The Best Dishes We Ate in Philly in 2016
The New York Times knows it. Travel + Leisure knows it. Everyone who lives here knows it: Philly’s food scene is en fuego. It’s so hot that we’re ready to throw our New Year’s resolution diet out the window and just keep eating.
In 2016, we ate raw fish, fried cheese, braised goat, spicy bagels, smoked salmon, cured pork, salted caramel, roasted lamb, and much, more more. Here are our favorite dishes and bites of the year -- a mix of the latest and the classics, in no particular order. Make this list part of your 2017 resolution and try them all.
Roast Pork Bao
The guys behind Cheu Noodle Bar give Philly’s insiders-only sandwich an Asian treatment in the form of bao at their East Passyunk outpost. Nearly too big to hoist with chopsticks, the bottom of the bun is pan-fried to a crispy, golden brown, while the top stays doughy and chewy. Inside you’ll find the makings of a roast pork sandwich, complete with sharp provolone and long hots. The flavors in this bao somehow remind us of a hot, buttery pretzel, and for any Philadelphian, that’s a good thing.
Rye Bread with Pastrami-Smoked Salmon
The trick to Chef/Owner Tova du Plessis’s savory, pillow-soft rye bread is baking pickle juice and mustard into the dough itself, so you can focus on Essen’s pepper-crusted, pastrami-smoked salmon with scallion cream cheese and pickled green tomatoes on top of it.
One of the year’s hottest openings, Mission Taqueria steps up the city’s already strong taco game with made-to-order corn tortillas using fresh ground masa. You can’t go wrong here where flavor combos are thoughtful and creative, but our favorite is braised goat with creamy feta and black currants.
Don’t mistake Panorama’s “Share” menu for a list of appetizers. Buckle up for a whole-table affair with beef carpaccio the size of a small pizza. A warm bone marrow vinaigrette boosts the richness, while dots of arugula arancini add warmth and a touch of bitterness to the rich, tender meat. After more than 25 years in business, the restaurant was recently redesigned and is benefiting from a menu revamp by Executive Chef Matthew Gentile (formerly of Lacroix, Ela, and Parc). Try one of 30 wine flights or 120 wines by the glass -- all this from the wine program which earned a Guinness World Record.
Trippa alla Romana
Yes, it’s tripe stew, and no, it’s not gross -- at least not team Vetri’s version at Amis. The soul-warming tomato stew with crusty bread for sopping always makes us think this is the food of our ancestors, whether we’re Italian or not. Pro tip: It’s not on the menu, but ask for salted butter semifreddo for dessert.
Warm Parmesan Custard, Caramelized Baby Artichokes
Chef Marcie Turney loves the warm parmesan custard with crispy baby artichokes from Chef Greg Vernick at Vernick Food & Drink. “I ate at Vernick twice in the last month and had to order this dish the second visit. It was perfect on a cold rainy night,” Turney says. “The custard is rich and super smooth and it’s topped with crispy shaved baby artichokes and sea salt. You know a dish is good when you are making plans to come back to have it again.”
ROOT’s warm anchovy dip is served fondue-style in a custom ramekin over a tea light to keep it warm and smooth. Made with Sicilian anchovies, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and butter, it’s salty, silky, and indulgent, but dipping raw seasonal vegetables (such as fennel, apple, radish, and cauliflower) in it keeps things light and crisp. A close runner-up at this new spot: the Fried Chickpeas covered in crispy herbs and moroccan spice.
Ofrenda de los Dioses
Slightly under-the-radar in the Italian Market, Blue Corn has earned a loyal following for its authentic Mexican food. Ofrenda de los Dioses is a shareable appetizer of tortillas layered with huitlacoche (aka corn fungus, corn mushrooms, Mexican truffle) and Oaxaca cheese, covered with green poblano cream sauce.
Roasted Chicken Wings
You might not expect chicken wings to be the best thing on an Italian menu full of housemade pasta and brick oven pizzas. Those dishes are also worth ordering, but the wings are massive, garlic-herb marinated, and roasted in P Square’s brick oven -- a nice change from the fried, spicebomb variety.
Toro Scallion and Spicy Tuna Rolls
Arthur Etchells of Manatawny Still Works used to “joke that the best sushi in Philadelphia can be found at the airport” because you can take a flight to Los Angeles and there's a Michelin-starred sushi spot close to the airport. “But now,” he says, “there's Kevin Yanaga's amazing sushi at Double Knot. It's so fresh and the specially prepared rice really makes it stand out.”
South Philly Barbacoa is deservedly known nationwide for its lamb tacos. Drippings from that meat dream, along with chickpeas and rice, create the Consomé. It’s perfect on a cool day -- the savory, clear broth will cure what ails you.
Apple Cider Fritter
High Street combines a heavily spiced doughnut dough, Pennsylvania apple cider, and roasted apples to create its Apple Cider Fritter. Usually only available on weekends, they’re served hot and covered in sugar.
Salted Caramel Budino
It’s no secret: Everyone knows this dessert is the best. Chef Marcie Turney’s Budino involves a chocolate cookie crust, topped with a caramelly pudding, covered in vanilla bean caramel sauce. It’s buttery and rich, with enough salty flavor to cut through the sweetness.
