Blue Corn's signature blue tacos are a variation on classic al pastor with Oaxaca cheese.
Craig LaBan
Blue Corn's signature blue tacos are a variation on classic al pastor with Oaxaca cheese.

BBQ, Mexican, hoagies or sushi? Philadelphia restaurants for great takeout

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

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.

Zig Zag BBQ

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

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.

The Lucky Well Spring Arts

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

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.

Brown Sugar Bakery

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

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.

Stargazy

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

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’s Cafe

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

South Philly Mexican favorites

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.

Blue Corn

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

Los Gallos

South Philly Mexican pioneer Los Gallos is still going strong with some of the best al pastor tacos in town, handmade sopes topped with shredded smoky chicken tinga, and a soulfully dark mole for chicken enchiladas that pays tribute to the owner’s Poblano roots. Los Gallos, 951 Wolf St., 215-551-1245; losgallosrestaurant.com

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

Tamalex

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

South Philly Barbacoa

Chef Cristina Martínez and her husband chef Benjamin Miller haven’t missed a beat during the pandemic, both as social justice leaders (with their People’s Kitchen at El Compadre), but also at the weekends-only taqueria they’re renowned for. It can feel like a festival when their outdoor tent spans a closed South Ninth Street on weekends, and the crowds clamouring for kilos of tender lamb barbacoa and spicy pancita sausage, along with the world’s best tortillas, can be a bit too close for my COVID-era comfort. Thankfully, this crew is expert at packing the whole feast to go, with all the salsas and sides and lamb consommé, so we can enjoy one of Philly’s most soul-satisfying meals at home. South Philly Barbacoa, 1140 S. 9th St., 215-694-3797; Instagram @BarbacoaChef

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.

La Tienda Grocery & Cocina

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

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.

Kaiseki

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

Pete’s Place

Starr have transformed the talented chef’s signature restaurant (Serpico) into a delivery-centric ghost kitchen dedicated to the Korean flavors of Serpico’s birth country. The menu is noodle-centric, with Tsukemen-style kimchi noodles and pork gravy being a standout. But there are also notable takes on Korean fried chicken wings, flavorful bibimbap, spicy chicken stew and restorative beef and radish soup that show this project, officially still a pop-up, has only just begun to show its potential. Pete’s Place, 604 South St., 215-593-2232; petes.place: Korean.

White Yak

Himalayan mountain to eat some hearty momo dumplings. Thankfully, we just need to get up to Roxborough for takeout from this charming Tibetan BYOB, where I also covet the eggplant gha, Tibetan beef curry, chilli chicken and Thenthuk beef soup with hand-ripped noodles. White Yak is so committed to minimal contact takeout, customers  ring the takeout window doorbell with disposable nails. Why nails? Co-owner Tsering Parshingtsang also happens to be a builder who owns a local construction company called Shangri-La, named for the valley in Yunnan Province where he grew up. White Yak, 6118 Ridge Ave., 215-483-0764; whiteyakrestaurant.com: Tibetan.

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.

Café Lutécia

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

Vientiane Bistro

Chef and co-owner Sunny Phanthavong has not let takeout containers stand in the way of the full vibrance and heat of the Lao flavors that define her Kensington BYOB as one of my favorite Southeast Asian kitchens. Don’t miss the naam lettuce wraps of crispy coconut-curry rice, the lemongrass rich sausages, or especially the minced port laab, which is zingy with chile-laced lime, herbs, galangal, and roasted rice powder. Vientiane’s khao phoon King Soup is a meal on its own. Plus, one other lesser-talked-about fact: Vientiane also cooks some of the city’s best Thai food. 2537 Kensington Ave., 267-703-8199; vientiane-cafe.com: Laotian.

Amma’s South Indian Cuisine

The bold South Indian specialties that put Amma’s in my Top 25 restaurants in 2019 remains a takeout favorite, with hot-and-sour gobi Manchurian, chicken 65 sparkling with spice and gongura dal for pure lentil comfort laced with tangy greens. I covet chile-sparked coconut stews like chicken Chettinad and Thalassery lamb, as well as a chicken biryani so fragrant, our entire kitchen was perfumed when I removed its container lid. Only the delicate dosa crepe and medhu fritters, predictably, lose  their crisp in takeout transit, and are best at Amma’s limited indoor seating. 1518 Chestnut St., 215-563-2917; and 700 Eagle Plaza #36, Voorhees, 856-784-1100; ammasrestaurants.com

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

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

DanDan

There’s no better Chinese restaurant around Rittenhouse Square than this stylish bi-level Szechuan mainstay. DanDan is one of the area’s most efficient delivery operations around, as well. Our meal arrived swiftly via Caviar still hot and fresh from the wok - spicy dan dan noodles (of course!), crispy scallion pancakes, nose-tingling cumin chicken, heat-blistered string beans, and tender dumplings in a glossed with lip-numbing of chili oil. 126 S. 16th St., 215-800-1165; and 214 Sugartown Rd., Wayne, 484-580-8558; dandanrestaurant.com: Szechuan.

El Merkury

Sofia Deleon’s fast-casual restaurant was among those seriously damaged during the spring’s unrest, but that didn’t stop her Guatamalan kitchen from feeding frontline workers and remaining one of the tastiest delivery options around Rittenhouse. Her Central American menu specializes in pupusas, tostadas, taquitos and some truly irresistible churros. 2104 Chestnut St., 267-457-5952; elmerkury.com: Guatemalan.

