Food fashions ebb and flow, like restaurants opening and closing along Passyunk Avenue. While it would be impossible to include all the culinary trends that defined this past year, we identified six at play in Philadelphia, from proliferating plant-based burgers to omakase at all price points.
This year’s most Instagrammable food trend? Butterfly pea flower.
The blue petals of the Southeast Asian flower — steeped in water to create an indigo tea that can turn deep purple when mixed with citrus or other acids — inspired midnight blue tapioca dumplings (Kalaya), lavender-colored frozen mojitos (PHS’ South Street Pop-Up Garden), and violet iced matcha (Vernick Coffee Bar).
This summer, the flower made its way into drinks across the city. Blue butterfly pea ice cubes slowly infused purple vibrancy into cocktails at Martha and Art in the Age. At Saté Kampar, lemongrass butterfly pea iced tea transformed table-side from blue to purple with a finishing squeeze of lime.
Vernick Coffee Bar serves up their psychedelic matcha lattes year-round, swirling together shades of green, purple, and milky white into a drink almost too beautiful to consume.
“The phone comes out immediately whenever someone orders it, every single time,” says Susan Montenegro, general manager of Vernick Coffee Bar. “[Butterfly pea tea] doesn’t have a very powerful flavor, so it blends nicely, and it’s just so striking.”
Though it started budding in years previous, 2019 was the year that omakase “arrived” in Philly.
The “chef’s choice” style of Japanese dining spread to new neighborhoods and price points, joining established spots like Royal Izakaya and Morimoto. You can scoop up elaborate sashimi and sushi presentations inside a food court on Penn’s campus, at a minimalist counter in Queen Village, and underneath the Market-Frankford El in Fishtown. (Pizzeria Beddia playfully adopted the concept with a private-room “hoagie omakase.”) As for prices, they start as low as $35 at DK Sushi in Franklin’s Table.
What set off the trend? “That documentary that came out several years ago — Jiro Dreams of Sushi — could’ve been a trigger,” says Shinobu Habauchi, the Japanese fish buyer for purveyor Samuels & Son Seafood. “Omakase combines food with presentation, captivating all five senses, which draws people in.”
Habauchi says that she enjoyed one of the best dining experiences of her life this year at Hiroki, the elegant omakase spot that opened this spring behind Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in Fishtown. Its 20-course omakase is priced at $135 ($195 with sake pairings) per person.
“It’s not always cheap, but they’re always booked up,” says Habauchi of Philly’s new omakase options. “Every bite, every dish, the way it’s presented is an experience in itself, which is kind of amazing.”
Although spiked seltzer has been around for the better part of this decade, 2019 was the sparkler’s “it” year. Sales of the low-cal, low-sugar drink surpassed $1 billion — outselling sauvignon blanc and craft beer — according to Nielsen.
In Philly, the buzz was obvious, as top-selling brands like Truly and White Claw started taking over drafts and refrigerator cases. So many options flooded the market, we collected 13 (at one beer distributor) and staged a taste-test.
Local makers emerged this year, too, starting with Bok Building-based Two Robbers, who launched this spring. Their seltzer is available in more than 100 stores and bars in the area. They were quickly joined by others.
“We launched our variety packs in October, and they’re already among our top-five sellers,” says Luke Bowen, cofounder of Evil Genius Beer Co.
Evil Genius flavors include grapefruit, black cherry, and lemon-lime. Elsewhere, Bar Hygge released a popular peach seltzer, H2OGUH, and the citrusy J’aime Sparked Seltzer from Cherry Hill’s Forgotten Boardwalk Brewing took second place at the country’s first-ever hard seltzer festival.
“[Hard] seltzer feels like a healthier option, it’s easy to drink and refreshing — 100%, the category is going to continue to grow,” says Bowen.
The momentum has long been building — in the bustling business corridor along Washington Avenue (where Vietnamese tourists come by the busload), in South Philly’s Cambodia Town, in the expanding Filipino restaurant community, in the growing presence of Laotian flavors. But 2019 marked another very good year for South and Southeast Asian restaurants in Philadelphia.
Sliding into Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan’s 2019 list of top 25 restaurants were Kalaya Thai Kitchen near the Italian Market and Center City’s Amma’s South Indian Cuisine, two newcomers celebrated for their unparalleled authenticity. (Returning to the top 25: East Passyunk’s Malaysian haven, Saté Kampar, which opened in 2016.)
“The world’s getting smaller with social media, and people are ready now," says Kalaya chef and co-owner Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon. “You can travel to places just by sitting in front of your phone, and food is part of that, so ingredients like fish sauce and shrimp paste and durian don’t seem quite as foreign.”
At Kalaya, fish sauce adds intensity to dishes like fish cakes laced with coconut milk and curry paste, as do chilies, adding fiery heat to curries made with ground beef, chicken, and crabmeat. With the restaurant booked solid most nights, it appears Philly was ready indeed.
The bold flavors of Southeast Asian cuisine also shined at Sophie’s Kitchen (from the family behind the beloved, erstwhile Khmer Kitchen), fueled by the essential spice paste kroeung: a mix of lemongrass, garlic, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves, plus turmeric, palm sugar, and fish paste. At Kensington’s Flow State Coffee Bar, co-owner and chef Melanie Diamond-Manlusoc whipped up Filipino-tinged desserts like purple yam cinnamon rolls and pandan gelato. And in Logan Square, South Indian rarities like tandoori-roasted pomfret fish, gongura-leaf curries with tart red sorrel, and Hyderabadi biryani graced the menu at Thanal Indian Tavern.
“I’d like to give a little thanks to Anthony Bourdain — people are more adventurous now than ever,” says Suntaranon.
Did Impossible Burgers achieve the impossible?
“I mean, they got into Burger King — who does that?” says chef-owner Rich Landau of Vedge Restaurant Group.
Meatier than ever — though not necessarily healthy — high-profile plant-based burgers like the Impossible and Beyond Burgers have pushed veganism into mainstream consciousness. They popped up on menus in Philly, at BurgerFi, Royal Tavern, Frankford Hall, and countless more non-vegan restaurants, in burger form and otherwise. They also hit the supermarket.
“I can tell you that, because of the burger trend, we have seen so many new — and unlikely — faces in our restaurants,” Landau says. “People are branching out of their culinary comfort zone.”
Vegan producers are constantly refining flavors, which brings even more attention. Take Conscious Cultures Creamery’s Bloomy White, for example. Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan called the round of triple-crème “the best vegan cheese I’ve ever tasted.”
Decades ago, Le Bec-Fin put Philly on the map for destination-worthy dining. Today, French fare is trending here once again.
“French food in America has been synonymous with high price and high stakes,” says Peter Woolsey, owner of Queen Village’s Bistrot La Minette and the recently opened Gabi, on North Broad. “It’s only really now that all different versions of French cuisine are coming to Philly, and at a more affordable rate.”
At Gabi, which Woolsey described as “the French version of an American diner,” dinner prices average between $15 and $17 and top out at $29. At Michael O’Halloran’s short-lived South Philly Bistro La Bête, which strived for an “approachable and unfussy” approach, entrees grazed the high $20s.
Other French newcomers are embracing rustic staples — a rabbit cassoulet enchanted at Old City’s Forsythia — and game (at June BYOB, chef Richard Cusack cooked up pigeon served in its own sauce).