For over a year, I had it in my head to ride from NY to Philadelphia via bicycle to meet my hero, Holly Moore. In that year I put it off, it kept eating at me. The more I told my friends about my dream, the more guilt I felt that I hadn’t done it yet. So last October, I took the Seastreak ferry down to Sandy Hook, rode through Jersey, crossing over to Penn at Trenton, and cycled down to Philly. The 10-hour ride was a mix of monotonous forest through the Henry Hudson Trail and commercial/mass residential development of Jersey (not a dream). Highlights were riding through the town of Cranberry (for pizza), and taking the advice of a UPS driver who said to get out of Trenton before it darkness fell. Well, I’m glad I did it once.
New York has a lot going for it. It is huge and there are a hundred neighborhoods of ethnicity. It’s a city of satiated desire, so almost whatever you want, you can find it in the five-boroughs. Whenever I go to a new city, however, I’m looking for regional specialties and ways of living that I don’t normally see in New York. Here’s my New Yorker’s Guide to Philadelphia:
First of all, having a bicycle in Philly is awesome – I recommend it for anywhere, but it is especially fun and functional here. The city is mostly flat and laid out on a grid system. The neighborhoods span quaint to historic to abandoned with awe, and there aren’t many impasses, so via bicycle you can traverse it pretty easily. I think there’s a lot less posturing here than in NY, because for some reason a moped doesn’t seem so wimpy; it seems practical and fun.
The first thing I wanted to check out in Philly were the food carts. There is some legend to them, and I wanted to see the difference between what they had and what we do. Results? The carts at Temple and Penn are great for college students. I mean, What a coup for campus food! The sheer amount of trucks is remarkable. In a square of blocks, there are around 20 vendors at Temple, and probably just as many within Penn. They range from sandwiches to crepes to Korean to other, but, without grading on a curve, none are really fab worthy. As far as the big picture of street food, I can’t call it a destination. After my analysis of both universities, my conclusion is that Penn has nicer buildings, better carts, and prettier girls. I won’t be back to either though, I’m too old for college anyway.
I did have a couple of great food truck experiences though. Mini Trini down at the Headhouse Farmers Market had a nice double with some surprise pumpkin in there, but it was Christos’ Falafel cart (20th/Market) which left me believing in fantastic. See my dedicated post here.
In Philadelphia, the sandwich is not a medium of quality, it’s a matter of culture. Bread is an acknowledged art and there is no pedestal for Boars Head. Instead, Thumann’s, Dietz and Watson, Levis, and other brands of distinction are the surnames the sandwichmakers are most proud of. An individual Philly sandwich could possibly be beat, by say Monte’s of Brooklyn, but as a society, Philadelphia of sandwich is in a different league than anywhere I can vouch for.
On a hoagie, the juices are the ingredient that vaults it above all others; whether it be in roast pork or brisket, the meats are typically enveloping roasted tomatoes or stewed broccoli rabe which have been soaking in juices all day long. This was a revelation for me. As Holly Moore talks about in this video on vendr.tv, it’s all about being juicy. Here’s one example:
Chickie’s Deli (1014 Federal St). It’s the shit. I couldn’t believe I was actually ordering a veggie hoagie. I did, and I thank god. This thing: polarizing layers of baked eggplant, broccoli rabe with much garlic sauteed within, and roasted red peppers covered with shards of sharp provolone took me over the edge. It might have been my best sandwich of the trip. Chickie’s was an example of the structure of community delis in Phila. On any given block, among rows of houses and more houses, there could be one deli, one ice cream shop, or a pizzeria. The population isn’t dense with high rises, so in these non-commerical rows, you have ultra-local shops. Here, the extremely friendly and personable owners live upstairs. Chickie’s, baby. There are lots more sandwiches to be had, but you cannot miss with Chickie’s.
My absolute favorite shop, though, was Paesano‘s. Everything they do is perfect. If I ever was a vender, I’d have a sandwich shop alarmingly similar to Paesano’s. Here is my write-up. Below is a taste…
And If I were to choose a home in the area, it’d be South Philly. Lots of places to discover, charming houses, big community presence. But many neighborhoods within the city limits are doable because crossing sections is rarely subject to impasses such as highways or water blockages. The grid system is comforting in a way that Queens is not – because the grid seems numbered based on an overhead map, rather than snaking through and across, shimmying their way in to some sort of order. In parts of Philadelphia, individual street names start and stop, even miles down from where they left off. Seeing Phillip St in different areas of the city, even after I knew it ended previously, was somehow reassuring to me.
A majority of the city seems to cater to the normal-hour working world. Sandwich shops close after lunch, and some aren’t even open on the weekend. Similar to the Financial District of Manhattan and the rest of the god-fearing United States, old school hours are generally in effect. It was a little unsettling at first to comprehend that workers actually take off on the weekend, but I eventually admitted to myself that I need to chill my eating excursions. If you’ve come here for a food adventure, my advice is to operate heavily weekdays between the hours of 8am and 3pm, for example:
John’s Roast Pork (14 Snyder Ave) Open Mon-Fri, 6:45AM-3PM
John’s was a recommendation of an awesome food dude I met up with. From the first minute we met, we were jamming down S5th street to John’s Roast Pork. It was awesome. I think I got a tour of the city, but it all went by so fast that I was still trying to learn the motion of the city instead – so I wouldn’t get run over. At John’s, the 30 minute line was pretty much the first time we spoke. This man, Thaddeus, or the Philly Phoodie, appreciates true food made for the people and not the elite, and is proud of traversing the city on his bicycle searching for what’s awesome and real (he’s like the PA version of me!).
