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You need to try critic Craig LaBan’s favorite restaurants | Let’s Eat

Also: An inside look at a new Vietnamese coffee shop, a poignant essay about growing up and self-love, a tip about free cheesecake, and a look at a decadent pasta dish.

Jesse Ito, chef-owner, behind his omakase counter at Royal Izakaya at 780 S. Second St.
Jesse Ito, chef-owner, behind his omakase counter at Royal Izakaya at 780 S. Second St.Read moreMICHAEL KLEIN / Staff

Full plate for you this week: Hot restaurant picks from Craig LaBan, an inside look at a new Vietnamese coffee shop, a poignant essay about growing up and self-love, a tip about free cheesecake, and a look at a pasta dish that will delight your eyes before it sticks to your ribs.

P.S. Roll out the barrel. Oktoberfest activities proceed apace.

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Mike Klein

Craig LaBan’s favorite restaurants

It’s been a busy last few days at The Inquirer’s food desk, what with the release of our 2021 edition of the “Let’s Eat, Philly!” dining guide. I’ll catch you up with the most popular (and anticipated) article, critic Craig LaBan’s list of his top-10 restaurants. This year, you can not only read about the hits, you can get inside them. Check out our YouTube channel, stocked with videos of such spots as Fiorella and Friday Saturday Sunday. And our staff shares all kinds of our favorite places — for cheesesteaks, ice cream, and the like. All this great, useful content is online. If you need an extra print copy, head here (while supplies last).

Three Philly eateries got shout-outs this week from the New York Times: Down North Pizza, Korshak Bagels, and one of Craig’s top-10ers, Laser Wolf. They’re among the 50 joints that the NYT says represent America’s mosaic of dining.

Càphê Roasters opens a cafe in Kensington

Càphê Roasters, Philadelphia’s first Vietnamese coffee company when it started three years ago, is a few days into its cafe in Kensington. Entrepreneur Thu Pham is offering much more than a smooth cup of Joe. Chef Jacob Trinh’s food includes fried mochi, egg sandwiches, and a legit banh mi.

‘Wine is more than just a beverage’

Wine expert Etinosa Emokpae got her start a decade ago at a Shake Shack, where she noticed customers ordering vino with their burgers and dogs. Contributor Chasity Cooper takes you on Emokpae’s professional journey.

Yellow Springs Farm is on the market, but the kids are alright

No kidding: The goat-cheese business is not easy. Craig tells the story of Catherine and Al Renzi’s decision to sell Yellow Springs Farm in Chester Springs after two decades. “I’ve been the midwife for over 1,000 goat births and that’s such a privilege,” Catherine told him. “But sometimes it’s good to know when it’s enough.”

Self-love is an egg sandwich with hot sauce

In his college days, deputy food editor Joseph Hernandez harbored a secret while thinking that life would amount to nothing more than a lonely routine of sitting and waiting, an egg sandwich the only source of comfort. Read his powerful essay about one young man’s turning point, timed to National Coming-Out Day.

Hoagies to savor, from a fan

Hoagie lover (and digital adman) Dominic Rocconi took his hobby to a new level over the pandemic, sharing homemade sandwiches with friends and later pop-up audiences under the name Hoagie Dom. (Motto: “I make hoagies when I make hoagies.”) You can get his “Mortabello” (mortadella and burrata) at Liberty Kitchen, and just last week, he started a pop-up at Bardot Cafe in Northern Liberties, where he’ll sell hoagies during select Eagles games in November and December (“and beyond, if the Eagles go that far,” he told me).

Last weekend’s premiere sandwich was a Calabrian chicken cutlet, perhaps his signature. No scrimping on quality here. He fries his own pounded-thin dark-meat chicken, dips it into his own chili sauce, and layers it atop his own seeded rolls that have been scooped and spread with garlic-and-herb mayo (”aioli,” if you must), drapes it in Cooper Sharp, arugula, and pickled red onions, and finishes with shaved Grana Padano. Follow him on Instagram for his sale dates, and good luck: Sunday’s 50 sandwiches were spoken for in minutes.

Restaurant report

Order the mason jar carbonara at the new-ish La Sponda by the Brandywine in Downingtown, and you’ll get a glass jar full of egg yolks, Parmesan, caramelized pork belly, black pepper, and campanelle that’s shaken and then poured, steaming hot, into a bowl. This clever emulsification technique was made popular by chefs including Top Chef alum Fabio Viviani — who, it turns out, once employed La Sponda chef William Cantafio. The rustic La Sponda, with indoor and patio dining, occupies the massive former mill that previously housed Bella Rossa and Firecreek.

Cantafio and co-chef Agustin Ramos put out a modern Italian menu of flatbreads and stick-to-your-ribs dishes such as decadent prosciutto-wrapped dates stuffed with Gorgonzola, short rib egg rolls, seafood risotto, house-made gnocchi, and grilled whole branzino. Full wine bar, too.

La Sponda, 20 E. Lancaster Ave., Downingtown. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.

Briefly noted

Walk into Cake & Joe, the cake cafe at Moyamensing Avenue and Reed Street in Pennsport, on Thursday, Oct. 14 and say, “Who moved my cheese?” The first 50 people will get a comp single-serve cheddar cheese mousse cake in honor of National Dessert Day. The shop opens at 7 a.m., so the early bird gets the carbs. To those who miss out, they’ll offer $1 off all beverages all day.

