The eastern end of South Street may be looking sad these days, but the neighborhood around it is hopping with new food activity. I run it down. Also this week, read about a sushi spot beneath the Market-Frankford El and a charming Greek BYOB in the Italian Market. Further on, critic Craig LaBan lays out his favorite barbecue finds.
The east end of South Street is full of commercial vacancies, but venture along the nearby streets and there's a dining boom underway.
Friday, Jan. 18, marks the debut of Cry Baby Pasta (Third and Bainbridge Streets), a slick renovation of Ela (the old Judy's Cafe, as we oldsters remember) under new owners Bridget Foy and Paul Rodriguez, who've secured the cooking services of Koo Zee Doo alums David Gilberg and Carla Goncalves for moderate-priced Italian eats and wines amid a rock-and-roll soundtrack.
Coming "soon" at 617 S. Third St. (next to South Street Bagels) is Neighborhood Ramen, a brick-and-mortar BYOB ramen shop from Lindsay Steigerwald and Jesse Pryor. The couple, whose resumes include Cheu, CoZara, and Morimoto, caught the noodle bug, traveled the world to experience it, and launched a Philly pop-up. They're wisely holding the opening date (and the menu) close to the vest to better manage the hungry hordes.
Just last week, we saw the soft opening of Fiore (757 S. Front St.), an all-day Italian restaurant in the old Kanella South from New York-pedigreed chefs Justine MacNeil and Ed Crochet that greets the day at 9 a.m. with splendid baked goods and ramps up the savory fare over lunchtime. When the liquor license arrives, so will dinner. For now, they're also doing BYOB events.
Also new is Aurora Grace, a bakery-cafe (517 S. Fifth St) from Aurora Wold, whose hand-painted chocolates are only part of the sweet story.
Coming along, perhaps late this spring, is a double restaurant at Fifth and Bainbridge Streets from Chris D'Ambro and Marina De Oliveira, who own Southwark and Ambra at Fourth and Bainbridge. The front room, last Whetstone, will be what they call a family-friendly neighborhood restaurant/bar whose menu will balance vegetable-focused small plates and comfort-food mains. No name yet. In the back will be a pizzeria called GiGi's with a wood-burning oven and a separate entrance on Bainbridge Street.
Also on the books, perhaps for late spring, is the long-in-the-works Bloomsday Cafe (414 S. Second St. across from Head House Square), an all-day restaurant from Zach Morris and Kelsey Bush of Haverford's Green Engine Coffee Co.
Later this year, speaking of Bridget Foy, her family will reopen Bridget Foy’s at Second and South Streets. Destroyed in a 2017 fire, it’s being rebuilt from the ground up.
Angelo's Pizzeria | South Philadelphia
Danny Digiampietro, a South Philly guy who closed his well-regarded Haddonfield pizzeria last year, says he'll open at 736 S. Ninth St. on Jan. 22.
Cry Baby Pasta | Queen Village
Da-Wa | Fishtown/Northern Liberties
Day 'N' Night | Chinatown
Hookah bar with five karaoke rooms and a killer sound system soft-opens Jan. 20 at 908 Cherry St.
Fiore | Queen Village
Hash House A Go Go | Moorestown
Restaurant chain out of San Diego features big-portioned "twisted farm food" from breakfast through dinnertime inside the Moorestown Mall, where Distrito was.
Joe Italiano's Maplewood | Moorestown
The Shore-area family-friendly Italian opens a branch in Moorestown Mall.
Johnny Manana's | Poplar
Tim Bonnie's revival of his East Falls Mexican institution at 315 N. 12th St., in the Goldtex building north of Vine Street, is now on for Jan. 17.
Neighborhood Ramen | Queen Village
The Post | University City
A beer hall with arcade fun comes to 129 S. 30th St., starting Jan. 18.
Broad Axe Tavern | Broad Axe/Ambler
The bar-restaurant's 10-year run ends Jan. 19. A new owner is on the way.
