Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The best things Craig LaBan ate in 2017

The best bites of Philly in 2017 brought a celebration of talent, tradition, and bold flavors, from breakfast through dessert.

The spaghetti and crabs at the Palizzi Social Club is Craig LaBan’s dish of the year.
The spaghetti and crabs at the Palizzi Social Club is Craig LaBan’s dish of the year.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Even by my hungry standards as a workaholic restaurant critic, 2017 was an epic feast. By rough estimates, I ate no fewer than 400 restaurant meals over the course of the year's weekly reviews, scouting restaurants, doing Crumb Tracker Quiz research, and producing my Jersey Shore series and two other gigantic projects that took me to Northeast Philly (60 restaurants) and the suburbs for our Ultimate Dining guide (160), which alone cost me no fewer than a quarter-million calories.

Yeah, that's a lot of payback time at the gym. But also some incredible flavor memories. There are really too many to list in one column. But here are more than a dozen that stood out the most.

This city has gone through a breakfast sandwich boom, with chefs reimagining the classic with better ingredients and more craftsmanship than the corporate standbys. It's fair to say I'm obsessed with the breakfast sandwich at Res Ipsa (2212 Walnut St.), not only because every element is house-made, from the muffin to the cardamom-scented fennel sausage, but because it remains a compact, affordable indulgence ($4.50 before extras) that is a Walnut Street Bridge commuter's dream. With that punchy long hot pepper salsa verde spread across the bottom, there's a zesty wakeup for your taste buds before you even get to work. One McIpsa to go!

Have you heard of the kouign amann? It's worth mastering the name of this once-obscure wonder of sweet Breton viennoiserie popularized by New York Cronut master Dominique Ansel. Say "queen a-mon" and prepare for the crackle of gossamer caramel sheets whose pastry leaves are folded in, one upon another, like God's muffin. There are a few fine renditions in Philly right now. But the heart of this beauty from baker and co-owner Melissa Weller at the Walnut Street Cafe (Cira Centre South) flows with a dreamy core of chocolate hazelnut cream. I took one bite and it was, like, what just happened?!

I've had tuna tartare a thousand times, but never quite like this one at Mica (8609 Germantown Ave.), where the pink dice of albacore is glazed in lemon oil, then completely covered by a hydrangea-shaped bouquet of microplaned carrot chips. It's a testament to the elegant eye of Mica's talented new chef-owner, Yianni Arhontoulis, who lets the subtle touches make a difference. The carrot's delicate sweet snap accented the tuna's luscious softness, and then the whole combination swooned when a dashi broth infused with smoked jalapeños and roasted peanuts was poured over the top tableside.

A blackened tuna steak? Sure, we've had plenty lot of those, too. But this thick-cut beauty at Hooked Up Seafood was special because I ate it at a dockside picnic table beside the boat Defiance, whose captain, commercial fisherman Bill Bright, was butchering the rest of a 55-pound yellowfin just a few feet away. Like all the self-caught seafood at this red-and-blue shanty (1044 W. Rio Grande Ave.) attached to a food truck on the causeway heading into Wildwood, it was cooked to medium-rare perfection by Bright's wife, chef, and partner, Michelle. A side of sweet Jersey corn, pineapple salsa, a warm summer breeze, and a sky-blue view of the picturesque marshlands around us was all I needed to know I'd found the Jersey Shore fish shack of my dreams.

I'm a hoagie-holic, but this year was my first taste of the micro-regional sandwich treasure of Norristown that is the "zep" at Eve's Lunch (318 Johnson Highway). A zep is like a hoagie, but it's not. It's the South Philly sandwich's more straightforward Montco cousin. And there are rules that define it. It comes on a roll that's wider than a typical hoagie roll,  and, yes, its shape evokes a zeppelin. You don't mix meats. The onion and tomato are cut extra-thick. There's a nice zesty smear of hot pepper relish. And there's absolutely never, ever any lettuce: "Not allowed on the premises," says Anthony Mashett, whose mother, Eve (Scirica) Mashett, bought their sandwich shop in 1965. Lucky for me, mine was made by Josephine Wieber, who, with half a century behind Eve's counter, may be the most experienced sandwich master in the region. That's why I take as gospel her explanation for hand-slicing every sweet onion and tomato to order: "You want all the vegetables' juices to go straight into that sandwich."

Sometimes a change of scenery can do wonders to let a talent blossom. In his new role as chef at (135 S. 18th St.), former Pub & Kitchen cook Eli Collins lets his passion for rustic French cuisine shine, especially with the family-style sharing platters that change with the seasons. The late fall chill brought the wonder of this glorious Alsatian choucroute feast for two. This platter of sauerkraut, cured for five weeks, then cooked with Riesling and juniper, came piled high with carrots and a feast of four porks — a juicy Berkshire chop scented with allspice and clove; house sausages infused with nutmeg and wine; a tender hunk of mustard-braised shoulder; and thick nubs of rillon-style pork belly whose butter-soft layers of fat and flesh were ribboned by an edge so shatteringly crisp, the thrilling crunch of each porcine bite could be heard across the table.

