More often than not, I am the flavor hunter, following the trail of our latest restaurants to witness the endless surprise of their savory new secrets unfolding dish by dish.
But sometimes, the flavors hunt me.
They nudge their way into my brain unexpectedly and begin flipping the levers of hunger until suddenly I need an al pastor taco shaved off the trompa spit, or a juicy cheeseburger, or the toasty smell of bibimbap rice crisping in a hot stone bowl with gochujang spice. Or the creamy cold sip of a sweet milkshake.
Cravings are a powerful thing. They get me out of bed some mornings, nudge me away from my desk at noon despite deadlines, and keep me out at night. And this year, they’re the driving force behind our annual dining guide, which lands Thursday, Oct. 17. The gorgeous 52-page magazine, arriving to all home subscribers along with an extraordinary digital counterpart on Inquirer.com, is a dish-by-dish journey across the Philadelphia-area food scene guided by the flavors, places, and experiences we crave.
» READ MORE: Craig LaBan’s Ultimate Dining 2018: The Classics
The guide also includes a fresh Top 25 of the region’s best restaurants, including eight new entries, which reflects the full breadth and diversity of our dynamic dining scene in 2019.
The most profound cravings have impact because they’re often tied to emotions that evoke a distant moment, person, or place. And they’re often uniquely personal. But such flashes of primal yearning are when I feel most lucky to be a Philadelphian. Because if you regard this region as one gloriously giant restaurant, there’s hardly a craving our collective kitchen of memories and traditions can’t sate, from the quest for the ultimate pizza to genuine Southern Thai curries, to next-level breads and a global dumpling feast that roams from city to suburbs.
Not surprisingly, after 30,000 words (and more than 900 beautiful staff pictures) assembled for this year’s guide, I still felt like I was only just beginning. So here are four more craving categories I’d like to offer as a preview bonus for what’s to come. Consider it a little taste of the kind of dishes that hit me when I least expect it with the kind of hunger pangs that can alter the course of my days in the most delicious way possible.
Cacio e Pepe
This traditional Roman specialty is one of the ultimate minimalist magic tricks, a pan sauce made à la minute from the emulsion of pasta water with sharp Pecorino cheese and lots of black pepper. It looks creamy, but there’s no cream. It’s pale, but packs an edgy punch. And this once-obscure-to-red-gravy-Philadelphia flavor has suddenly become one of the most popular flavor profiles around. The area’s cacio-e-pepe king is native Gianluca Demontis, the Roman chef-owner behind Melograno (2012 Sansom St.), Fraschetta (816 Lancaster Ave, Bryn Mawr), and L’Anima (1001 S 17th St.), the modern trattoria in Graduate Hospital where he uses the square-cut tonnarelli spaghetti for an ivory sauce that strikes the perfect balance between pasta-clinging richness and the heady tang of sheep’s milk cheese sparked by black pepper. But there are other great cacios to try, such as the $12 plate at Cry Baby Pasta (627 S. Third St.) where Parmesan and fresher Pecorino Toscano are used for a slightly softer flavor profile with snappy, house-extruded spaghetti, or DaMò Pasta Lab (105 S. 12th St.), where the sauce is considerably creamier, but the house-extruded tonnarelli has an impressive bite for a quick-serve concept. You’ll find more upscale versions in South Jersey at Ita 101 (20 S. Main St., Medford) and swanky Cafe 2825 (2825 Atlantic Ave., Atlantic City), where it’s made inside the hollow of a wheel of Pecorino that’s rolled up beside your table.
Cacio e pepe has become popular enough, however, for the essence of its flavor combo — Pecorino and pepper — to step beyond its role as simply pasta sauce. That combo infuses the fried rice arancini and Supplì al Telefono fritters at Barbuzzo (110 S. 13th St.) and Rione (102 S. 21st St.). It seasons the deep-fried fritelle fritters at Fiore (757 S. Front St.) that stand in for croutons in the salad, and on their own as an app with tomato jam. At Alice Pizza (235 S. 15th St.), cacio e pepe is one of the star toppings on its Roman-style taglio pizzas, paired with smoked provola cheese and mozzarella.
There’s so much good traditional Mexican food in Philly right now, from moles to tamales and soft taco treasures, I’ve drifted away from the crunchy-cheesy border specialties that for many years defined Mexican flavors in America. But nachos? I will not resist. There’s just something so magnetic about a heap of hot fresh chips layered with salsas, meats, and molten rivers of cheese that it’s become the ultimate goal-oriented object of my hunger’s desire. With a margarita (or two) for fuel, I become a human backhoe bent on nacho destruction until that mountain is leveled to tortilla crumbs and a few spare beans.
The Nachos de la Casa at Cantina Feliz (424 S Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington) and their Fairmount and Manayunk outposts, La Calaca Feliz (2321 Fairmount Ave.) and Taqueria Feliz (4410 Main St.) is a work of nacho art, where every chip in the pile has a purpose, the chile de árbol salsa is deeply roasty, the cheese blends gringo ooze with true Mex flavors, and the use of micro-textures, from matchstick radishes to bright green plumes of cilantro, adds subtlety — a word not uttered often around nachos. There is nothing subtle about the mountainous, multi-meat-laden Nachos de Kenzo at Loco Pez (2401 E. Norris St.), where the guac-crowned platter requires two hands to safely deliver. Slightly more manageable renditions of the classic can be found topped with Chihuahua cheese and chorizo at Rosy’s Taco Bar (2220 Walnut St.) and at Los Camaradas (918 S. 22nd St.), where the short-rib nachos and margaritas are the two best (perhaps only) reasons to come. The Macho Nachos with chicken tinga at venerable El Vez (121 S. 13th St.) were notable because they arrive in a single layer across a wide round pan — an intriguing modern move toward chip-topping uniformity, but one that also requires some fork assistance.