Knead bakes creative bagel flavors, including fennel seed and lavender. Our favorite is the Togarashi, which in Japanese refers to chili pepper. The spice helps cut through doughy bagel and Knead’s extra flavorful, almost-briny cream cheese.
Roasted Lamb Shoulder with Pomegranate & Chickpeas
Locals and food critics coast-to-coast call out Zahav’s lamb shoulder as one of the top restaurant dishes in America. We agree. Only available as the main course in the Mesibah prix fixe menu, chefs brine a whole lamb shoulder, smoke it over hardwood, and then “braise it in pomegranate molasses until the meat is tender enough to eat with a spoon,” according to chef/owner Michael Solomonov. And carb-lovers, rejoice: the hefty main is served with a dome of Persian wedding rice -- crunchy on the outside, steamy and soft on the inside. Fair warning: Getting a reservation is a feat and you’ll still want to call to request the lamb shoulder in advance (despite our frequent griping about these policies, it’s worth it).
A perfect lunch or dinner, Poké Bowl is endlessly customizable. Be healthy with a kale base, or take our advice and get the sticky white rice. Top it with three or five proteins -- raw or cooked fish, including octopus -- in your choice of marinade, and add crunchy fruits and veggies, plus a spicy aioli dressing. Each bowl is made carefully and garnished with an orchid. Charming.
The appetizer that makes a trip to the Northeast worth the drive. Khachapuri hails from the country of Georgia and is served at Shish Kabob Palace, which focuses on staple dishes from Uzbek (Middle Eastern), Bukharian (Sephardic Jewish), and Russian cultures. Essentially a cheese-filled hand pie, a mozzarella and cottage cheese mixture oozes from the warm, buttery, flaky pastry. Bring your own beer, wine, or liquor, and stick around for meat and fish kabobs.
Hungry Pigeon’s giant brick of fried potatoes makes brunch worth the calories. Order it on the egg & cheese sandwich (unhinge your jaw), the breakfast salad, with eggs any style, or go simple: as a side with ketchup for $3.
With a newly expanded menu of small and large plates, Bar Volvér has never been more inviting for those who aren’t up for an 8-12 course tasting menu. But, one thing hasn’t changed: the paper-thin slices of Andalusian cured pork loin -- made from pigs raised on a diet of acorns. Get one of the fancy cocktails or, our favorite, a glass of Albariño, to pair with the savory charcuterie. While you’re there, try our new favorite drink: the Sage It Ain’t So with rye, La Colombe rum, cacao, walnut bitters, and sage.
Fruity Pebbles French Toast
So much about this restaurant is surprising. The fact that there is a place serving good food (and brunch!) in Northeast Philadelphia, that the neighborhood has embraced it, and the Fruity Pebbles French Toast. It’s literally just French toast coated in Fruity Pebbles, but the look and taste evokes childhood sensibilities for the whole table. Fresh whipped cream is a nice upgrade from the way mom used to make it.
Crispy Cheese Curds
Bud & Marilyn’s cheese curds are good at any time, but are so satisfying after a night out (and a couple cocktails). Order a basketful of the Wisconsin cheddar fried in an airy batter served with burnt scallion ranch and salsa.
Bring a box of Isgro cookies to a party and instantly become everyone’s favorite person. Almond paste and pine nuts make Pignoli cookies chewy, slightly crunchy, and savory-sweet. Ricotta cookies are extra light, buttery, and topped with a lemon icing. Other favorites in the cookie case are filled and topped with jelly, jimmies (err, sprinkles), nuts, and sugar -- and, of course, you can’t go wrong with the cannolis.
Cheese or sweets for dessert… decisions, decisions. The baked Lemon Ricotta at DiBruno Bros. solves this conundrum by doing both. Many describe it as similar to cheesecake thanks to its creamy sweetness (from buffalo milk ricotta), light lemon tartness, and crust created during the baking process. Serve it in slices, like a cake.
For guys who claim to know “nothing about authentic Asian cuisine,” Cheu’s owners make a mean bowl of ramen -- with a twist. Along with a traditional sesame red chile broth and springy, thin noodles, this bowl includes slices of tender brisket, a massive matzo ball, and kimchi. Combining “Jewish penicillin” with spicy ramen broth: genius.
Yes, it’s a frozen daiquiri, but hear us out! This isn’t the syrupy, technicolor sugar bomb that your mom orders at TGI Fridays. The Khyber Pass Pub team took a traditional lime daiquiri (the kind Hemingway would approve of), blended it with ice, and sold it for a reasonable $7. In the city’s most beautiful outdoor drinking space of 2016, this summer sipper was the perfect antidote to toasty days. Pray that this pop-up garden opens again in 2017.
Vetri’s white pizza with long slices of prosciutto crudo, bufala mozzarella, parmigiano, and an olive oil drizzle makes the office pizza party a treat. The 650º wood-fired oven creates a perfectly blistered crust.
Escargots a la Bourguignonne
This charmer has everything you want in a French bistro, starting with perfectly cooked escargot. Each is served floating in garlic herb butter in its own ramekin with a round, crunchy crouton on top. A little pricey at $15, but it gets you nine of the special Burgundian snails.
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