If you’re going downashore for the first time in awhile, you need to check out critic Craig LaBan’s two-story presentation of new and noteworthy restaurants from LBI to Cape May. He also took a detour on the backroads, where he scored barbecue with a side of history. Read on for word on outdoor drinking and dining recommendations. Oh, and if you like dim sum, I know how you roll.
Also: Be aware that Craig restarts his reviews this weekend. First up is Gabriella’s Vietnam in South Philadelphia.
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Craig LaBan’s favorite new restaurants at the Shore
After the non-summer of 2020, the Jersey Shore restaurant scene has come roaring back.
In not one but two articles, critic Craig LaBan dives into the summer dining scene. In Part 1, he found Sweet Amalia Market & Kitchen, a new roadside market that’s oyster heaven, as well as a Cape May tasting-menu splurge (Jardin at the Hugh), stellar destinations for Mexican food (Taqueria Rendon in Northfield and El Pueblo Taqueria 2 in Cape May), and a stylishly revamped beachside porch for breakfast burritos and poke (Sand House Kitchen in Ocean City). You’ll also meet Peanut, the robotic food-runner at Island Grill in Ocean City.
In Part 2, Craig explores new restaurants from LBI to Cape May. He finds love in the dunes of Avalon (which sounds like a song), takes a surprising trip to Greek isles in Wildwood, and describes the revival of two Ventnor landmarks.
Along New Jersey’s Route 40, they still come out smoking
Take a detour on your way to the Shore. Drive on Route 55 almost to Vineland, hop off at Route 40, and head east. In 10 minutes, you’ll arrive at Sweet Amalia (see above). Go 10 minutes more, and you’re in Mizpah, Atlantic County, home of Rick’s Backyard Barbeque & Grill. Craig stopped to meet Rick Gray, a former bus driver who is keeping up New Jersey’s Route 40 barbecue tradition in the pavilion where Uncle Dewey’s operated for more than two decades. Craig also weaves in a fascinating history of the Black pit masters who have worked in the area.
Craig also made it to the Ocean City boardwalk, where Monica Fenocchio and Danilo D’Eugenio of Center City Philly’s DaMò Pasta Lab are turning their fresh, house-extruded noodles into deep-fried square “pasta bites” that ooze stuffings of cacio e pepe or rich carbonara sauced-noodles. Goodbye, vacation diet.
Closer to home. If you’re a DIY griller who must work in a small space like a balcony, porch, park, or rooftop, contributor Carolyn Desalu offers useful equipment ideas, including a 9-pound portable charcoal grill that’s $45 at Lowe’s.
Great outdoor spaces for dining and drinking
Many people are headed out of doors with crowds of friends, so colleague Jillian Wilson has put together a guide to the biggest outdoor dining and drinking spots in Philly — high points such as Bok Bar, riverside joints such as Morgan’s Pier, and everywhere in between. New spots include Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran’s Lawn at Loveluck, next to their forthcoming restaurant in LOVE Park’s old “spaceship” building, and the return of the PHS Pop Up Garden at Manayunk (106 Jamestown Ave.) — this time with reservations available for large groups online.
Get set for another outdoor destination: Teddy Sourias’ Uptown Beer Garden, which spent a few summers outside the BNY Mellon Center at 18th and JFK, is fixing to soft-open/preview this weekend at 1500 JFK Blvd. It’s on the plaza outside of Two Penn Center where a 7-Eleven used to be, across from Lawn at Loveluck. Uptown will be permanent and year-round, accommodating 350 people at two open-air bars. Food by chef Craig Meyers will be served out of a large truck in the middle of the garden. Initial opening will be at 4 p.m. Thursday, July 1-Saturday, July 3 and at 1 p.m. Sunday, July 4. Official opening will be July 8.
Just in time for sultry summer evenings, the Pennsylvania Senate last week did not act on legislation — passed in the House — that would have permanently allowed cocktails-to-go and would have permitted extended areas of outdoor seating, as had been allowed during the pandemic emergency. With the bill now believed to be dead until the fall, people are upset. “Taverns and restaurants just lost the summer season because of this,” the head of a trade group told colleague Harold Brubaker.
Better get to Cadence, the trail-blazing Kensington BYOB, soon. The pandemic has inspired chef-owners/spouses Jon Nodler and Sam Kincaid to move on and start a new chapter in Wisconsin, and they told Craig: “The decision ultimately came from slowing down and reflecting more not just on the past year, but the past decade of grinding we’ve just gone through.”
George Sabatino, whose long cheffing history includes culinary director for Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran’s restaurants and his own restaurant, Aldine, is the new executive chef at Townsend Wentz’s Italian BYOB A Mano (23rd Street and Fairmount Avenue), which reopens after a long pandemic slumber on July 14.
