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Restaurant chat: Fish tacos and a good cup of java

Inquirer critic Craig LaBan discusses local eateries on Tuesday afternoons.

Besides a miraculously good Margherita pie, Osteria also serves an amazing cup of espresso.
Besides a miraculously good Margherita pie, Osteria also serves an amazing cup of espresso.Read moreED HILLE / Inquirer

Good afternoon, chatters!! Sorry we're starting this 10 minutes late, but I-95 was a beast, and I was off on a Russian food adventure in the Northeast that couldn't wait. Let's get started!

It's been a rock and roll week for me - with the upcoming release of my new music video this Thursday (really!). I've also had plenty of great food. As you can see from this week's Crumb Tracker Quiz. Guess the three places I ate these dishes at, and win a free copy of my book: 1) Serbian sarma; 2) grilled turkey reuben (it's this new deli's best sandwich); 3) awesome Italian hoagie at a Northeast corner stand best known for its steaks and signature pork sandwiches. Ready, set, CHOMP!

did the chat start, or is it running late?

Oh yeah, Tom. We're rolling now. Have a question?

Yo Craig, I'm a huge Fish Taco guy, guess I should live on the West Coast? My questions is...where can I find great Fish Tacos in Philly? Any suggestions, Thanks, John.

Johnny B: I know fish tacos are a San Diego thing, and I've never eaten much in San Diego. (Actually, not at all). But I'm betting the fish tacos with mahi-mahi at El Vez are about as good as it gets. The fish is meaty and perfectly crisp, wrapped tightly (a loose wrap is usually a bad fish tacos most common mistake) with a kicky chipotle mayo and pickled red cabbage. Muy, muy bien!

Craig, enjoyed your review of Osteria and definitely plan on checking it out. I do have one question though, when a high profile chef opens up a second restaurant (like Osteria, or Morimoto "2") do we expect the chef's original outlet to suffer? In other words, is Vetri still worth frequenting? Thanks

Dan, that is an excellent question. The answer, of course, varies depending upon the restaurateur. In Vetri's case, I can't say for certain, as I haven't been back to the original yet since Osteria opened. I can tell you chef-owner Marc Vetri still spends at least as much time at Vetri as he does the Osteria. Chefs in expansion mode will tell you that the key to doing this right is finding the right supporting staff - great chefs de cuisine, that is - and Vetri has proven over the years to be one of the best scouts of kitchen talent. One interesting detail, though, especially for chefs used to running tiny places like the 36-seat Vetri, is that they tend to be control freaks. With expansion, they need to learn to back off a little. It can be a good thing. My experience with Morimoto was that the home restaurant was running quite smoothly while the New York local struggled to stamp its own identity. That was a year ago. It would be worth checking back.

El Vez is the only baja fish taco in philly I'm afraid. I've been down this road myself.

Thanks Sean - it's definitely a topic worth some more exploring...

Hey Craig, sent this a few minutes ago but not sure if its making it more try. not to get back to the latino/mexican chat, btu i tried both places you mentioned 2 weeks ago by the parkway, Mexican Post and Mission Grill. Mexican Post was like its sister locations....the fajitas are my favorite from their Old city location. Mission Grill was nicer than I anticipated, some neat dishes and great wine list. the question i have, with the comcast building coming, george perrier opening a restaurant, the condo explosion, and hopefully a new mayor who makes the parkway all it can be, do you think this is the next area for the city. Think of all the cafes & restaurants lining the parkway, all the culture we can explore with some festivals. could be and hopefully will be pretty neat, don't you think?

Eat4fun, thanks for this report on Mission Grill and the Mexican Post. I do think the Parkway/Market St. is totally under-served in terms of restaurants. But it does point to an overall lack of lunchtime corporate power dining in town. Can you name one restaurant on West Market Street other than Twenty21 that seriously attempts to serve dinner? The neighborhood rolls up the sidewalks at the end of the night as everyone leaves the office tower canyons and disappears on Septa trains into the night. It would be nice to see it develop. But it isn't a given. Even with big names lined up to go....

Craig- I am new to the Philly scene as I just moved into Manayunk with my wife. Any thoughts on the top places to eat in my new section of the city?