His site, picture heavy, and not averse to colorful language or style points, is exactly the type of exploration I’m into. I even got another magnificent recommendation from him: Tacconelli’s. And some nights after John’s Roast Pork, even though I vowed no Mexican outside of New York, he convinced me to take a few bites out of a Jarocho burrito takeout from El Jarocho. I couldn’t believe I loved it. Spectacular even. And I found that overall, homemade tortillas seem more common in Philadelphia than NY. I wouldn’t come here for Mexican, but I might come back for it. Their crema was damn addicting, I want something like that here in NY. Where do I find that??
And if you are Philly, you gotta go through the Italian Market on… Market St.
@HawkKrall: gotta try vietnamese crawfish at My Tho 1122 Washington Av http://www.citypaper.net/food/2011-08-25-my-tho.html
ohhh man, it was twice as good as I could have imagined.
Why did I come to Philly? To get some perspective. For the food trucks, yes, but also the Vietnamese. It’s surprising to me to find that any city has any ethnic community with greater density than New York. I didn’t even know how dense it would be. On a Thursday, I rode on Washington Ave at midnight and I could actually feel the pho in the air – woahhh. I knew this was VietTown.
My Tho’s menu is entirely noodle soups with one variation: Crawfish. This seemed strange to me, especially for such a big restaurant. But that’s fine because the crawfish was freaking awesome. The 2 of us ordered the last pound in the kitchen for $10. We were instructed to simply peel back the top shell and chomp on the insides, then get at the tail. The grainy house sauce had this awesome mix of flavors – it had this spicy, garlicky fervor to it. You can really identify the gulf influence on Vietnamese cooking here. I asked the owner, who’s family owns a slew of other My Tho’s in Texas, what it’s like where his family is. He said Philadelphia was nothing. Where he’s from in Texas, there’s ten times as much Vietnamese. Wow – this is the first time since my just-post-college-Austin-idealist days I’ve wanted to go to Texas. The soup was great too. This Vietnamese was enlightening.
My fingers smelled wonderful for hours.
Too bad they’ve since closed. You get the picture though…
In the same shopping plaza was the Hung Vuong Vietnamese supermarket (also 1122 Washington Ave). It was great because it was almost entirely dedicated to Vietnamese food shopping. Lots of fun stuff.
Bahn mi from Cafe Nhu Y (802 S. Christian St.). The difference was all in the bread. They bake it there.
On another adventure, a group of friends and I were honored to have a tour of the Reading Terminal (pronounced ‘redding’) by my hero, Holly Moore of Holly Eats. We met at Bassett’s ice cream, where he then took us to the Amish area for shoefly pie, Miller’s Pretzels, and a general tour around the market. Reading Terminal is an awesome scene; while very popular among tourists, the quality and individuality of each vendor is still there. If you go, I would make sure to try the Amish offerings (only open Wednesday through Saturday). Next 2 times I’m in the area, I want to experience more Amish cooking.
And if you happen to question whether Holly is a legend, look at this picture below. It’s of Holly at DiNic’s. His 5-grease stain article waist high on the glass, and the manager bowing while refusing to take money for the roast pork heroes. We felt like we were walking with George Clooney!
This is a market with integrity. It’s something I’m seeing a lot less of in New York and in the suburbs. Find me amongst NYC planning someone in charge who will eschew Starbucks logos and mallification money. I keep finding more and more examples of people in power who make me disappointed me in New York. They love to revel in our cultural history, but turning away from multi-state corporations is unthinkable. It’s the erosion of our ability to own ourselves. Another thing I realized is how much of a police state we are in right now. On any mode of transportation, I am always looking over my shoulder for a police officer. I can’t stop completely at stop signs or else the taxis will get mad at me, I can’t roll through because the police will look for any stupid reason to give me a ticket; on a bicycle, the police are now on the lookout; and even on the train, they are ticketing for putting your leg up – C’mon. In Philadelphia, I saw one car pulled over in 4 days. No one riding bikes were afraid of getting a BS helmet ticket or for going through a stop sign. At night, there weren’t cops every couple of blocks like there are on Roosevelt Avenue. Also, cars were on sidewalks, backwards, wheel on the curb, and barely any tickets on the windshield. I may have seen four meter maids on my whole trip. It’s ridiculous that in NY, they use ticketing as a revenue stream. It’s not like everyone is being behaved in Philly, but the law there pops up when they are called upon. There might be some disregard for popo, but it is refreshing to see some expression of lawlessness. No letter grades, no meddling DOH, I saw businesses being entrepreneurs without being strangled. NY is a police state, and you should be pissed about this too.
Philadelphia is an awesome city. I can wait to go back and check out:
The Pizza Brain museum
Nicks Roast Beef
Gastropubs like Memphis Tap, South Philly Tap Room, and others
Down Home Diner in the Reading Terminal
Moes for a pepper hash hot dog and Champ cherry soda
Love Park food carts
Pho 75 (Ravi’s recommendation)
Sandwiches recommended from Serious Eats