Meredith “Meri” Medoway is the new chef de cuisine at Vernick Food & Drink, replacing Robert Newcomb, who is now chef at Vernick Wine next door. Medoway joined Vernick in 2013 as an intern and then was brought on as a prep and pastry cook. She worked her way up to lead line cook before leaving to study in Calabria, Italy. She returned to the States in 2017 to help open Hearthside in Collingswood, and in 2019 recrossed the river to become sous chef at Vernick Fish.
Cristina Martinez, chef-owner of the popular South Philly Barbacoa and its newer offshoot, Casa Mexico, is planning to expand her holdings on her Ninth Street block. Martinez entered into an arrangement with the shuttered Connie’s Ric Rac (1132 S. Ninth St.), next door to Casa Mexico. The new space will have a liquor license.
Forin Cafe, a cafe and lifestyle hub, has opened in the former Harbison’s dairy plant in Kensington, now an apartment building in the shadow of the Market-Frankford El. Besides many varieties of espresso, the drink line includes a blue smoothie and a nonalcoholic soda that tastes like an Aperol spritz.
Colleague Inga Saffron has noticed a whopper of a trend: Fast-food chain eateries in and around Center City have been displaced by housing. Developers are having it their way, clearly.
Thuy “Ken” Do has made a lot of dim sum fans happy with his massive new restaurant, Kim Sum, which replaced Phu Khang in the strip shopping center on Route 38 in Pennsauken that you might know as Saigon Plaza. (Sun Seng Supermarket and Thai Son are at the other end.)
There are dim sum carts!
You roll in, the carts roll around, and you roll out, stuffed to the brim with buns, pork shumai, shrimp dumplings, bean curd sheet rolls, sticky rice wraps in lotus leaf, sesame balls, etc. etc. — all trolleyed around in steamer baskets from the 10 a.m. daily opening till 3 p.m., when the dishes are available on the regular menu. Figure on less than $20 per person including tax, and it’s BYOB.
Kim Sum, 5201 Route 38 West, Pennsauken, 856-885-2288. Hours: 10 a.m.-1 a.m. daily; dim sum carts roll from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. daily.
Mexico-born Juana Franco spent 22 years at the side of South Philly chef Maria Forte, first at Mezzaluna (where Franco was a dishwasher) and later across the street at Cucina Forte (768 S. Eighth St.). “You teach me Spanish and I’ll teach you Italian,” Franco says Forte told her. Between the day-to-day prep work and watching YouTube videos, Franco learned the cooking. She all but ran the kitchen in later years.
When Forte decided to step aside during the pandemic, Franco bought the restaurant. Why? “I’m working for myself,” Franco said. “I’m killing myself for me.”
It’s now known as Cucina Maria — partly in tribute to Forte and partly in honor of her daughter (Marina) and mother-in-law (Maria). The BYOB, which opened last week, is done up in Classic South Philly Upscale, with white tablecloths, mirrored walls, and busboys dressed in black.
The early going has not been easy, of course, given the labor shortage. Franco is doing it all with the help of her husband, Angel Ayala, who works in the kitchen after spending the better part of the day at his construction business, and a couple of friends.
You will not leave hungry or broke. Popular entrees are the ricotta gnocchi ($25, in Gorgonzola or porcini sauce), chicken Parm ($22), and chicken rollatini ($23). House-made desserts include tiramisu.
Cucina Maria, 768 S. Eighth St., Philadelphia, 215-408-0020. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
Ancient Spirits & Grille, which recently replaced the short-lived Inchin’s Bamboo Grill at 1726 Chestnut St., bills itself as America’s first herbal cocktail lounge. Owner Syam Namballa’s day job is finance, but he and his partners have an interest in Ayurveda, the holistic medicine practice, and this informs the food and drinks.
There’s a low-lit, date-night atmosphere. Chris Tavares, executive chef of the nearby Davio’s before it shuttered, is executing a wildly worldly menu that starts in India: naan; bourekas filled with duck confit; a smoked salmon plate with buckwheat pancakes, pickled cucumber, dill pesto, and ginger tomato jam; braised lamb with pumpkin chutney and tamarind; braised rabbit timbale with turmeric risotto, mushrooms, and crispy sage; ginger duck with rosemary plum chutney; and sambuca-poached pear and creme brulee for desserts.
You can order dishes off the menu, or follow a questionnaire to determine if your dosha, or body makeup, is vata, pitta, or kapha — in effect, helping you build a meal based on your lifestyle, appetite, “state of mind,” sleep patterns, and physique. Many gluten-free and vegan options.
Ancient Spirits & Grille, 1726 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. Hours: 5-10:30 p.m. daily. Effective July 20, hours will be 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.