishara “Bisho” Kuttab has been re-creating from his Palestinian Jerusalem childhood at his new restaurant in Fox Chase. Go for anything with the stretchy flatbread called saj, named for the dome-shaped griddle it’s cooked on. The distinctly-seasoned meats from the vertical shawarma spit — fennel- and bay-scented chicken; sumac-dusted lamb and beef — make wonderful sandwiches. But I’m also now obsessed with the toasty bundles of griddled saj wrapped around akkawi cheese and za’atar. Don’t forget to order the lemonana, a lemon and mint green slushy that makes a refreshing sipper on the ride home. Bishos, 7950 Oxford Ave., 215-660-9760; mybishos.com.
Philly’s best destination for dim sum is so massive, at 400 seats full capacity, that even at 25% chef-owner Ming Fung’s kitchen is cooking for crowds. That’s too busy for me since I’m not dining inside yet. But labor-intensive dim sum thrives on volume, so China Gourmet’s marvelous array of dumplings, available for takeout also, benefit as well. Start with the range of char siu pork pastries — baked, steamed, or glazed sweet as Snow Mountain buns. Then head for the chive buns and sui mei; the shrimp-stuffed eggplants, long hot peppers, and silky tofu cups; the tender chicken feet or spare rib tips; and snappy bean curd skins wrapped around pork and mushroom. The vast Cantonese menu has so many other highlights, from braised abalone to stir-fried lobster (with sticky rice is best for takeout), as well as a beef and chive dish that’s one of my new favorites. China Gourmet, 2842 St. Vincent St., 215-941-1898; phillychinagourmet.com.
Northeast Philly’s growth as an epicenter for the city’s immigrant Chinese community continues to generate new restaurants, and this dumpling-focused newcomer is worth a stop. Aside from the selection of well-made pork dumpling variations (with cabbage, with celery, with chives), Boom Buns makes some of the better to-go soup dumplings I’ve had. The kitchen also produces panfried buns (shen jian bao), crisp scallion pancakes sandwiched around braised beef, green-skinned veggie dumplings, spice-dusted popcorn chicken, and hearty rice bowls topped with tender cubes of star anise-flavored braised beef. Boom Buns, 6649 Castor Ave., 610-707-5185; boombunsphily.com.
Anna Marie and Joe Maglio’s cheerful Italian makeover for the Holme Circle space once occupied by the Blue Duck Sandwich Co. opened barely a month before the pandemic. But Joe’s got deep roots in local Italian restaurants (he worked as a server for his cousins at Macaroni’s) and this amateur chef turned pro is a natural with the house-extruded pastas inspired by his Pugliese mom (try the milk-stewed Bolognese and gnocchi in Gorgonzola cream), as well as the red gravy favorites of Anna Marie’s South Philly upbringing. The hefty square Nonni pizza pie is worth the trip. But Joe also happens to make one of my favorite new cheesesteaks in town, a house-sliced ribeye beauty fully incorporated with melty Cooper Sharp cheese on a Carangi roll. The sandwich is modeled after John’s Roast Pork, but named after Joey’s dad, Francesco Maglio, a.k.a. “Don Cheech.” Café Carmela, 2859 Holme Ave., 215-821-2584; cafecarmelaphilly.com.
The regulars come to this Rhawnhurst mainstay to stock up on tomato pies and Italian breads from bakeries across the region as well as the butcher shop’s excellent Italian sausages, herb-stuffed pork roasts, soppressata, and fresh-made cheeses (ricotta, scamorza and mozzarella). But I also consider Dattilo’s one of the city’s best hoagie destinations, from the hoagie stacked with sweet red peppers, milky fresh mozz, and prosciutto, to the “Main Event” Italian with juicy marinated artichokes tucked inside the folds of its aged meats and provolone. Dattilo’s Delicatessen, 8000 Horrocks St., 215-725-2020; dattilosdeli.com.
This decade-long standby is one of the few restaurants serving Thai food in Northeast Philly and is beloved by locals for its consistently flavorful preparations. Those are thanks to brother and sister co-chefs, Danai and Pennapa Lainoncha, who hail from near Bangkok, where Pennapa studied at the prestigious culinary school in the Royal Palace. Their focus on classic dishes draws on that training, including house-blended panaeng curry that’s especially vivid blended with fried rice. I also loved the curried chicken pastry puffs, crispy golden bags, the special sui mei paired with ground chicken basil curry and a wonderfully crispy duck that comes either honey-glazed or splashed with garlic sauce. House of Thai Cuisine, 3520 Cottman Ave., 215-708-8799; houseofthaicuisinephiladelphia.com.
An open charcoal hearth behind the counter is the showcase at this Colombian grill house, where whole chickens slow roast and steaks for the traditional bandeja paisa breakfast combo plate come with sausage, beans, and fried egg. The flavorful grilled churrasco skirt steak made it home impressively still pink, but the cheese-stuffed arepas, black beans, empanadas and pork ribs were also memorable. Colombian flan and creamy tres leches added a sweet finale to the savory feast. On Charcoal, 6516 Castor Ave., 215-613-8933; oncharcoal.com.
I’m missing hanging out in the elegant upstairs dining room crafted with lampposts and a timbered ceiling to look like a streetscape of Lisbon. But Orlando Jacome’s menu of traditional Portuguese dishes travels well, from the chourico flamed over brandy to a deliciously savory grilled porterhouse, and a massive pan of moist yellow paelha Valenciana studded with lobster, clams, sausage, and hunks of pork. Tio Pepe Restaurant and Bar, 6618 Castor Ave., 215-742-4775; tiopeperestaurantbar.com.
Zaika was supposed to become a Caribbean restaurant when Trinidad-born Rabayah Bhuiyan moved from New York to purchase the Pakistani restaurant seven years ago. But then she fell in love with Zaika’s previous owner and chef, Muhammad Butt. He stayed on to cook, the two got married, and so Zaika remains one of Philly’s best destinations for Pakistani cooking, with fragrant goat biryanis, mixed grills of well-spiced seekh kebabs and chile-marinated heryali chicken, karahi meat stir-fries, and hearty stews that trend rich with cream and heat, like the chicken Malabar and irresistible dal makhani with tiny black urad beans. Zaika Pakistani-Indian Cuisine, 2481 Grant Ave., 215-677-0999; zaikaongrant.com.
This Russian market is always a favorite stop for its incredible selection of smoked fish and salami, an extensive pickle bar (try the mushrooms and Georgian bean salad), house-baked breads, hard-to-find Russian chocolates, and a Euro dairy dream aisle with so many varieties of feta, butter, and sulguni cheese, I always wish I had a bigger fridge. Bell’s also has an outstanding prepared foods aisle where you can find everything from ready-to-bake chicken Kiev to samsa meat pies, pelmeni dumplings, and towering cakes. Bell’s Market, 8330 Bustleton Ave., 215-342-6016; bellsmarket.net.