Celebrating Northeast Philly's dynamic, diverse and underappreciated food culture
When people talk about Philadelphia's hottest restaurant neighborhoods, trendy Fishtown and East Passyunk will likely come to mind, as well as upscale Rittenhouse Square. But … humble Northeast Philly? Could it be our next boulevard of exciting culinary dreams?
After nearly 60 meals there over the last few months, from Peruvian ceviche in Lawndale to Uzbek kebabs in Bustleton, classic Italian hoagies in Tacony and Rhawnhurst, and stellar dim sum in the budding Chinatown around Castor Gardens, where you'll also find a carnivore's dream of several Brazilian churrasco grills, it's become clear to me that few parts of the country can match the dynamic diversity of the Great Northeast, where nearly 30 percent of the population northwest of the Roosevelt Boulevard is foreign-born. Few places in the city reflect its dramatic demographic shifts so vividly through food. And few areas are so misunderstood, or lacking respect.
"Every day, I feel like someone is thumbing their nose at us," says Kristopher Serviss, the chef and co-owner at Blue Duck, a creative New American BYOB in Winchester Park where duck breasts come encrusted in "everything" bagel spice and the unusual burgers are ground with pork roll. "Northeast people are a different brand from what you'll find in [Center City]. A little more blue-collar, a ton of union workers, and with a little more grit. And we're kind of overlooked."
That's an understatement. Though nearly a third of Philadelphia's population lives northeast of Tacony Creek, few Center City residents -- including several Northeast natives I know -- would ever think to head up Bustleton Avenue in search of dinner amid the area's vast swath of two-story brick tract housing. I've been guilty, too, having formally reviewed and rated just five restaurants there over the last 19 years.
But after bounding from Transylvanian stuffed cabbage in Somerton to coconut-scented South Indian curries on Krewstown Road, some of Philly's best pho on Adams Avenue, a Russian smoked meat and feta shopping spree at Bell's Market, not to mention impressive versions of more ensconced traditions, like tomato pie, cheesesteaks, and the last beacons of the classic diner tradition, I'm making up for lost time with a comprehensive guide to the Northeast's restaurants and markets in today's Food section.
What struck me along the way, however, were the dramatic contrasts between the old and new Northeast. The communities east of the Boulevard along the Delaware are largely still long-established white enclaves rooted in Italian, Irish, and Polish traditions, reflected in the old-school taverns, kielbasa butchers, hoagie delis, beer bars, and aging diners. In the areas west of the Boulevard where Jewish populations once settled the post-WWII neighborhoods around Oxford Circle, Castor Gardens, and Rhawnhurst, a United Nations of immigrants has now settled in, chasing their own Philadelphia rowhouse dreams.
With the population of the Northeast at 423,720, more than 78,000 are immigrants. More than 11,600 come from the former Soviet states of Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Belarus. There are 7,800 Indians, many of them from the southern state of Kerala, which has a large Christian community that cooks with beef. There are 3,000 Brazilians, nearly 5,000 Vietnamese and Cambodians, and 7,500 Chinese -- 10 times the population that now lives in land-locked Chinatown. Each community has its own restaurants.
And the ethnic mix keeps churning. Al-Sham, a very good Middle Eastern halal grill originally opened by a Palestinian, is now run by another Muslim, Bengladeshi chef Shoron Khan, along with his Malaysian wife, Moni. "The Northeast is a big melting pot now, and that's what Al-Sham represents," she said.
Such changes can be hard for nostalgists to stomach, as touchstones of Jewish cooking like the Country Club Diner were sold and entered a precipitous decline -- to the point where they actually neglected to serve me a matzo ball with my matzo ball soup. The big Monopoly board-style menus at tired Jack's Deli are literally peeling apart at the seams.
But forward-thinkers like newly elected State Rep. Jared Solomon, 38, who ran his campaign from the Castor Gardens storefront of his great-grandparents' onetime kosher butcher shop, see it differently. He views this immigrant infusion of entrepreneurial spirit expressed through food as untapped potential to both nurture and market his corner of the Northeast.
"We need to celebrate these neighborhoods as a remarkably diverse destination," Solomon said over a pan of paella and garlicky grilled quails at Tio Pepe, a traditional Portuguese restaurant on Castor Avenue, not far from a Colombian grill, On Charcoal, several Brazilian churrascos, and a Jamaican take-out nook called Miracles that makes a soulful oxtail stew.
"Food can be the organizing principle for us," says Solomon's aide, Andrew Dalzell. "It's the shared ideology and common interest we all have. You don't have to be Portuguese to enjoy Tio Pepe, or entice your friend out for dinner from Center City."
The skeptics of Center City may take time. But the cheerleaders can start with residents of the Northeast itself, many of whom are still isolated in their own community bubbles and who expressed in multiple conversations an unawareness of the treasures that surrounded them.
Over the last 24 years, Gianni Primavera and his twin brother, Davide, have grown their restaurant, Macaroni's (not to be confused with the chain), from a little BYOB into a handsome full-service Italian destination with a gorgeous new glass-enclosed patio called P Squared Lounge that's one of the city's undiscovered gems. But he has never been to Suzani Arts Cafe, an Uzbek restaurant decorated with evocative tapestries that is in the parking lot directly behind their restaurant.
"Suzani? It sounds familiar," he conceded, "but I guess I'm guilty of not truly seeing what's happening in my own area."
What I saw from my own eating adventures were some surprisingly common threads that already linked some truly disparate traditional foods, albeit expressed in vividly different flavors. One could do a meatball tour of the Northeast that takes you from the kobe beef polpette of Macaroni's Sunday gravy to the tender chicken meatballs bobbing in homemade chicken soup at Shish-Kebab Palace to the glatt kosher kofta kebabs at Judah Grille. You can eat a classic Italian hoagie at DeNofa's, a Polish hoagie lined with house-made Krakowska lunch meat at Robert Lachowicz in Bridesburg, and what may be the city's best Vietnamese banh mi hoagie at Cafe Saigon on Adams Avenue. At Ateethi, a South Indian restaurant on Krewstown Road, you can even find a Kerala-spiced cheesesteak wrapped inside a dosa crepe that may be the ultimate result of the Northeast's ability to meld second-generation immigrant flavors with a touch of America into an authentic expression of the new Philadelphia.
"I'm Philly-born, I'm raised here, and I'm in love with the food," said Ateethi's owner, Jeffy Josephs, 24, whose chef father, Manuel, first cooked a version of that cheesesteak at home. "Our parents loved their culture so much they wanted us to hold on to it, too, which is why we opened this restaurant. But everyone gets to add a little bit of their own self into their own food in Northeast Philly, and this is just a great way to connect them both."