Espressit Coffee House | Westmont
Stacey Douglas has set Feb. 18 as her last day after 10 years.
Weckerly’s, 9 W. Girard Ave.
We interrupt the usual parade of happy-hour cocktails and snacks for a weather update. Yes, it's January and temps are headed into the single digits over the weekend. This deep freeze means little to a true ice cream aficionado.
Weckerly's ice cream shop in Fishtown chills out with a happy hour of its own. From 4 to 7 p.m. daily, they knock $2 off the prices of the pints and 20 percent off scoops and the ice cream sandwich of the day ($5 down to $4).
You warm up a winter morning with a bowl of oatmeal, right? Well, the sandwich special the other day was the Breakfast Club: toasted oat ice cream enveloped by three gluten-free oatmeal cookies. Pop over to La Colombe around the corner for a coffee.
Koukouzeli, 1134 S. Ninth St., 215-992-9022
The Italian Market is so much more than Italian nowadays. What the neighborhood also needed, Spyro Tsibogos was thinking, was simply prepared Greek food. He has delivered with Koukouzeli, a cozy BYOB in a storefront next to Connie’s Ric-Rac off Washington Avenue, where the sounds of lavouto and bouzouki fill the air along with the aromas of grilled meats.
This is not one of those build-your-own-pita fast-casual outlets. Tsibogos is going Hellenic and back with chicken and pork platters, fried potatoes, souvlaki, bifteki, tomatosalata, pork gyros, and a valiant effort at vegan gyros made of fried seitan with a dairy-free tzatziki. There's a signature pita sandwich known as the Spyro that has grilled and roasted leg of lamb topped with lemon-roasted potatoes and a creamy garlic moustarda.
Desserts include baklava, loukoumades, yogurt, and bread pudding. Get a coffee frappé to drink.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Da-Wa, 1204 N. Front St., 215-278-7671
One of the toughest seats to score in Fishtown/Northern Liberties is not Suraya or Wm. Mulherin's Sons. It's the 16 seats in the claustrophobe's drama called Da-Wa, Joe Kim's three-week-old sushi-ramen hole-in-the-wall on Front Street under the Market-Frankford El's Girard station.
Fancy it is not. The room blows cold with the wind whipping in. If you're more than two people, you'll have to sit on an uncomfortable stool at the too-high sushi bar. The Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack, blaring at volume level 8, will rock you rock you. The service, while well-meaning, can fall apart at peak periods. But Kim and brothers Jim and Steve dish simple displays of high-quality fish, some hard to find. It's not cheap, though the $59 omakase served by appointment happens to be a value.
Besides sashimi, try the ramen, especially the unami-filled vegan, as well as the meaty pork-belly bao buns, the poke bowl, the Korean dumplings, and the blueberry cheesecake for dessert. (Blueberry cheesecake? "We make what we like to eat," Jimmy Kim told me, grinning.)
Know that these cramped conditions are temporary. The Kims are expanding next door on the Girard Avenue side with triple the space.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, and 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Tip: Reserve your spots via 215-278-7671.
N.B. The neighborhood is getting a posher option, Hiroki, supposedly next month behind Wm. Mulherin’s Sons at Lee and Master Streets.
Everyone has foods they don't care for. These are the ingredients Philly chefs hate (and how they cook with them anyway).
R&D, the trendy Fishtown cocktail bar, has a 1950s menu, updated for 2018. That means a Three Martini Lunch with just 3 ounces of booze, and a White Russian made with clarified milk punch.
Reader: There seem to be lots of new BBQ places popping up around here these days. Which of these newcomers do you like best?
Craig LaBan: Yes, there are some exciting smoke signals wafting above the city lately, with several more to come, and I can only say: Thank you! It’s about time we lit that fire. The current wave of newcomers have begun to fulfill my hopes that Philly — long an underwhelming BBQ scene — is finally about to grasp its new and improved smokehouse destiny.
