Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat of Dec. 6, 2016:
Reader: Any suggestions on the best General Tso's in Philly? I thought it'd be nice to commemorate Chef Peng's passing with a better than average GT's.
C.L.: Your question is so apt, because my family - at least two of them big GT fans - have requested a visit to Shun Lee Palace when we hit NYC later this month. That's where Gen. Tso's really took off (though it wasn't invented there). In town, I think Mustard Greens, Square on Square, Sang Kee do this pretty well. My favorite version used to be at Four Rivers in Chinatown. That family has moved to Mount Laurel, to Chulicious, where the Gen. Tso's is still up to snuff. Excellent! And still with little spicy kick.
Reader: Finally got to visit Chulicious – excellent washi ribs, General Tso's, and shrimp fried rice. However, there was a discussion about the wonton soup – crystal dumplings had an outstanding spicy meat filling, but the broth was extremely weak. I am used to a richer broth. Is this "broth lite" a style, or a mistake?
C.L.: Sorry you didn't love the wonton soup. I beg to differ . . . greatly. That broth is one of the chef's signatures, and the reason you may have found it "weak" is because it is very natural - not amped with flavored bouillon powders and false coloring. A good pale broth at a Chinese restaurant is often a sign that a chef is trying to do it right, not cheat. It could have been a weak day. But I doubt it. Try it again. Think: Subtle.
[After the chat concluded, I learned that CHUlicous in Mt. Laurel changed hands in November. The new owners have promised to keep some of the restaurant's specials, but changes are inevitable. Stay tuned.]
Reader: Also, the General Tso's chicken at Chulicious had delicious smoky overtones, with some heat, that sealed a return trip.
C.L.: That's the wok hai, or "breath of the wok," that comes from a chef who stir-fries the food over a super-hot wok flame like a jet blast that gives the food a sort of smoky singe of metal and fire that really pumps up the rest of the flavors.
Reader: Is it me or are all the simple, plain diners closed or have lost favor with the diners crowd? Last weekend trip to South Street Diner will be my last. No more Midtown.
C.L.: Good diners are definitely a dying breed, a slide that really began with a push from fast-food chains at the turn of the century and that has continued to this day. Almost all of Philly's great, genuine diners have turned over to the Michael's chain, which is uninspiring. Went to the also-doomed Little Pete's last weekend for lunch. We sat at the horseshoe counter, saw tons of people we knew, and everyone moaned about the sad fact that it's supposed to close to make way for a new development. Makes you wonder why some enterprising restaurateur hasn't identified that as a niche opportunity. The guys from the Blue Duck in the Northeast have done that, and updated the genre a bit, and I'm looking forward to their Center City project soon. But still.
Reader: Curious what your No. 1 burger is Craig.
C.L.: I've had a bunch lately that are real contenders: the KQ burger at Kensington Quarters (ground in-house on house-baked milk bread bun, though I'm sorry to hear they closed their retail butcher shop) ; the double-thin patty wonders at Hungry Pigeon and Whetstone are others. I also had the burger again at Pub & Kitchen, before they changed it again. I have to say it was awesome (ground in-house). These are my latest loves, but I still like SpOt, Sketch Burger, and the Good Dog for old time's sake.