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Cheu Fishtown is a magnetic force

Cheu Fishtown is among Craig LaBan's best of Philadelphia.

The octopus mural at Cheu Fishtown.
The octopus mural at Cheu Fishtown.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

The legend of Bubbie Chow began, like so many other flights of Asian Jewish fusion fancy, behind the steamy open-counter kitchen of the original Cheu Noodle Bar on 10th Street. It seems that chef and co-owner Ben Puchowitz's signature ramen, an unconventional bowl of brisket broth spiked with funky Korean kimchi spice and topped with a fluffy matzo ball, had sent such a powerful siren call from its photo feature in Bon Appétit magazine that a young chef in Boston decided he needed to move to Philadelphia to be a part of it.

Andy Chow, whom Puchowitz subsequently employed for two years as an "amazing" sous-chef at both Cheu and Bing Bing Dim Sum, happens to be Chinese American — but he grew up with a lot of Jewish friends. "He told me he felt connected to it," Puchowitz said. "And he reminisced about Jewish food memories so much … we used to joke that he had a Jewish grandmother. I gave her the fictitious name of 'Bubbie Chow.'"

Chef Andy has since returned to Boston. But Cheu's magnetic force has only continued to grow — and grow up — as evidenced by its latest and most polished branch, in Fishtown. A 19th-century carriage house has been transformed into a moody Asian night market counter wrapped in a riot of colorful graffiti art, with adoring hipster patrons slurping vegan noodle bowls in their beanie caps, and an energetic, youthful vibe that's tapped the edgy zeitgeist of Frankford Avenue's recent revival. In tandem with a maturing kitchen and impressive service, this latest incarnation is where Cheu's considerable ambition and vision are finally being executed at the level they deserve. After four years of refining the concept (including its short-lived stand in the Whole Foods food hall), it's now a cultural phenomenon in its own right as one of Philly's signature restaurants.

People get hung up on the notion of authenticity, but in many ways, Cheu is an expression of a new and genuine American experience, reflecting, among other cultural affinities, Jews' longtime love affair with Chinese food. The dishes resonate at full volume, evoking many places but harmonizing as something fresh that feels perfectly at home at a counter in Fishtown.

A prime example is the dish through which Chow's imaginary grandma lives on: "Bubbie Chow's Sliced Beef," a sharing platter of char siu brisket and onions braised in hoisin and oyster sauce flanked by a steamer basket of bao buns. It's a can't-miss centerpiece on Cheu's irrepressible menu — and a remarkably fair value at $26. Add dabs of beet-juice-infused BBQ sauce, spicy mustard, and a pickle with some meat to one of those puffy bun sandwiches, and it's like eating a divine Asian Reuben.

This large-format creation, a perfect anchor to jump-start a meal for three or four, is just the kind of dish Puchowitz and co-owner Shawn Darragh have long wanted to serve but never quite had the space to. And though 34 seats is by no means large (the 10th Street location has 24, and Bing Bing on East Passyunk has 50), this Fishtown branch has a hidden mezzanine prep room with equipment that has allowed Puchowitz the ability to finally refine and expand aspects of his menu that have long been a work in progress, with space for more dough work and the fresh-made bao buns that have become a steamy canvas for a world of tasty possibilities, from tender pork belly to scrapple and soybean falafel fritters.

Add in the al fresco patio this Cheu will eventually share with Nunu, the Japanese-inspired katsu and yakitori bar they're building next door, and this venture represents a solid next-level progression in every aspect for this restaurant group.

Though their early projects were created more or less on a shoestring, the bigger budget here was well spent on a pro in Kate Rohrer of Rohe Creative. Philly's current "it" restaurant designer (Double Knot, Bud & Marilyn's) did wonders in transforming the bones of this historic, arched-brick stable into a lively eating hall with intricate inlaid wood touches (plus a banquette made of milled oak rods that look like giant chopsticks), industrial accents (chain-link fence between the back booths), and indirect lighting that casts moody auras across the whitewashed brick counter and back wall, where a giant noodle-slurping octopus painted by a pair of renowned Brooklyn street artists presides over the room.

Squint and take in the hundreds of intricate cartoon characters created by Jon Billett as well as Puchowitz's brother Zach (also a famed glass pipe artist) that cover every surface of the room, from the counter stool cushions to the insanely intricate bathroom scrawled with designs across the fixtures, and the wallpaper made from a shimmery collage of ramen wrappers.

Other aspects of the operation have shown a similar refinement. The youthful staff may come to your table in Kenzo-style hoodies and multicolored hairdos, but they were able to articulate every detail of the emulsified oyster sauce for the Chinese broccoli, dissect the "corn nut furikake," and elaborate on the tea-infused Asian cocktail list with the ease of any veteran from an upscale dining room in Rittenhouse Square. (They also proactively noticed I didn't love the overly boozy Perfect Time and replaced it free of charge. )

And speaking of that corn nut furikake, an unlikely word string that melds my favorite turnpike snack with a nori-based Japanese spice blend to dust over a roasted sweet potato dish, this kitchen has taken big steps forward in polishing its repertoire, too. The culinary details in those early days four years ago often needed refining, especially when compared with their traditional Asian inspirations. But Puchowitz, who came to public notice as the chef at Matyson after his cousin Matt Spector left for California, has learned that the success zone resides in more unconventional riffs, a few fusion steps away from tradition. His best creations are witty and imaginative, energized by clever ingredient combos, and reliably delicious for $15 or less.

The value at the new Cheu is still exceptional, but it's the details of texture and consistently layered flavors that have been dialed in with greater precision. A gingery Thai basil curry lit with kaffir lime, chilies, and crushed peanuts illuminates the herbal delicacy of tender chicken wontons tucked beneath spiraling threads of spun raw daikon. Tiny rice pearls and a Chinese mustard vinaigrette add spark to the pristine tuna poke. The crunch of fried garlic, mint, and chili oil elevated the sweet softness of fried Asian eggplants set beneath a soulful ground pork and miso gravy, an early fall homage to a classic dish from Sagami, the venerable sushi haunt in Collingswood where Puchowitz nurtured his love of Asian flavors at a young age. For late fall, that gravy has been repurposed for the loco moco rice bowl beneath the comfort of a fried egg. A clever hit of smoke in the pork dumplings, paired with a dusting of fried quinoa, gives the familiar delicacy a puff and snap of new intrigue.

Cheu's chicken wings glazed in tangy caramelized black garlic sauce never needed improving. Something about the micro-crunch of sesame seeds and shaved scallions over the wings' crackly cornstarch crusts make them totally irresistible. But little improvements have continued to make the menu's greatest hits better, like the addition of chicken broth that now subtly buoys the brisket ramen with a rounder flavor, and a more careful process that leaves the bowl less greasy with fat (and more nutty with Korean ssamjang paste) than I recall.

With Fishtown's chef de cuisine Justin Bacharach (ex-Zahav/Percy Street) actively collaborating with Puchowitz, the menu's Jewish tones also seem more pronounced than ever, from the beet and goat cheese stuffings that make the handsomely pleated Rangoon dumplings taste like they contain liquid borscht to the flaky round "bing" pastry filled with ground beef and the funky ping of spicy kimchi that also comes streaked with a deli helping of Thousand Island dressing.

"You know, I guess we are a Jewish restaurant!" conceded Puchowitz, half in jest, with the sudden epiphany that a sizable chunk of his Asian menu comes with dill pickles or a schmear.

But in fact, the success of this latest Cheu is that it has finally grown up to become something uniquely personal that both captures the moment and also ultimately defies easy categorization. And the legend of Bubbie Chow that marks this latest chapter is only likely to grow.