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Making hot pot hotter | Let’s Eat

Cool approach to hot pot in Chinatown.

The rail carries a small train bearing hot food from the kitchen at Chubby Cattle.
The rail carries a small train bearing hot food from the kitchen at Chubby Cattle.Read moreMICHAEL KLEIN / Staff

A conveyor belt and a train to send food to your table? That's just part of the shtick at a slick Chinatown newcomer. Also this week, I visit two new, polished "Main Street" BYOBs — an American bistro in Jenkintown and an Italian in Haddonfield — while critic Craig LaBan weighs in on his favorite falafel. If you need food news, click here and follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Email tips, suggestions, and questions here. If someone forwarded you this newsletter and you like what you're reading, sign up here to get it free every week.

— Michael Klein

Chubby Cattle: Do you Wagyu?

Food delivered to your restaurant table by refrigerated conveyor belt or by train? Chubby Cattle — a high-energy newcomer opening Nov. 7 at 146 N. 10th St. in Chinatown — is on track to shake up the traditional Mongolian, Tibetan, and Chinese hot-pot experience.

Chubby Cattle, conceived and bankrolled by a band of entrepreneurs all under age 25, last year started doing tabletop cookery in Las Vegas. A Denver location is on the way.

The basics: Order via iPad. Choose a broth and spice level. Mix up a sauce from condiments at the table. Out come ingredients that you add to cook in your broth, including mushrooms, live shellfish, and richly marbled, buttery delicious Wagyu beef (hence "chubby cattle"). Though waiters work the room, cold ingredients wend around by conveyor belt and hot food from the kitchen, such as shrimp skewers, comes out on a rail system atop the conveyor belt.

See the process in my Instagram story.

You pay only for what you order. Here is the menu, which includes such specialties as Wagyu nigiri. Per-person tabs start about $30 and easily can top $100. (This Wagyu beef, sourced from Japan, is not cheap; it's also sold through a retail counter near the front door.)

Liquor license is on its way. Hours now are 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday, till 1 a.m.  Thursday to Saturday. Lunch (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) will start in about a week.

This week’s openings

Chubby Cattle | Chinatown

See above.

George's Sandwich Shop | South Philadelphia

The Italian Market stand has reopened after a nine-month renovation.

Kinme | Washington Square West

Japanese BYO in a storefront at 1117 Locust St.

Mainstay Independent | Northern Liberties

First phase of the Craft Hall project includes a tasting room at the former Yards Brewing, 901 N. Delaware Ave.

Vitality Bowls | King of Prussia

Acai specialist opening Nov. 8 at the King of Prussia Town Center will give out free bowls to the first 50 customers; all others will be BOGO.

This week’s closings

Jon's Bar & Grill | Queen Village

Longtime watering hole at Third and South Streets is up for sale.

12th Street Cantina | Reading Terminal Market

The fixture at Reading Terminal had a 36-year run.

Where we’re enjoying happy hour

Royal Boucherie, 52 S. Second St., 5-7 p.m. Monday to Friday

Happy hour comes with a hint of romance, courtesy of the lantern-lit vibe at this antiques-filled taproom in Old City. Royal Boucherie just launched its happy hour Oct. 29, and specials are simple: $7 glasses of Loire Valley red and white, prosecco on tap, $4 draft beers, $7 bartenders' choice cocktails (they dictate the mixers, while you call the spirit), and half-price snacks from the menu. That means chef Nick Elmi's signature pork-stuffed fried olives are only $3.50, and the steamed P.E.I. mussels, chicken liver on toast, and fried squash sticks are $5, as is my favorite: the shaved veal and pork belly with garlic aioli, anchovy, and cornichon on seeded rye.

Where we’re eating

Keep, 417 Old York Rd., Jenkintown

Time was, Mirna's Cafe was all the rage in a downtown Jenkintown storefront, and the walls seemed to throb nightly with boisterous patrons enjoying Mediterranean food. The spot is now a far more sedate and refined (yet charmingly relaxed) mom-and-pop BYOB called Keep, backed by chef Mike Jenkins, a Di Bruno's cheesemonger-turned-Garces executive chef, and longtime front-of-the-house manager Melody Lauletta. Tight, vegetable-forward menu — nothing too precious — starts with (naturally) cheese and charcuterie boards. You'll especially want to try squash soup, cavatelli with crispy duck, scallops, and a homespun creation called crepes Michelle; it's a riff on Jenkins' mom's leftover creation using chicken, mushrooms, tarragon, Gruyere, and chicken-skin crumbles. Figure on $80 a couple. Hours are 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday.

