Last year’s Philadelphia Flower Show will be remembered for two things: for being the first-ever outdoor iteration of the storied show — met with rave reviews (who’d have thought a park would be a better venue than the Convention Center!) — and for featuring a travesty of a “grilled” veggie hoagie. A widely shared review of the sad sandwich, which resembled a pouch of Bird’s Eye Vegetables stuffed into an untoasted roll, prompted show organizers to apologize.
No such embarrassments were found at a sampling of Flower Show fare on Friday, but there were high points and a few puzzling lows. Here are some of our favorite bites from inside the show, as well as a few key dining takeaways to help guide your visit.
Choose vendors over venues
The Flower Show is touting two banner dining venues this year, the Boathouse and the Lakes. The Boathouse offers counter service, first-come first-serve seating, and stunning views of Edgewood Lake. The Lakes has seated service (which was too leisurely at times) but no views; it’s situated on a partially tented expanse of astroturf and woodchips. Both feature overlapping menus from Pennsport’s Brulee Catering that are billed as “American.” That translates to safe food that’s also pretty boring. “Chicken salad” proved too non-specific an order at the Boathouse: We wound up with a kale caesar instead of the fire-roasted chicken. At the Lakes, a woefully underdressed salad with gorgeous local greens gave new meaning to “chewing the scenery.” (Avoid the gloopy chilled potato-leek soup.)
Much better, however, were bites from the vendors scattered around the show, which has plenty of shaded seating areas. For example, two New Jersey food trucks, Dan’s Waffles and Just Fork It, are slinging menus that are approachable but engaging — chicken and waffles, barbecue pulled pork, quarter-pound hot dogs, cheesy paninis — near the kid-centric section of the show. We especially liked the chicken in a waffle cone from Dan’s Waffles: tender chicken nuggets crammed into a lightly sweet waffle cone, doused with maple-bacon syrup. Have hand sanitizer ready. It gets sticky.
Eat adventurously and reap the rewards
Show organizers have assembled a diverse lineup of vendors that suits FDR Park, the 40-year home of a Southeast Asian market that pops up every weekend from April through November. The Flower Show has edged out the market again this year, but in a small triumph, three of its vendors are selling food inside the show. Look for their food at Sang Kee Noodle House’s stand in the Food Bazaar section of the show. Chanthea “Bee” Nhep will make lemongrass-laced Cambodian barbecue this Sunday; Kem Lum, “the Stir Fry Lady,” will serve up Cambodian stir-fried rice noodles Monday through Friday; and Saijai Sabayjit of Saijai Thai will offer pad Thai and curry next weekend. Of course, Sang Kee itself is hard to pass up, especially the perfectly packaged spicy chicken steamed buns.
Other highlights to save room for: gooey-crisp Brazilian empanadas from North Wales’ the Empanada House, wood-fired pizzas from Red Stone Pizza Truck, bulgogi tacos and rice bowls from Korea Taqueria, fried fish and chicken from Beverly Shakur Catering, and a sweeping selection of vegan options — from a breakfast sandwich to a Nashville hot seitan sandwich to Calabrian Chili Whiz cheese fries — from Algorithm Restaurant, which also carries Philly’s own Caphe Roasters coffee.
Nothing is cheap
Most of the food we found at the show ran upward of $12 per item. A small cup of ice cream from Dre’s Ice Cream — from West Philly native Andre Andrews — cost $8. (The hand-dipped scoops of sweet potato pie ice cream were worth it.) This shouldn’t come as a surprise given the cost of Flower Show tickets, not to mention the fees vendors have to pay to participate. On the bright side, serving sizes tended to be generous and most dishes were easily shared, especially those from vendors.
A final thing to keep in mind: FDR Park is a short walk to several stellar South Philly restaurants and bars, and there’s a good chance of finding a Mister Softee truck right outside the showgrounds when you leave.