Food writer Carolyn Wyman wrote a regular feature for Philadelphia City Paper that probed the stories behind some of Philadelphia's most popular dishes. Alas, City Paper ceased publication. We're proud to continue Carolyn's fine work here at philly.com/food.
The TLA rock club across the street has fed Ishkabibble's a steady stream of famous customers over more than three decades of fast-food-making - Joan Jett, Menudo and "Weird Al" Yankovic among them. But none are as important to this little cheesesteak shop as the furniture-maker who stopped by recently for a Gremlin.
He is Alan Levine, the customer who invented the lemonade/grape drink hybrid that helped make Ishkabibble's a South Street icon. (The shop's wacky name, brash pink-and-black color scheme and pioneering chicken cheesesteak also contributed.)
Water excepted, the Gremlin is the best-selling noncarbonated drink at both Ishkabibble's locations, says owner Young Ahn. It sells especially well in the summer and with younger people "because they're willing to try new things" and because of kids' love of fruit flavors.
Asked about the Gremlin's origins, Ahn repeats the story he was told by Ishkabibble's founder Bart Brown. "It was invented by a regular customer who thought the stand's grape juice alone was too sweet and the lemonade was a little too sour and so asked for a half-and-half mixture to make it just right." This customer also came up with the catchy name featuring letters from the names of both contributing drinks. But Brown, who is now deceased, never told him the customer's name.
"His name was Alan, or Michael. He had a woodworking shop on South Street," says Kim Sowden, who was Brown's business partner when Ishkabibble's opened in spring 1985. "This guy came in here almost every day and asked for half grape and half lemonade. Finally I told him we needed to turn it into a drink," Sowden recalled on the phone recently. Besides its portmanteau qualities, the name Gremlin was then "on people's radar," she added, from the hit Gremlins movie.
The Gremlin "really appealed to young people, though it wasn't our top item: Chicken cheesesteaks made us what we were," which was, to hear Sowden, two people who spent a lot of time cutting the veins out of fresh chicken tenders. As for the Gremlin: "I didn't drink them because I was into health food - the Ishkabibble's concept was healthy fast-food - and Gremlins were loaded with sugar."
"The person you're looking for is Alan Levine," wrote Joel Spivak, South Street's unofficial historian, in answer to an email asking if he knew of a furniture maker named Alan or Michael who owned a store on Fourth Street near South in the mid-1980s. From there it was only a quick Google search to Levine's alldezign.biz firm's website, complete with cell.
"Yes, that's me," Levine said after answering his phone, when asked if he invented the Gremlin, sounding both surprised and pleased. He confirmed the basic facts relayed by Ahn and Sowden, adding that he had a Gremlin as recently as six months ago. And he agreed to return to the drink's birthplace for a photo.
I arrived to find Levine reminiscing with graying motorcyclist Bob, who has apparently been hanging out at Ishkabibble's since the late 1980s. As he waited for his Gremlin, Levine recalled the "thrill" of first seeing his drink on the menu. It's currently listed as "our Famous Gremlin."
"Kids will come in here and ask for the Gargoyle or the Gorilla or the Gizmo, but I know what they want," says longtime Ishkabibble's employee John Plano, as he pushed the drink over the counter.
For almost as long as he's been working there, Plano has been handing out a laminated FAQ sheet explaining the restaurant's name. Among other things, it says that Ishkabibble's is the nickname of big band trumpeter Merwyn Bogue, whose picture Plano points out among the celebrity customer 8x10s that line one wall.
One picture not on the wall that probably should be: One of Gremlin inventor Alan Levine.
Get it: $2 for a medium or $2.50 for a large at Ishkabibble's, 337 South St., 215-923-4337, and Ishkabibble's II, 517 South St., 215-922-0494; www.philacheesesteak.com.