Verona Ristorante Italiano141 Kings Highway East, Haddonfield

The Philly area has a series of Italian BYOBs run by Albanian entrepreneurs who immigrated to Italy after the fall of communism and secured restaurant jobs there, eventually taking their skills to the United States. Vera Çorja Bodi and Afrim Bodi, with sons Erjon and Endrit, have set up this white-tablecloth Italian BYOB on the former site of Little Tuna, which is now in Lindenwold. Verona really is the baby of Endrit Bodi, 24, who previously managed the family's La Vecchia Fontana in Avalon, while also juggling criminal-justice studies at Temple University and waiting tables at Kitchen Consigliere in Collingswood. Chef Artur Haxhiu, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Athens and worked all over Europe, offers the familiar Italian fare as well as a few surprises, including a clever appetizer of creamy burrata with peach and crispy prosciutto, and a killer cheesecake for dessert. It's open daily for lunch and dinner; figure on $65 a couple for dinner.

Dining Notes

Even seasoned home cooks can be intimidated by pie crust. We asked Philadelphia experts to teach us how to make a little something sweet to round out the holiday meal.

Porch & Proper is pushing the Collingswood restaurant scene forward, critic Craig LaBan says, adding that he believes three-bell excellence is within its eventual reach. 

Honeygrow was founded on a pledge to buy local when possible. We traced the healthy fast-casual chain's products from goat farm and factory to your salad and stir-fry. 

Craig LaBan answers your dining questions

Reader: Have you been to the new Mamoun's (at 300 Market St.) in Old City? I'm wondering how this New York falafel legend stacks-up to Philly's other falafel spots?

Craig LaBan: Yes! And I have been to the new Old City outpost of this legendary New York pioneer, which just opened its first branch in Philly last month. Mamoun's began serving falafel in Greenwich Village in 1971, and, considering my usual skepticism of out-of-town chains that land here with considerable hype, it turns out to be pretty fantastic.

We have a lot of falafel in Philly now, much of it very good. I'll get to some of those other favorites in a minute.

But Mamoun's version of the ground chickpea fritter is very traditional — the Middle Eastern street food as you know it, but perfected with a vividly herbed green center that's moist and flavorful without being too dense, and a deeply browned, craggy, deep-fried crunch on the exterior whose flavor and texture can stand up to the mountain of pickles and veggies and rivers of tahini that get drizzled on top into the overstuffed pita pocket.

The shaved lamb shawarma, by the way, is just as good, its tender meat seasoned with a Syrian spice blend that speaks to this restaurant's origin roots.

Of course, while Mamoun's claims to be New York's first falafel joint, it's hardly Philly's first. We have a super-cheffy version at Goldie (1526 Sansom St.) from Michael Solomonov. But while I love pretty much everything else Solo cooks at Zahav and Dizengoff, this isn't my favorite falafel.

The flavor is great. The amba sauce is awesome. And Goldie's has the best fresh-baked pitas. But the delicate fritters just don't hold up to all the fancy fixins and quickly lose their crunch. (A tahini shake, meanwhile, is worth the trip alone).

My favorite dedicated falafel shop has long been the Israeli-owned Mama's Vegetarian (18 S. 20th St.), where the falafel's super crisp and the fresh pitas and fried eggplant rounds (my favorite add-in along with baba ghanoush) more than compensate for the sometimes gruff service and cash-only policy.

Mamoun's is a definite competitor to Mama's crispy crown, and Mamoun's tidy new fast-casual corner spot is already humming with efficient and friendly customer service.

Meanwhile, Philly has numerous other good falafels worth seeking. I love the flattened disc-shaped falafels from Aya's Cafe (2129 Arch St.) in Logan Square, which crusts the exterior Egyptian-style with coriander and sesame seeds.

The Cypriot-style falafels at Kanella Grill (1001 Spruce St.) are always fresh and flavorful.

The West Bank-style falafel is a bonus at the hidden grill tucked into the back of the Liberty Choice Market in Fishtown (1939-47 N. Front St.) where I'm also a fan of the chicken kebabs.

But speaking of Fishtown, that is where you'll find one of Philly's most refined falafels at Suraya (1528 Frankford Ave.), the sprawling Lebanese palace where chef Nick Kennedy infuses his lunchtime-only fritters with a vivid dose of cilantro, parsley and cumin before they're delicately crisped and are served inside a fresh pita alongside Suraya's fabulous spiced fries.

So many choices in Philly's falafel universe! And with Mamoun's, we just got another chickpea fritter star.

Email Craig here