Yes, outdoor dining is now in full swing, and I’ve been eating out selectively for meals that feel like special occasions. But takeout remains the safest, easiest, and most varied way to put a good meal on my family’s table (if I’m not doing the cooking myself).

My appetite for takeout hasn’t wavered. We have indulged regularly within the city limits, continuing to explore our love of South Philly’s many Mexican gems, some notable additions to our barbecue scene, and a global menu that reflects the diversity of Philly’s kitchens, from a variety of meat pies to gorgeous chirashi bowls, Cypriot kebabs, and hoagies so fine (including a favorite banh mi) they make me nostalgic.

BBQ Debuts

Zig Zag BBQ

The slow-smoked brisket is one of the standout meats at the new Zig Zag BBQ in Kensington.
Craig LaBan
The slow-smoked brisket is one of the standout meats at the new Zig Zag BBQ in Kensington.

It isn’t often this magic happens: I’ll bite into a hunk of smoked meat and instantly know the game has changed. But that’s exactly how I felt when my teeth sank through the peppery bark of sublimely tender, oak-kissed brisket from Zig Zag BBQ. This new venture from Fette Sau veteran Matt Lang beside Martha Bar in Kensington is right up there now with Mike’s BBQ (1703 S. 11th St.) near the top of my list of Philadelphia prized pits. Because every morsel of our feast — pink-edged spare ribs, tangy smoked turkey, glossy pulled pork — was fantastic, including memorable sides like queso-flavored mac-‘n-cheese topped with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Szechuan-pickled cucumbers. Zig Zag also makes some of the best-built ‘cue sandwiches around. Try the clever Beefheart of the Radio with chopped brisket and pulled pork (splashed with fish sauce) piled impossibly high with pickles on a Philly Bread Co. bun. Zig Zag BBQ, 2111 E. York St.; zigzagbbq.com

The Lucky Well Spring Arts

An assortment of smoked meats from the Lucky Well's new Spring Arts location includes, from left, smoked sausage, dry-rubbed St. Louis cut ribs, pulled pork, a whole chicken and brisket.
Craig LaBan
An assortment of smoked meats from the Lucky Well's new Spring Arts location includes, from left, smoked sausage, dry-rubbed St. Louis cut ribs, pulled pork, a whole chicken and brisket.

It took three years for Chad Rosenthal to finally open the Spring Arts branch of his Ambler barbecue and whiskey bar. And once the pandemic eases, the industrial chic bones of this 96-seat space should become a thriving hub for this rising entertainment district. There are 36 outdoor seats now, but a rain-out for our reservation turned into an impressive takeout meal. This legit-smoked BBQ has progressed nicely since my review of the Ambler original years ago, and I was especially pleased with the Memphis-style dry-rubbed spare ribs, but also loved the smoke-darkened hot links and zesty whole chicken that’s both tenderized and flavor-infused with the aid of a secret rub. (OK … it’s mayo.) The Lucky Well Spring Arts, 990 Spring Garden St., 215-646-4242; philly.theluckywell.com

Around the world in meat pies

Brown Sugar Bakery

A variety of Trini-style meat pies are one of the many Caribbean specialties of Brown Sugar Bakery in West Philadelphia.
Craig LaBan
A variety of Trini-style meat pies are one of the many Caribbean specialties of Brown Sugar Bakery in West Philadelphia.

You need to come weekends if you want the doubles served with curried chickpeas. But Jessie Joseph’s long-standing Caribbean corner at 52nd and Chancellor Streets is worth a visit any day for the flaky roti rolled into hearty bundles around channa and potatoes, or flavorful chunks of curried bone-in chicken. There are platters of deeply braised oxtails with coconut-simmered callaloo. But especially don’t miss the meat patties. They come with myriad stuffings that are cleverly identified by stamps near the seams, from spicy beef to our favorite, jerk chicken. Bonus tip: Don’t forget to buy a bottle of fiery Tony’s Trini hot sauce. Brown Sugar Bakery, 219 S. 52nd St., 215-472-7380

Stargazy

British meat pies, a sausage roll and onion-cheese pasty is sold ready-to-bake at Stargazy in South Philly, then finished hot and fresh at home.
claban@inquirer.com
British meat pies, a sausage roll and onion-cheese pasty is sold ready-to-bake at Stargazy in South Philly, then finished hot and fresh at home.

