A WILLINGNESS to think outside the box is a valued trait in today's restaurant landscape, but the chefs who show up to work at Garage seem very happy to cook inside one.
The South Philly beer bar, which last summer replaced the Satellite Auto Body shop, near Pat's and Geno's, doesn't scream culinary proving ground. Its clever camouflage, original sign and all, leads many to dismiss it as a place to get your carburetor checked. But inside, an innovative kitchen approach has finally hit first gear: an open-invite food cart, accommodating an enthusiastic roster of cooks eager to break up the on-the-line monotony.
At roughly 10 square feet (maybe), Garage's stand-alone anti-kitchen is the size of a modest cloakroom, albeit one with steam tables, a flattop and a 12-inch char grill. Despite its hook-me-up-to-a-truck looks, this tin can is in permanent residence, hardwired with a cold well, a hood system, water and gas - the same specs required of a four-walled kitchen, executed inside a street-vending window accessible across from Garage's bar.
With four taps and 150-plus beers in cans, plus billiards, Skeeball and a lively South Philly crowd, Garage is a little too laid back for a conventional food program. "We wanted a small kitchen, but we didn't want to be a 'restaurant' restaurant," said Jason Evenchik, who owns Garage with Terrance Leach, Sal D'Amato and Josh McCullough.
Kicking around thoughts in the developmental stages, McCullough, a chef who checks in on Evenchik's four other properties (Vintage, Time, Bar and Growlers), floated the idea of a dry-docked food truck that could host different chefs every night. The partners loved it and sketched up the idea on blueprints, which were approved by the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections.
Predictably, the unconventional nature of the idea - "a mobile kitchen that wasn't mobile anymore" - threw the city Health Department for a loop.
"The biggest problem was that nobody really knew what to do or say about it - there was no provisions for it, or any kind of code," said McCullough. The Garage team, already delayed by unrelated paperwork, decided to push on through anyway and address each city-sanctioned qualm as it came.
"We kind of thought, we'll build it, it'll fail [inspection], then they'll tell us what to do," said Evenchik. "Kind of a backward way to do things, but hey, it's Philly."
Though the bar opened in July, Garage just launched its "kitchen," fully sanctioned and approved by the city, in late January. It's already drawing a diverse cabal of cooking talent to this busy sliver of East Passyunk Avenue. "It's a mix of food-truck people, chefs with a night off and sous chefs who want to try their own thing," Evenchik said of the schedule, curated by the staff. (On nights without a vendor, general manager Justin Coan often makes pots of his famous chili for customers.)
Garage doesn't take a cut of the cart's sales. It simply asks for a $50-per-session fee to offset operational costs. It also requires that the vendors, who set their own prices, clean up after themselves.
"They eat what they kill," said Evenchik. "We sell the beer."
Kiki Aranita and Chris Vacca, who operate the peripatetic Poi Dog Snack Shop, brought Hawaiian and Filipino food to Garage on Feb. 7 and discovered that there was already a line of customers waiting for them.
"We get the chance to try out new menu items on people," said Aranita, who served a riff on kare-kare, Filipino beef and peanut stew, and chicken adobo tamales, in addition to staples such as Kalua pork tacos. "We have more freedom to throw out new dishes and see how they work out."
It was also an opportunity for Poi Dog, which has seen its recent daytime schedule screwed up by snow, to expose itself to a new nighttime audience. It plans to vend at Garage every first Friday of the month.
The setup has also allowed established restaurant chefs to cook food they'd never dream of adding to their own menus.
Trevor Budny, sous chef at the high-end Avance, recently lugged an immersion circulator onto the truck to sous-vide eggs he laid over Carolina Gold rice grits cooked in bacon dashi.
"The coolest part about it is looking at it as an incubator for a business," said Budny, who, before joining the Avance kitchen, ran his own fresh-made juice operation. He's kicking around the idea of reincarnating it at Garage.
Sean Magee, executive chef at Evenchik's Time, has put in two sessions so far. The first featured him and McCullough serving crunchy tacos filled with beef brisket, chicken and blackened carrots. More recently, he teamed up with his girlfriend, Rachael Smith, a manager at The Fat Ham, to prep beef, pork and beet tartines, the open-faced sandwiches he fell in love with in San Francisco.
The couple will run the cart every third Sunday.
"It's simple, fun, day-off-cooking kind of food," said Magee, who has only rarely offered tartines at Time and would never serve hard tacos there. "And it's definitely fun slinging three things instead of 20."
"It's a mutually beneficial relationship," said Garage bartender Angelica Preso, who's pleased that the new fixture is beginning to draw a food-focused demo thus far missing from the bar. (Its bring-your-own-cheesesteak policy still stands.)
"It gives us the ability to promote something new every day."