Welcome home, Hoagies

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.

Lil’ Nick’s

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

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.

QT Vietnamese Sandwich

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

More Takeout Favorites

Cadence

This superbly inventive modern American BYOB has resumed limited indoor and outdoor seating. But I’m especially excited by the fancy takeout taco kits that pair 10 exceptional tortillas made from house-nixtamalized masa with sublimely crispy legs of duck confit, crackly skinned pork belly or vegan chorizo made from dehydrated sweet potatoes. It’s not cheap, but with all the fixings, salsas and quality proteins, it’s fair value. Cadence, 161 W. Girard Ave., 215-419-7537; cadencerestaurant.com

Famous Fourth St. Deli

For my birthday dinner this year, I ordered my ultimate comfort meal from Philly’s classic Jewish deli: a giant bowl of matzo ball soup and a towering, steamy corned beef Rachel (essentially a Reuben with slaw instead of kraut), a side of latkes and a can of Cel-Ray soda. I inhaled the aroma, ate it slow and savored every bite. Famous Fourth St. Deli, 700 S. 4th St, 215-922-3274; famous4thstreetdelicatessen.com

Friday Saturday Sunday

After a long closure, Chad and Hanna Williams reopened their contemporary gem as one of the city’s ultimate gourmet to-go options, with inventively cooked prime ingredients presented for precision takeout. We devoured a superbly juicy heritage pork chop, a truly beautiful corn salad, a memorable double-patty burger (perfectly mid-rare) and, of course, the exceptional cocktails to go, including a “Bad Things” riff that showed Becherokva at its best. There are outside tables, but they’re not tended by staff. There is now, however, limited inside dining. Friday Saturday Sunday, 261 S. 21st St., 215-546-4232; fridaysaturdaysunday.com

Gilben’s Bakery

Philadelphia has a long tradition of fried seafood sandwiches, especially standbys like the Muslim fish hoagie at Sister Muhammad’s Kitchen in Germantown. But when Joshua Coston left his career as an Amtrak conductor to open Gilben’s Bakery in East Mount Airy, the chef’s seafood po’boys on fresh garlic bread became a phenomenon on their own, in particular the unlikely (but fantastic) fried salmon po’boy. Soul Food Sunday platters are also a draw. Gilben’s Bakery, 7405 Stenton Ave., 215-298-0879; gilbensbakery.com

Pizza Jawn

One of Philly’s best new pizzerias wouldn’t have materialized as a Manayunk storefront had the pandemic not shut down David and Ana Lee’s thriving pop-up business. But for those savvy enough to sign-up the moment Pizza Jawn’s posts its weekly pick-up time slots on Instagram, the reward is a very impressive trio of pizza styles, from a thin-crusted NY-Neapolitan hybrid round (try the Margherita) to a deep-pan Detroiter edged with a crispy caramelized cheese, and a Grandma-style squares notable for its sesame-dusted crusts, best shingled with pepperoni and a sweet tingle of hot honey. Pizza Jawn, 4330 Main St., pizzajawn.com and on Instagram @pizza_jawn

Pizzeria Beddia

Here’s another pizza-related upside to the pandemic: Joe Beddia’s nationally renowned pizzeria is more accessible than ever now that you can sign-up for take-out slots online without the usual waiting hassle. Don’t miss the Angry pie and Number 2 with cream and seasonal greens. You can also reserve a month in advance for limited patio seating on site. Pizzeria Beddia, 1313 N. Lee St, 267-928-2256; pizzeriabeddia.com: Pizza.

Porco’s Porchetteria

Philly knows pork sandwiches, but the Roman-style tenderness of the juicy, herb-scented meat from this Washington Avenue sandwich shop and bakery is already in the city’s pig elite, accented by the shattering crunch of crackling shards tucked inside. Try it Philly-Cubano style with pickled giardiniera, Gruyère, and grain mustard aioli on a toasty house-baked ciabatta. Porco’s Porchetteria, 2204 Washington Ave., 215-545-2939, smallovenpastryshop.com.

Ravanesi Pizzeria

David Ravanesi’s suburban destination for meticulous Neapolitan pies - each cooked within 90 seconds in the blazing wood-fired oven - is another hard-to-snag pizza that’s become more accessible due to the pandemic. Diners call a week in advance to reserve a specific time slot for pickup, rather than the daily dough scramble and unpredictable waits of before. This pizzaiolo is dedicated to the handmade details, including the house-pulled cheese, and his efforts are worth it. Ravanesi Pizzeria, 790 Baltimore Pike, Glen Mills, 484-840-8912; ravanesipizza.com

Spot Gourmet Burgers

Beef burgers and steaks sandwiches with quality meat are Josh Kim’s calling card. But his fresh handmade chicken burgers are also impressive, 100 times more juicy than the usual prefrozen suspects. Get it umami-style with Korean ssamjang sauce, mushrooms, and onions. Delivery was also so timely, brought to us within 40 minutes and a beef burger that was still warm and medium rare. Spot has been a generous pillar of support for Brewerytown, offering free meals to children and the unemployed, as well as stocking essential groceries. Spot Gourmet Burgers, 2821 W. Girard Ave.; spotburgers.com.