It tastes like London’s calling every time I get a plate of flaky British meat pies and mashed potatoes doused with green parsley liquor at Sam Jacobson’s charming South Philly pie shop. I especially love you can buy them by the ready-to-bake half dozen so they can be fresh out of the oven at home. There’s an ever-changing variety from Bedfordshire Clangers (with meat on one end and fruit on the other) to sausage rolls, pasties, and sticky toffee pudding. Stargazy now also sells preorders for fish-and-chip Friday dinners and different weekly Sunday roasts, including, most recently, roast duck with blackberry-rhubarb sauce and Yorkshire pudding. Stargazy, 1838 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-309-2761; facebook.com/StargazyPhilly

Jezabel’s Cafe

A variety of Argentine empanadas and a slice of choclo (corn quiche) from Jezabel's Cafe in West Philadelphia.
Craig LaBan
A variety of Argentine empanadas and a slice of choclo (corn quiche) from Jezabel's Cafe in West Philadelphia.

Jezabel Careaga has a beautiful West Philly cafe that’s expanding soon to showcase her own furniture once customers are allowed back in. There’s already limited outdoor seating. Meanwhile, the full array of her Argentine empanadas, stuffed with beefy picadillo, cheesy leeks and onion, spicy vegan lentils, chicken, and other options, make a wonderful lunch or snack to go. I covet her tarta de choclo (corn and scallion quiche), but it’s the sweet alfajore butter cookies sandwiched around dulce de leche that shouldn’t be missed. Jezabel’s also does weekly deliveries to neighborhoods across Center City. Jezabel’s Cafe, 206-208 S. 45th St., 267-519-2494; jezabelscafe.com

A South Philly trio of Mexican favorites

Blue Corn

Blue Corn, 940 S 9th St., Thursday, September 15, 2016.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Blue Corn, 940 S 9th St., Thursday, September 15, 2016.

With its polished service and great little bar (stellar margaritas and piña coladas, now available for pick-up), Blue Corn is South Philly’s most complete Mexican restaurant. When it reopened after a long pause for the pandemic, it reminded me why its food is still among the best, from my ultimate shrimp cocktail (liberally splashed with La Bruja) to festive chile en Nogada and huaraches made with heirloom blue corn from the owners’ hometown in Puebla. The signature blue tacos are an irresistible take on al pastor gilded with Oaxaca cheese. Blue Corn, 940 S. 9th St., 215-925-1010; bluecornmexphilly.com

Tamalex

Pozole rojo is a weekend specialty from Tamalex in South Philadelphia.
Craig LaBan
Pozole rojo is a weekend specialty from Tamalex in South Philadelphia.

We’re regulars for the weekend tamales, but this excellent and versatile kitchen also makes fantastic huaraches, soulful weekend pozole, salsa-dunked pambazo sandwiches, and my latest obsession, the crispy masa gordita pockets stuffed with chicken tinga and minced chicharron. Honduran specialties are another draw. Tamalex, 1163 S. 7th St., 215-465-1664; https://www.facebook.com/TamalexPhilly

La Tienda Grocery & Cocina

Chile relleno, battered poblano pepper stuffed with Oaxaca cheese, is cooked to order at La Tienda.
Tim Tai / Staff Photographer
Chile relleno, battered poblano pepper stuffed with Oaxaca cheese, is cooked to order at La Tienda.

Yes, La Tienda is one of South Philly’s best bodegas. But co-owners Sara and Alfredo Ramos are also talented cooks, turning out the best fried-to-order chile relleno in town, my favorite enchiladas rojas and a massively stacked cemita sandwich layered Poblano-style with minty papalo leaves, chipotle salsa, avocado, and choice of protein (go for the milanesa de pollo) that’s big enough to feed two people. La Tienda Grocery & Cocina, 1247 Snyder Ave., 215-334-1159; latienda-mexicanrestaurant.business.site

More international flavors

Kaiseki

The colorful sashimi from Kaiseki, a new home delivery sushi company, is bountiful and delicious.
Craig LaBan
The colorful sashimi from Kaiseki, a new home delivery sushi company, is bountiful and delicious.

