The Best Dishes We Ate This Year in Philadelphia
From an over-the-top takeout box to birria tacos, these are the dishes that got us through 2021.
With another year in the books, it’s time to reflect on the highlights of the year. And while 2021 may not have lived up to all that we had hoped it would be, there were some serious bright spots.
In Philly, we watched local favorites grow up and expand across the city; saw some of our favorite spots finally reopen; and welcomed a ton of new restaurants to the city, seemingly against all odds. Through all the ups and downs of this year, this city’s incredible bars and restaurants brought us much-need comfort and opportunities to celebrate—and we couldn’t have gotten through 2021 without a handful of dishes from new restaurants. From an over-the-top takeout box that made quarantining a little easier to trendy birria tacos that are definitely worth the hype, here are the best dishes we ate this year.
Quesabirria tacos from La Chinesca
In a year where takeout reigned supreme, a restaurant like La Chinesca seemingly doesn’t hold up. Half the fun is venturing to the brightly colored location in a former Jiffy Lube where Chinese and Mexican cuisines come together for unique takes on familiar favorites. But at this restaurant, and others around the country this year, a Mexican street food dish that typically comes in a takeout container steals the show. La Chinesca got in on the quesabirria taco trend and offered up tacos filled with stewed, braised beef shank and gooey chihuahua cheese paired with a bowl of onion-y, cilantro-y consommé for dipping. This warm, rich dish provided all the comfort we needed this year.
How to try it: Book a table via Resy
—Allie Volpe, Thrillist Contributor
Latkes with trout roe from Middle Child Clubhouse
When Middle Child opened in Washington Square West in 2018, it was billed as a modern take on the sandwich shop and quickly gained a dedicated following. This year, the Middle Child family grew when owner Matt Cahn opened a second location; an expansive 120-seater with table service and a cocktail bar in Fishtown dubbed Middle Child Clubhouse. While the menu includes tried-and-true favorites like the Phoagie—a vegan take on a pho sandwich—the broadened menu, which includes dinner, has fresh standouts that prove the concept really is all grown up. Case in point: the latkes. A starter on the dinner menu, the crispy pancake fritters are covered with what you would find atop Japanese okonomiyaki: wasabi pickled ginger, scallion, and, finally, trout roe for a sophisticated dish with delightfully fussed textures and flavors that still brings a helping of fun.
How to try it: Book a table via Resy. Order pickup via website.
Bluefin tuna sashimi from Izakaya by Yanaga
With a resume that includes stints at restaurants like Izakaya at Borgata, Double Knot, Pod, Morimoto, and Zama, chef Kevin Yanaga finally opened his own sushi restaurant in Fishtown this year. Undeniably fresh and unpretentious, the menu centers around affordable small plates and hot and cold dishes, with the tuna sashimi taking the spotlight. Simple and effective, a generous pile of raw tuna is complemented with a dollop of guacamole, a pool of tobanjan vinaigrette, and radish—and the perfectly composed dish shows that Yanaga’s solo spot was worth the wait.
How to try it: Book a table via OpenTable
Margherita pizza from Eeva
The city’s pizza scene tends to get overpowered by big names and historic hotspots, but newcomer Eeva, operated out of Kensington’s ReAnimator Coffee, was an immediate standout when it opened late last year. The naturally fermented wood-fired pizzas are light, yet chewy, with a crunchy crust, and come in a slew of constantly-changing varieties. However, you can never go wrong with a classic, and the Margherita pie, slathered in smooth tomato sauce, mozzarella, grana padano, and fresh basil, hits all the right notes.
How to try it: Book a table via Resy. Order takeout via website.
La Sirena Gorda from LMNO
Named after stories of “the fat mermaid” in Mexican folklore, La Sirena Gorda is just one of the showstoppers on the menu at LMNO, an epic bookstore, DJ lounge, art galley, oh, and restaurant by Stephen Starr that opened this year. A literal goblet of ceviche, this dish packs in shrimp, octopus, oysters, mussels, kampachi, and scallops, all of which can be scooped up with saladitas (saltines) provided. It’s the perfect shareable start to an over-the-top experience at this new Baja Mexican spot, and it was perfect for a year in which we were extra grateful to get together.
How to try it: Book a table via Resy
—Marielle Mondon, Thrillist Contributor
Snack Box from Pizza Plus
Originally designed with Sunday game day in mind, the Snack Box from Pizza Plus has become a hibernation staple for quarantining, staying in, and living it up in a year that had us spending more time at home. The original box comes with the pizzeria’s signature nine-inch pan pizza, two burgers, six wings or tenders, and a smattering of fries, onion rings, and dips, all for $35—the ideal feast for settling in and making no apologies.
How to try it: Order from either location via website
Saffron calamarata puttanesca High Street Philly
Rising rent in Old City and the effects of the pandemic led High Street to ditch its old digs at 308 Market Street last year. Since then, the all-day cafe opened shop at 101 S. Ninth Street, pivoting to takeout-friendly options with an emphasis on expanding salad, pizza, and pasta offerings. As such, the spot is always offering something innovative with pasta, like this dish made with olive oil poached tuna, crushed tomato, capers, black olive, parsley, white anchovies, and sourdough breadcrumbs. The return of High Street (with this new menu item in tow) provided some welcome familiarity with a new twist this year.
Water fern dumplings from Gabriella’s Vietnam
Gabriella’s has been a refreshing addition to the local dining scene since it opened in May. Offering ultra-authentic Vietnamese street fare to South Philly, the restaurant started with a goal to redefine Philadelpians’ view of Vietnamese food—and it delivered, especially with the top-notch water fern dumplings. Hue City in Central Vietnam is the origin place of this dish (also known as Bánh Bèo Chèn). The savory rice cakes are made with flour, water, and turmeric and stuffed with pork belly, shrimp, fried shallot, and scallion, best enjoyed bathed in fish sauce.