Craig LaBan's United Nations of Philly flavors
Philadelphia has always been an immigrant city, and the flavors of those traditions have long defined the global character of our food, from Italian South Philly to Chinatown, Polish Port Richmond and the German influence still obvious with the Pennsylvania Dutch.
That melting pot process, though, has never really stopped. A more recent wave of arrivals has continued to shape the way we eat in the very best way, from the taquerias of "Puebladelfia" south of Washington Avenue to the Russian Northeast and the many different Asian communities scattered across the region.
A number of the best international kitchens – South Philly Barbacoa and Malaysian Saté Kampar (not to mention numerous regional Italian and French stars) - were good enough to crack the Top 25 favorites list in the Ultimate Dining guide recently delivered to subscribers.
But there are so many other gems I'd like to share. Here are nine fantastic examples, also excerpted from Craig LaBan's Ultimate Dining, of the global dining riches that make Philadelphia such a deliciously diverse place to eat. From a Latin mainstay for pernil and pollo on North Fifth Street, to an Uzbeki grill on Bustleton Avenue, Korean barbecue in Olney, Han Dynasty's Sichuan pioneer, a modern Dutch master, my pick for Philly's best pho, a journey to the South Indian Dosa Belt in the far western 'burbs, our wittiest example of fun Asian fusion, and even a brauhaus that's one of the last nods to our now fading German roots, it's clear that eating through the region's United Nations of Flavors, is one of the very best parts of living here.
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1046 Tasker St., 267-909-9704
Joncarl Lachman's airy BYOB puts a bright spin on soulful Dutch flavors like vinegar-braised rabbit, mustard-sauced scallops, fresh stroopwafels, and grilled barley bread. A brunch favorite.
12012 Bustleton Ave., 215-671-1990
At this authentic Uzbek eatery in the Russian Northeast, lamb is the theme – in fragrant rice plovs, homemade noodles, manti dumplings, soups, and skewered for the charcoal grill. The hot round bread alone is worth a visit.
260 N. Pottstown Pike, Exton Plaza, Exton, 610-363-9500
This mini-chain in the Dosa Belt of the western 'burbs is a curious hybrid of a counter-service curry house with a Western-style bakery. But the no-frills kitchen produces some of our most vivid southern Indian food, with dosas, goat biryanis, "chicken 65," and gobi Manchurian blazing with spice.
5501 N. Front St., 215-276-7942
This industrial building in Olney is deceiving. Upstairs is a surprisingly handsome dining room with my favorite charcoal-fired Korean barbecue, plus other well-done classics (try the naengmyeon). Head to the downstairs karaoke rooms to sing off the beef and spice.
255 S. 10th St., 267-639-4136
There's an irrepressibly delicious free spirit to the deliberate inauthenticity of this cozy fusion noodle bar from chef Ben Puchowitz and Shawn Darragh, where ramen comes with matzo balls and brisket, black garlic wings are a must, and the broccoli with Viet sausage.
Han Chiang gave Philly a thrilling three-bell wake-up to true Sichuan spice at his original Old City spot. Now that he's expanded, the overall experiences vary too much to universally maintain that rating. But the Sichuan flavors are still the best, from the ultimate dandan noodles to fiery wings and cumin lamb dialed up to a "10."
(not formally rated)
2536 Kensington Ave., 215-425-0078
My favorite pho in Philly requires a trip to this lesser-known Vietnamese enclave on Kensington Avenue, where the Tran family restaurant makes fresh chicken pho gà in lemongrass broth and the homey beef pho hits a sweet spot with a marrow-rich broth that tingles with charred ginger and ginseng. Also, get the Hanoi-style pork.
718 South St., 267-909-8814
This lively South Street bier hall is one of the last standard-bearers of Philly's once-proud German tradition. But it's a great one, with excellent house-made Nürnberger brats, schnitzel, seasonal specials (spargel and rabbit noodles!), plus the city's deepest list of German beers.
4535 N. Fifth St., 215-324-6086.
Mambo up to North Fifth Street, where this restaurant-nightclub remains the city's most reliable destination for pan-Latino cooking. the large menu is at times too broad, but stick with such specialties as the huge Colombian tamale, arroz con pollo (in both Cuban and Colombian styles), roast pernil, and flan.
"Craig LaBan's Ultimate Dining," a glossy, 52-page, magazine-style book that wraps up the food critic's 25 favorite restaurants, as well as lists such as favorite BYOBs, Chinatown, and Philadelphia classics, is available by mail, through this link, or in person at the newspaper's offices, 801 Market St. (entrance on Eighth Street), from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays ($5.95, cash only).