My dish of the year: Too many of our old food traditions are fading, but Joey Baldino cooked with the angels of Italian South Philly on his shoulders this year at Palizzi Social Club (1408 S. 12th St.) as he breathed fresh life into the homey favorites of his youth. There were so many special bites here, from his mom's stromboli to the colorful spumoni made fresh in house. But no dish haunted my dreams like Palizzi's spaghetti with crabs, a tangle of snappy strands in gravy so deeply steeped, it was a zesty tomato tidal wave of sweet and briny crustacean. Not a member of the club? You can cook like a son of the Italian Market, too — because we've got the recipe: because we've got the recipe.

I found scores of unexpected international delights during my spring journey across Northeast Philly. The discovery of China Gourmet (6824 Bustleton Ave.), the star of a mini-Chinatown strip just south of Cottman Avenue, was one of the best surprises. Not only does it put out one of the finest Cantonese dim-sum carts in the city — owner-chef Ming Feng has a tank of live seafood treasure in the front window that includes enormous 12-pound lobsters and 10-pound crabs. I'll need a party of 10 and more than $400 to indulge in one of those big boys some day. But this smaller Hong Kong-style medley of a Dungeness crab and lobster – about five pounds in all — was one incredible teaser. Fished live from the tank, they were on our table minutes later, wok-seared to a crisp beneath a microcrust scattered with crumbles of seasoned ground pork.

Some of the world's greatest foods are also among the simplest,  and Philly's "tomato pie" tradition is a ideal example. It's just crust and sauce, right? Little more than a cheeseless pizza? Well, no. When you taste a truly great slice like the one I devoured at classic Gaeta's in Northeast Philly, every detail we often take for granted in more complicated pizza is suddenly amplified in delicious relief: a roasty crackle where its crust crisps and caramelizes around the edges of an old steel pan; the airy texture and rich flavor of well-fermented dough; and, most important, that tomato sauce. The balance of Gaeta's sauce is what makes it special — not too sweet, not too acidic, and so perfectly tuned to such a deeply zesty power, I could taste its oregano-dusted tomato essence on my lips for days after it was gone.

I had a lot of stellar steaks in 2017, from the porterhouse at Walnut Street Cafe to the bone-in rib eye dry-aged for 55 days at Merchantville's Park Place Cafe. But the 35-ounce porterhouse at Hearthside (801 Haddon Ave., Collingswood) had it all — tenderness, a deeply complex dry-aged savor, a juicy thickness edged by a primal crust that comes from being seared directly over the hardwood coals that fill the entire dining room of this year's best new restaurant with the incredible aroma of dinner being roasted over flames.

It was a memorable year for new restaurants in South Jersey (see Hearthside above.) Another big surprise was Park Place Cafe, an adorable little BYOB in Merchantville (7 E. Park Ave.) where chef Phil Manganaro, a veteran of many Starr kitchens, including Il Pittore, is doing everything in-house, from the crusty breads to the tupelo juice made from foraged berries to the sea salt he boils down himself from ocean water brought back from a surfing jaunt to the Shore. The pastas are also spectacular, including the fettucinie vongole, a towering heap of silky fettuccine ribbons tangled up with tender littlenecks and herbs. It's a classic dish, given a next-level boost by craftsmanship and the addition of finely ground house fennel sausage, which lent it porky depth and spice.

Jesse Ito's masterful omakase tastings at the sushi counter at the back of Royal Izakaya (780 S. Second St.) unfold like chapters. You begin with a prelude of lean fish, like the lightly torched "kinki" and striped beaked bream, turn to the buttery comfort of king salmon belly, segue into a trilogy of tuna vignettes cut from the different shades of same big bluefin, and finish with a rousing parade of rich raw shellfish. My favorite chapter in this $125 feast, however, lands somewhere in the middle. It's a full-flavored homage to the world of the "shiny fish," whose silvery skins and dusky flesh ratchet up the intensity morsel by morsel, from delicate sayori needlefish to gizzard shad, then tiny iwashi sardines tempered in a cleansing wash of vinegar and soy.

The opening of a larger new Cheu Fishtown (1416 Frankford Ave.) was a coming of age for chef Ben Puchowitz and Shawn Darragh's fusion noodle phenomenon. If the 10th Street original is a close-quarters counter designed for diners to slurp and run, Fishtown's lively space was conceived with more lingering in mind. And so was this fantastic sharing platter of Bubbie Chow's sliced beef, a healthy serving of char siu brisket and onions braised in hoisin and oyster sauce flanked by a steamer basket of puffy bao buns made in house. It's a can't-miss centerpiece on Cheu's irrepressible menu, a prime example of the Jewish accents that add a frequent wink to these multiculti inspirations — 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 buns, and it's like eating a divine Asian Reuben.

The vivid green falafel balls got all the glory when Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook opened their vegan sandwich counter Goldie (1516 Sansom St.) above their Rooster Soup Co. this spring. And it's true, those chickpea fritters are now the city's falafel standard, which is no surprise from the golden team behind Zahav and Dizengoff, which also supplies the pitas. The real surprise is what happens at dessert, when Goldie whirs up a series of sweet tahini shakes that are so amazingly creamy it's an absolute miracle they're also dairy-free. Every flavor is a winner, but the one I can't resist is the shake with Turkish coffee, which adds a caffeinated pick-me-up to every satisfyingly rich sip.