Eli Kulp’s The Chef Radio Podcast will honor the late chef Adan Trinidad with a roundtable discussion among Joe Gunn, his business partner at Jose Pistola’s, Sancho Pistola’s, and Pistola’s del Sur; consultant Ed Doherty, who hired Trinidad at age 15 at the old La Campagne in Cherry Hill); and close friend Natasha Laurenson. The episode, premiering on your favorite streaming app on Thursday, Oct. 14, will include word about a GoFundMe started to help Trinidad’s family. Trinidad, 39, a popular figure among the city’s restaurant community, died Oct. 5 after a fall.

Primal Supply Meats — reviving its retail after a late-summer temporary closure — will reopen its South Philadelphia store Friday, Oct. 15 for walk-in shopping with a butcher on duty. Hours for the rest of October at 1538 E. Passyunk Ave. will be noon-7 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday.

Chef Ed Konrad at South Philly’s Messina Social Club (1533 S. 10th St.) has added an a la carte menu alongside his $95 fixed-price feasts. Expect dishes on the order of heirloom tomato with blackberry, plum, and trout roe; bluefin tuna with honeynut squash, apple kosho, and cilantro; and lamb galumpki wrapped in Napa cabbage, all served Thursday-Saturday. It’s members-only under the club’s charter, but a $25 card gets you in for a year with three guests. (While you’re there, give an attaboy to Messina operator Jason Cichonski and wife Tara on the birth of their son.)

Kaiseki, Andy Bernard’s sushi takeout/delivery operating out of 990 Spring Garden St., has started a private omakase counter for groups of 8 to 12 people on Thursday evenings by reservation. He serves 14 pieces alongside pickled vegetables for $120 per person, BYOB.

On your way to Lincoln Financial Field to watch the Eagles-Bucs game Thursday night? We have your food lineup. The sure Birds victory is the Love & Honey Fried Chicken, an offshoot of the Northern Liberties shop.

Catch a vegan ice cream pop-up by Vannah Banana’s Kianu Walker from 1-6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14 and Friday, Oct. 15 at Clark Park, 43rd Stree and Baltimore Avenue. He promises “experimental flavors.”

Robert Irvine will be back at the Fillmore on Nov. 1 with Beats ‘N Eats, the food and music event that includes a family style, six-course dinner presented by TV/author chefs and accompanied by live music performances by folks like Questlove, O.A.R.’s Marc Roberge, Robert Randolph, Stephen Kellogg, Zeek Burse, and Aijee Evans. Among the chefs will be Marc Murphy, Amanda Freitag, Beau MacMillan, Jennifer Carroll, Jose Garces, Lindsay Autry, Ryan Schmitt, Chad Durkin, and Jeremy Intelli. Evening benefits Irvine’s foundation, which supports U.S. troops and first responders. Just a few $500 VIP tickets are left.

Heads-up for a few restaurant openings:

Figo, an Italian restaurant and pizzeria, is targeting Friday, Oct. 15 for its opening at 1033 N. Second St. in Northern Liberties, at the edge of the Piazza in the former Wahlburger’s. The 250-plus-seater offers pastas and other dishes by chef Hee “Chino” Chang, backed by a wild assortment of cocktails, espresso martini flights, spiked Italian soda flights, two dozen beer taps, and more than two dozen wines by the glass, bottle, and flight. Tim Liu and Derek Gibbons of Glu Hospitality, whose holdings also include the nearby Vesper and Germantown Grill, are launching with dinner inside and outside from 5-10 p.m., with late night, happy hour, and brunch service to begin later in the fall. Next door, the pizzeria will offers pies and stuffed hoagies with lunch, midday and dinner service.

Tuesday, Oct. 19 will see the debut of Goldie, the Mike Solomonov-Steve Cook falafelry, at 1601 N. Front St. in Fishtown, adjacent to their forthcoming event space, Lilah. (It’s the former Honeygrow HQ.) Menu at the 18-seater is simply falafel, fries, and tehina shakes — and note that this location will serve a coconut shake. Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.

My crystal ball suggests October debuts for Refectory, on the Villanova University campus (actually, a reopening under new management), the ginormous Victory Brewing Co. on the Ben Franklin Parkway; and the Jose Garces-led Hook & Master in Kensington. (Crystal balls have become a useful reporting tool in these days of uncertain staffing, irregular construction, and delayed government inspections.)

The subterranean hideaway La Buca off Washington Square, one of the oldest Italian restaurants in Philly when it closed this summer after 41 years, has new owners, a pizza/pasta/salad/seafood menu, and a brighter look, with all the Old World murals you’d ever want. It’s also open for lunch — not an easy thing to find in that part of town nowadays.

It’s now known as Buca D’Oro under Denis Gjana, Orgest Gjata, and Tea Maliqi. There’s outdoor seating out front on Locust Street, or head down the 13 steps into the dining room. It’s BYOB, pending the arrival of the liquor license.

Buca D’Oro, 711 Locust St. Hours: 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sunday to Friday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday, and continuously from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday.