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Philly food in 2020 had moments and flavor unlike any other

In a year of challenges of shutdowns, mass layoffs, mask politics, sickness, social justice awakenings and social distancing, Philly’s food world showcased its beauty.

Servers at Zahav thoroughly air-out and sanitize the outdoor yurts between guests at Zahav, which has a dozen of the structures on its patio.
Servers at Zahav thoroughly air-out and sanitize the outdoor yurts between guests at Zahav, which has a dozen of the structures on its patio.Read moreCraig LaBan

It seems like a million years ago that I was nibbling wood pigeon “a la presse” in the jam-packed little dining room of June BYOB, grazing cheese boards at stylish new Alimentari above Di Bruno Bros., and savoring zesty blackened catfish and braised oxtails beside a live jazz band at Booker’s in West Philly. Was that really still 2020?

Who could have guessed then I’d end the year avoiding crowds and pondering the moral conundrum of enjoying dinner in a yurt, crafting lists of essential takeout spots, and eating a very small turkey for Thanksgiving? Who could ever have imagined we’d also be fretting over the end of Philly’s thriving restaurant scene as we knew it due to a catastrophic plague combined with government incompetence that has pushed the nation’s entire hospitality industry over the cliff as a public sacrifice — shamefully, with no parachute to cushion the crash below.

We’ll be feeling the pain for years of so many lost restaurants and jobs in a once-vibrant industry, the emotional void from the disappearance of coveted neighborhood haunts where we celebrated and became communities. Many of those, like June, faltered through no fault of their own, even as they went down fighting.

With that somber hindsight, it almost seems frivolous to remember the culinary pleasures of the oblivious days early in the year before it all came to a halt with the pandemic closures in March — the exceptional new Italian inspirations of Via Locusta, Fiorella, and Cicala at the Divine; the modern American sparks of River Twice beside the Singing Fountain; the bucolic country elegance of a bottomless pancake brunch at Canal House alongside the Delaware River in Central Jersey. The Liberty Bell ratings I’ve traditionally rung loud and proud in this column at December’s end to celebrate a year of achievement in Philly dining, however, are silent for now. We’re still dealing with matters of mere survival.

And yet, in a year that we hunkered down and struggled through the prolonged challenges of shutdowns, mass layoffs, mask politics, sickness, social justice awakenings, and social distancing, the story lines I witnessed playing out in Philly’s food world also showcased incredible beauty, resilience, and courage to temper the heartaches.

I think of the fearless Sophia Neth and her family at Sophie’s Kitchen, four of whom were hospitalized in the spring by serious bouts with the coronavirus. They made it back to serve Sophia’s boldly delicious Cambodian cuisine — lemongrass-stuffed chicken wings, fragrant curries, and phahok kteah — at handsome new sidewalk tables that helped them keep the dream of their business alive.

A year for changemakers

Chef Ana Caballero launched a weekly tamale sale out of the Lost Bread Co. to raise funds for different unemployed guest Latino chefs each week who’d cook their tamale traditions. It’s still raising thousands of dollars each week and showcasing the stunning variety of Philly’s tamale culture (and now tlacoyos and pupusas!), with fresh masa inspirations from Puebla to Honduras.

Chef-poet and food activist Omar Tate moved his celebrated New York pop-up back to Philly, reconnected with family roots, and launched an ambitious plan to raise money for a community food center celebrating Black culinary excellence in Mantua. The pit-smoked lamb rubbed in palm oil and a West African-inspired chili paste served at one of his pop-ups out of South Philly Barbacoa was among the year’s most haunting flavors.

Taste and innovation

There is pure delight in opening a Not Pizza box from Hardena, chef Diana Widjojo’s brilliant reimagination of a mundane pizza box into a stunning rijsttafel to go, a treasure trove of 18 different Indonesian specialties, from rendang to saté chicken sticks, whole fried butterfish, golden tofu, coconut-stewed greens, and myriad sambals. With a family story behind each item, its resourceful creativity, and the resulting Instagram scramble that ensues around the limited weekly release of each new edition, Hardena’s Not Pizza Box was my Feast of the Year.

I’ll remember the tangy savor of tender beef verdolagas stewed in salsa verde and purslane, which had been harvested at an urban garden project by Cristina Martínez and Ben Miller for their new People’s Kitchen at El Compadre, which was transformed into a community kitchen serving 2,000 free meals a week with the help of manager Carly Pourzand, multiple guest chefs, and the 215 People’s Alliance. I can still picture a tear rolling down from the face mask of a 15-year-old volunteer there who handed-out meals and told me “I can help here and feel that I’m not alone.”

I found magnetic comfort in a gravy-splashed platter of smothered chicken at Big G’s Chicken Shack, which was still cooking with undeterred spirit despite the trauma of the SWAT team tear gas that had filled its kitchen and unleashed pandemonium upon 52nd Street following the George Floyd protests.