John, I have a number of thoughts on Manayunk, though not many of them glowing. It was THE hot neighborhood in the 80s, got overbuilt, then they stifled themselves with a restaurant ban in the early 90s to alleviate a parking crunch. What essentially happened is that the dining scene there, though still busy, got stagnant. And bland. And also, Center City nabes like Old City and Northern Liberties got hot, and somehow less scary to the Main Liners who still make up the large part of Manayunk's clientele. That said, I think Jake's is still the only great restaurant in the 'hood. You can get decent Italian at Il Tartufo trattoria, super pizza by the slice at the Couch Tomato (go for the most simplistic toppings), reasonably decent fresh beer at the Manayunk Brewpub, and a pretty good burger at the U.S. Hotel. Good, but not great, Thai at Chabaa, which is a pretty place for pad Thai. For coffee, of course, there is always La Colombe. It would be nice to find a new star in the 'Yunk.

Craig, enjoy the chat. Have you been back to Tre Scalini since they moved to Passyunk and Broad in January? Any thoughts as to whether they still turn out consistently great food?

You must be clairvoyant, Evan. I just interviewed Tre Scalini's chef-owner, Franca DiRenzo, yesterday for her review. To appear June 10. Until then, I'm silent.

Craig, Russian food, huh? That’s a restaurant niche Center City could use. It’s hard to get a good solodka pod shuba south-west of Red Lion these days. My question is about your fellow dining companions. Have they (or you) ever claimed to have a food allergy to ensure their meal was prepared without an ingredient they just didn’t like? I don’t think most people understand the added effort that goes into prepping meals to accommodate a legitimate medical need (separate pans, utensils, etc.) versus just excluding a specific item. Not only does it give the kitchen extra work but it slows down the arrival of the rest of the meals as well.

Well, I was at the Russian market, Bell's, which is as close to Moscow as we can get around here. What an amazing destination for smoked meat and fish, Russian chocolates, and prepared foods (chicken Kiev, anyone?) I would LOVE for there to be an authentic Russian restaurant in town, and it's only a matter of time. But for the moment, we have to drive to the Northeast and immerse ourselves in the nightclub shows and banquets of places like Golden Gates. Very fun. And very tasty. A great idea for a group party for those who like to dance to live music.

As for your food allergy conspiracy theory, E-boogie, I'm not going there. I have too many friends who are deathly allergic, or who's kids are deathly allergic, to joke about that kind of thing. I know restaurateurs have to take it seriously, too. Or they should. If somebody just doesn't like an ingredient, nobody's forcing them to order a dish, so I don't see the problem.

Wow, great info. We moved here from D.C. just a few weeks ago and are still getting settled. We decided on Manayunk because she works in King of Prussia and we still wanted to live in a city. Thanks for the advice. Love your columns.

Welcome to town, John. Send us an occasional report from Manayunk, if you don't mind being a scout.

speaking of coffee why does the coffee suck in Philly? NYC isn't any better either. Where's the best espresso in town? I only like old city at this point.

Sean - I don't agree with you at all. We have one of the very best roasters in the country here with La Colombe. The espresso they pull at their counter on 19th Street just north of Rittenhouse Square is consistently one of the best demitasses of espresso I've had in America. That said, LC is so ubiquitous, I understand Nizza fatigue. So my current vote for best espresso is actually from Marc Vetri's vintage machine at Osteria. It is just an amazing shot, perfectly frothy on top (do I sniff a tiny addition of robusta?) Other good shots in town are at the Philadelphia Java Company, where they use wonderful, thick-lipped espresso cups. Also, you can find Illy on the machine at London - Illy is my all-time favorite espresso. For something different on the brewed side - try the lovely little coffee shop in Northern Liberties with a coffee garden attached, the Ground Floor at 209 Poplar, which uses a small batch roaster out of Ohio called Crooked River. It isn't all Starbucks here.

Infusion, which recently opened at 10th & Carpenter in Bella Vista, features two different espresso blends -- a "regular" and a "dark" -- along with specials every now and then. Might be worth a try if you're not getting the espresso you want at the other places in the city (I for one like Old City, but not as much as La Colombe).