When I’m hungry for sushi, I love a good chirashi bowl’s combo of sashimi layered over a hearty base of seasoned rice. The purist version at Sagami (37 Crescent Blvd, Collingswood) and colorful modern artistry of Hiroyuki Tanaka’s spicy rice takes at Zama (128 S 19th St.) are my longtime standards. And I can’t wait to try one of Jesse Ito’s beauties at Royal Izakaya (780 S. 2nd St.) — once I’m quick enough to score one before they quickly disappear following the chef’s weekly posts of offerings on Instagram. But Kaiseki came to me. I was impressed by the lusciously thick-cut craftsmanship and quality of the fish on my chirashi from this new home-delivery sushi service by Andy Bernard, a former Morimoto line cook who studied at the Sushi Chef Institute in Los Angeles. Bernard was on the line at Hiroki before the shutdown and now offers a variety of rolls weekly, but nothing other than sushi. The rest of the meal is up to you. Kaiseki, kaisekiphilly.com

Café Lutécia

Valérie (right), John Blum (center), and an employee prepare takeout meals at Cafe Lutecia, a Fitler Square institution for two decades that recently underwent a rehab of its interior.
Craig LaBan
Valérie (right), John Blum (center), and an employee prepare takeout meals at Cafe Lutecia, a Fitler Square institution for two decades that recently underwent a rehab of its interior.

Valérie and John Blum recently completed a beautiful rehab of their three-decade-old French corner café near Fitler Square — an opportunity afforded by the pause of the citywide dining room shut down. Thankfully, her homey French lunch fare travels well, from the ultimate tomato bisque to a range of toasty baguette sandwiches (brie and pâté!), daily quiche, and simple salads, like the Provence with tuna, corn, and hearts of palm that remind me of eating at a friend’s homes in Paris. Café Lutécia, 2301 Lombard St., 215-790-9557; on Facebook

Kanella Grill

The lamb shawarma takeout platter from Kanella Grill.
Craig LaBan
The lamb shawarma takeout platter from Kanella Grill.

Kanella Grill’s charm has always been about its straight-forward and fairly-priced renditions of Cypriot flavors. Konstantinos Pitsillides’ Mediterranean menu translates those qualities easily to takeout, too, with daily-changing dips, spot-on spanakopita, and platters with chopped salad, hummus, and rice built around grilled keftedes meatballs, lamb shawarma, haloumi, barramundi or, even ouzo-escargot skewers, almost all under $20. Kanella Grill, 1001 Spruce St., 267-928-2085; kanellarestaurant.com

Welcome home, Hoagies

Lil’ Nick’s

The New Italian hoagie from Lil' Nick's in South Philly includes hot cappicola, prosciutto, salami and mild provolone.
Craig LaBan
The New Italian hoagie from Lil' Nick's in South Philly includes hot cappicola, prosciutto, salami and mild provolone.

After a couple weeks out of state this summer, I was craving a classic Italian hoagie bad. So my first stop was Lil’ Nick’s near 13th and Shunk where the spicy meats, seeded roll, and well-built craftsmanship of the “new” Italian impressed me. The sandwiches with fresh cutlets, fried to order in pans behind the counter, are old-school good. Make it a deluxe with fresh “pro-shoot and mozz.” Lil’ Nick’s, 1311 W. Moyamensing Ave., 215-468-4647

QT Vietnamese Sandwich

Two favorite banh mi from QT include the vegetarian lemongrass tofu with mushroom (top) and QT special with a variety of pork products, pickled vegetables and herbs.
Craig LaBan
Two favorite banh mi from QT include the vegetarian lemongrass tofu with mushroom (top) and QT special with a variety of pork products, pickled vegetables and herbs.

One of the things I miss most about working at the Inquirer newsroom at 8th and Market, which I haven’t visited since March, are my frequent walks on deadline days for banh mi at this adorable Vietnamese sandwich shop in Chinatown. But QT delivers, and I was thrilled to once again taste the flaky crunch of their toasted hoagie roll artfully layered with meats and pickled veggies, herbs, and jalapeño rings into an expert banh mi. I go for the “special” (all the pork products!) or flavorful veggie banh mi with lemongrass tofu with mushrooms. QT also makes great soups (try the spicy-sour seafood bun rieu) as well as rice platters topped with lemongrass-grilled meats. QT Vietnamese Sandwich, 48 N. 10th St., 267-639-4520; qtvietnamesesandwich.com