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.
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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’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
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