Not surprisingly, South Philly’s authentic Mexican restaurants are less preoccupied by nacho craft. But my two favorites are at Blue Corn (940 S. Ninth St.), where the fresh blue chips come with a Chihuahua-mozz cheese blend and two salsas (árbol and pico); but also at El Viejo Rancho (942 S. Fifth St.), where chef and co-owner Silvestre Rincón does a beef rendition of the Massaman-curied Thai-fusion nachos he developed at the now-closed Tuk Tuk Real.
Philly’s Global Rice Kitchen
As Philly is a city of immigrants, it’s no surprise its rice pot is overflowing with a United Nations of vivid flavors, infused with tradition and satisfying comforts drawn from every continent.
Paella is the ultimate one-pan meal for sharing, where the add-in possibilities are limitless, and the contrast in textures is essential, including a good, crusty socarrat formed by direct heat on pan’s bottom and rounded edges. Our Spanish restaurant scene has ebbed and flowed, but Oloroso (1121 Walnut St.) is currently our finest paella kitchen, where the slightly smoky, red-tinted Calasparra rice comes with a variety of toppings — classic seafood bountiful with shellfish and the bonus crunch of fried calamari; a vegetarian that zips with salsa verde, and a more adventurous version filled with snails and meaty chunks of pork belly. I love that Jamonera (105 S. 13th St.) offers the possibility of an individually sized “mixta” that doesn’t compromise one bit on flavor or variety of meats and seafood. The classic Valenciana with tender chicken, saffron rice and chorizo at Amada (217-219 Chestnut St.) would have been perfect had the kitchen not gone squeeze-bottle loco with too much saffron aioli. (Who puts mayo on paella?!) Head to Northeast Philly for a glorious (and moister) Portuguese take on seafood paella at Tio Pepe Restaurant & Bar (6618 Castor Ave.) while Loco Lucho’s Latino Kitchen (Reading Terminal Market) serves its sunshine yellow rice Puerto Rican style with lots of cuminy sausage and savory morsels of chicken.
I regularly crave the Korean comfort of a hot stone bowl crisping the rice, mixed veggies, meat and spicy gochujang sauce of a Dolsot Bibimbap — especially in winter. You can get soul-warming versions of the standard in town at Koreana (37 S. 19th St.), Dae Bak in Chinatown Square (1016 Race St.), and Rice & Mix (1207 Walnut St.), which allows maximum toppings customization (spicy pork’s my favorite). But my ultimate version requires a short drive to Dubu (1333 W. Cheltenham Ave. Elkins Park), where a wider bowl called a “dolpan bibimbap” provides more surface area to crisp the rice and the extra heat to focus this kitchen’s uncompromisingly punchy flavors.
Other essential rice dishes: The crispy turmeric-tinted Persian rice at Zahav ( 237 St. James Pl.) is a reason in itself to get the lamb shoulder. The earthy plov from Shish-Kabob Palace (1683 Grant Ave.) is thoroughly infused with Uzbek lamby goodness. The spicy red jollof rice with fried whiting and stewed beef from Wazobia Nigerian Restaurant (616 N. 11th St.) brings the taste of West Africa to North Philly. The pungently aromatic flavors of cardamom, fried onions, and chili powder infuses every spicy thread of basmati in the ambur dum biryani at Amma’s South Indian Cuisine (1518 Chestnut St.) with a genuine Tamil Nadu personality. I covet the layered crunch and contrast of fresh lettuce leaves wrapped around crispy naam rice salad at Lao Vientiane Bistro (2537 Kensington Ave.) where fried cones of jasmine rice are crushed with grated coconut, red curry, citrus, and herbs. At Royal Sushi & Izakaya (780 S. Second St.), the sushi rice is so good it’s memorable as an omakase course on its own — especially topped with a fistful of shaved truffles and Parmesan.
In such a great ice cream city, stellar milkshakes are a given. And I indulge in them frequently, from the retro flavors at Franklin Fountain (116 Market St.) like Hydrox cookie, to the malt shop classic takes on a black-and-white shake to accompany a cheesesteak at Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop (6030 Torresdale Ave.; 1 W. Girard Ave.), or a slider lunch at Charlie’s Burgers (237 East MacDade Boulevard, Folsom). There are seasonal shakes like the blueberry summer wonder with Trickling Springs Creamery ice cream at Moo (137 S Main St., New Hope) in Bucks County. There are Philly pride candy shakes, like the Brotherly Love at Craftsman Row Saloon (112 S. Eighth St.), where vanilla ice cream is whirred with Hershey’s syrup, a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, a Tastykake chocolate cupcake, and a Tastykake peanut butter Kandy Kake. Boozy upgrade optional.
But no shake right now is more obsession-worthy than the magical tehina shakes at Goldie (multiple locations), which I come for even more than the falafel. They’re so remarkable not only because of vivid flavors like the Turkish coffee with crumbled halva, or the mint chocolate chip. These sublimely creamy sippers astound because they’re entirely dairy free and vegan, and you’d never ever know it.