Thanks for those caffeinated thoughts, Gabe. I also think Mug Shots across from the Eastern State Penitentiary brews a nice cup. I'm not a huge fan of Old City Coffee, as I find their brews dark to the point of burnt. And I like a robust roast. I'm also a fan, by the way, of the elegant roasts from the Kimberton Coffee Company out of Phoenixville (available at Whole Foods). I have also heard good things about Chestnut Hill Coffee Co. at 8620 Germantown Ave., across from Borders Books. I haven't been myself yet - but a reliable source, a coffee-chugging film critic friend of mine, says it's superb.

la colombe doesn't date their roasts. I won't buy them. Old city is the only one that does in town. I"m coming from the NW so i'm picky. Illy and robusta are not good enough.l try osteria though.

Buy your coffee at the cafe, and there's no question of its freshness. LC does such volume, freshness has never been an issue with mine. It's always glowing with a sheen of freshly roasted oils that make the flavor great, but are a pain in the grinder. Don't sniff at robusta, though, Sean. Some of the best roasters in the world add a tiny bit in for body and crema.

I am a fan of Ants Pants Cafe and Metropolitan Bakery Coffee. I think you can find good coffee all over the city if you avoid the Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts on every corner.

Yes, Ants Pants is another cafe that sources another small-batch roaster, this one local. I believe it's called Blue Bottle - but I could be wrong. Anyone out there have more details?

I'm in seattle this weekend where should I eat?

You're the only NW'er here, I'm afraid. I've never had the chance to visit that lovely city, but I understand its restaurants are first-class. Anyone out there with some Seattle good bets?

Craig, do you think there is a call for a good, but basic seafood restaurant in town? Just well done fresh fish and lobster type of things.

Craig S., we used to have a ton of fish houses in town that did that kind of thing, and they died out. Right now, it seems that only mid- to high-range chains are trying to approach seafood in a straightforward way, and with mixed success if you consider the efforts of Oceanaire (the contemporary fussy stuff was better than the plain stuff), McCormick and Schmick's (eh), Devon (sterile, and inconsistent), Legal Seafoods (I actually had a good lunch there, but it's too soon to tell). There are many many good examples of well-done fish cookery in the BYOs around town, but I wouldn't call most of those interpretations straight-forward.

I think a big article on philly coffee is needed. I just can't get what I want here coffee wise. I want it roasted in the back and pulled in the front by an expert.

Point taken, Sean. While I do think we have good roasters, the intimacy of a roast-in-shop boutique is not our thing. Could be the next step in our coffee culture.

Sean: Spud's on Alki - best fish and chips ever. And as long as you're trying Osteria just for the espresso, it's not bad at Vetri either...

I have actually been to Seattle a few times for business, and I would recommend the Pike Place Market area. Is a large area (sort of like the place in Center City here, I can't remember its name-too new!) with a ton of small restaurants and other cool eateries. Certainly enough to satisfy anyone.

A bit ironic but you may want to check out the Prime Rib (17th and Locust) for straight-forward seafood. The tuna steak and crab imperial were both top notch as I recall.

I'm not surprised. Prime Rib has a classic approach to everything. I do recall their crab Imperial as excellent. There is always Sansom Street Oyster House, by the way. They do the classics much better than anything else.

Craig - I enjoyed your Osteria review and I've enjoyed the restaurant itself a couple of times now. But on both occasions we had some serious service glitches. Is this something you encountered? The staff has always been really friendly and quick to remedy the problems, so I'll keep going back. But a place with such a focus on excellence in ingredients, coffee, etc. should use the same approach for service.

HD - I'm not sure about what glitches you encountered, but they're inevitable in any new restaurant. I was impressed with the service at Osteria, as I found all of the wait people exceptionally knowledgeable, the sommelier to be spot on. When mistakes happen, though, isn't a quick and friendly remedy what you want? Sounds like they're trying their best to deliver.

Hey Craig, I know you mentioned in your book that Tangier has a decent burger, they also have pretty darn good beer-battered fries that don't seem to stay in stock. If you haven't already, give them a try next time you're in.

Tonyjlive: Yes, Tangier still has a good burger, but the beer-battered fries don't excite me. It's a frozen food service product, and the batter seems like cheating when any well-done frite should have its own natural crunch. I with they'd bring back the onion rings...

Hey everyone - thanks for a great chat, and sorry about the late start. No Crumb Tracker again this week, but maybe it was just too hard. We'll see. Until next week, then, be well and eat something worth bragging about!