The new energy puffing out of South Philly, in particular, is more than promising. I just gave a friendly two-bell review to South Philly Smökhaus (821 Dudley St.), a cool destination in the Bok Building where pit master Eric Daelhousen has taken over the industrial space of the former vocational school’s old auto body shop. He’s transformed it into a communal gathering place where the eight-foot-long “stick burner” smoker behind the counter of his open kitchen is turning out relatively unadorned, purist versions of oak-kissed, slow-cooked briskets crusted in char; juicy plumes of pulled pork, creative sandwiches (try the Bevy Club, made with pit beef and house bacon); and richly marbled slabs of prime-grade short ribs whose rustic crust and vivid pink smoke halos alone are worth the trip.
As good as Smökhaus is, Mike’s BBQ (1703 S. 11th St.) near East Passyunk is even better — and my current BBQ favorite. I first was smitten with owner Mike Strauss’ smoked brisket cheesesteak, an essential new twist on the classic Philly sandwich. But I’ve since been back enough times to finally assign Mike’s a proper rating: a “high” two bells with a potential for more if Mike’s eventually grows into a larger, more interesting space (grease-free floors would be a plus), perhaps with a cool drink program to back it up. The smoked meats already are at a three-bell level, with that perfect combo of deep flavors, telltale pink smoke halos, and moist tenderness that sometimes eludes genuinely smoked meats. The juicy, spice-crusted Creekstone brisket, pork spare ribs, and pulled pork are about as good as Philly gets. And the other dishes here — the pulled pork-stuffed mac-‘n’-cheese balls, the house-made sausage links, the incredibly hearty chili brimming with smoked meats, and several other funky sandwiches — show Mike’s repertoire is not limited.
One often overlooked newcomer across the bridge in South Jersey is Smoke BBQ in Audubon (34 W. Merchant St.), where owner Aaron Clark was inspired by his time in Austin for a legit, pepper-edged Texas-style brisket. The big hit on that menu, though, is the smoked pork belly tacos with mango salsa. I wish I could say similarly nice things about the relatively new Tradesman’s (1312 Chestnut St.) The service is friendly, but its weak-flavored meats were a letdown — including a pulled lamb shoulder that intrigued, but that unfortunately was as tough, dry, and fibrous as wool.
Of course, it’s not as though Philly didn’t already have some fine BBQ spots. I’ve long turned to reliable standbys like well-rounded Sweet Lucy’s Smokehouse (7500 State Rd.) in the Northeast, Henri’s Hotts in Folsom (1003 E. Black Horse Pike) on the way to the Shore, and Fishtown’s branch of Fette Sau. But this region has never had a cohesive BBQ culture or particular style of its own.
That may never happen. But the pitmaster community itself is continuing to grow, with at least three more BBQ openings cued up for the coming months. There’s a new branch of Ambler’s Lucky Well coming to Spring Garden in March, featuring Memphis-style ribs and a live-fire charcoal broiler built in Texas. City Creek BBQ, planned for the end of February, will bring a restaurant component to Avram Hornik’s Craft Hall complex (901 N. Delaware Ave.) in the former Yards space (where Mainstay Independent Brewing Co. and Lost Bread Co. already are open).
Here’s one more: Zig Zag BBQ expects to start building its Kensington space (2111 E. York St.) soon next to Martha, whose co-owners, Cary Borish and Mike Parsell, also are involved. They’ve partnered with pitmaster Matt Lang, who opened the original Fette Sau in Brooklyn years ago, followed by stints at Hill Country Barbecue and Texas Jack’s, both in the D.C. area. Lang followed his wife’s job to Philly, and he claims that Martha co-owner Jon Medlinsky has “been a good influence on me.” Meaning? Along with the classic Texas brisket he’s mastered, he’s also determined to innovate some vegan-friendly BBQ offerings, like black garlic-sauced yuba skins and pit-smoked pastrami tofu: “We’ll see how that works this time around.”