I remember tasting the fresh pupusas and churros once again from El Merkury, as well as the vibrant South Indian chicken 65 crackling spice from Thanal Indian Tavern, after the two restaurants repaired and reopened following vandalism during the spring unrest. Though obviously concerned for their businesses, each was still in solidarity with cause: “This protest will change so many things for the positive, and I’ll remember it for all my life,” said Thanal’s Hariharan Karmegam.

I won’t forget chef Phil Manganaro’s wild food takeout menu from Park Place Cafe in Merchantville, where the pandemic’s ingredient shortages pushed Manganaro deeper into his foraging passion to build a larder of greenbrier tips, pureed mugwort “spring sauce,” spruce tip ice cream, and honey-drizzled duck confit covered with black locust flowers.

I return often to the wisdom of wild yeast and the virtues of fresh-milled local flour that Alex Bois of Lost Bread Co. patiently shared in coaching me through my first sourdough loaf baked at home.

Joy and challenges

I’ll remember fondly the mix of anxiety and joy we experienced in the beautiful Italian meal we ate outside at L’Anima, the first meal we’d enjoyed at a restaurant following the three-month shutdown. And I can also still conjure the fury I felt just days later when a mask-less woman harassed my family’s table on a restaurant’s crowded Ventnor sidewalk in June and hissed at us to “Stay home!” if we were concerned about social distancing. The mask-denial politics of dining out had only just begun.

But I prefer to linger over a far more pleasant taste of summer. The sultry crab gravies of Cicala at the Divine Lorraine, Palizzi Social Club, and Iannelli’s — that keep one of Philly’s unique culinary traditions on a steady simmer.

I remember the juicy September sweetness of the blood-red seeded watermelons at the Carter Watermelon stand in Southwest Philly, where I learned this roadside stand was among Philly’s oldest family food businesses, at 70 years old, with roots in an ancestor’s fight for voting rights in Georgia.

I think wistfully of the seasonal Lancaster County wonders I encountered for the first time in the CSA boxes from Green Meadow Farm, the wild ramps, hickory nuts, smoked turkey, and myriad brassica rabes that would inspire our home cooking for months; but also, especially, the heirloom corn I saw harvested at the farm before it was milled for corn bread, grits, and fresh masa production in Philly.

I’m still savoring the perfect charcoal-grilled snap of the Cretan-style octopus over fava bean purée at Avlós, a BYOB from two Greek sisters in Phoenixville that was among the many new projects that impressed me this year. I was also wowed by the peppery bark and sublime tenderness of the oak-kissed brisket at Zig Zag BBQ; the sesame-speckled underside of the distinctive grandma pie at Pizza Jawn; and lard-glossed crunch of a Oaxacan tlayuda tortilla crisp layered with avocado-scented black beans and chicken tinga, washed down with a chile en nogada-themed cocktail at La Llorona Cantina on West Passyunk Aveue.

I can still taste the incredibly precious gelato made with Yamazaki whisky at Flow State Coffee Bar — one last luxury blast of creativity from co-owner Melanie Diamond-Manlusoc, sadly, it turns out, before her Kensington pastry haven closed.

A look ahead

Another favorite that had turned off the lights, Saté Kampar, had a comeback, rebooting as a roaming pop-up atop the BOK building with Malaysian blue and white rice checkerboards, fermented durian dip, and coconut-roasted skewers. Its latest incarnation as Kampar Kitchen, pairing Malaysian meal kits plus offerings from guest chefs, keeps the talented Angelina Branca cooking for her fans.

I remember the surprise of hearing that longtime Abe Fisher chef Yehuda Sichel had left to start his own sandwich shop Huda in middle of the pandemic. But then came the delight of discovering my new favorite vegetarian sandwich — a fried maitake layered high like a torta — and warm cinnamon milk buns with labneh icing that epitomized the homey comfort update we all needed.

And speaking of sweetness, how could I ever forget the disappointment of discovering the Holy Honey beehives my son installed years ago on the roof of our congregation, Rodeph Shalom, had been decimated as a result the pandemic? But once again the community rallied, as the Philadelphia Bee Co. donated honey to K’far Cafe, which baked holiday honey cakes for Rosh Hashanah that raised money to rebuild the apiary. Of course, that fall honey came with a 2020 twist. It was dark, smoky and slightly savory because it had been touched by the year’s infestation of dreaded spotted lantern flies. “Doom Bloom,” the Philadelphia Bee Co. wryly called it.

“Yet another example of how bees can take a blight and make something good of it,” says Philadelphia Bee Co.’s Don Shump.

May we all take our cues from the bees, and make 2021 the sweetest comeback ever.