Saturday, March 27, 2010

Plaza Pizza

Wednesday March 24th and Friday March 26th 2010
Plaza Pizza, 4th and Spring Garden, Philadelphia, PA

You might recall in my first entry I used Plaza Pizza as a point of reference for a compare and contrast evaluation of the near by Liberty Pizza. I said that a Liberty slice is far superior to a Plaza slice, a belief in which I stand firm. Plaza slices are inconsistent, varying day to day without ever achieving true success.
My Wednesday slices (seen below) were the most typical of an average Plaza slice. Crust like a spongy cracker, leaving behind a distinct trail of crumbs on your plate and shirt, a skimpy portion of sauce which there is too little of to get enough of a taste to make a comment on, and a choking hazards worth of discount mozzarella. The grease tasting very buttery, almost as if the dough were buttered prior to cooking. When its like this, immediately after finishing, my saliva glands go into hyper mode and I’m left with the overwhelming desire to drool and spit all over the place as I rush back to work to chug several cups of water and get the butter coating out of my mouth.
Friday was a better day for Plaza. As you can see, my slices were a little more well done, which maybe cooked some of the butter off and crisped the cheese up a bit, but of course there’s no happy medium, so the crust was even more brittle and crumbly than usual.
You ask me, “Why? Why would you go there twice in one week? Why is it you frequent an establishment who’s product you clearly hate?”
Well, when I first started working for Adi and the boys I tried out Plaza and was disappointed. Due to convenience of its location I returned several times, never leaving satisfied. My at the time co-worker Davey put it into perspective for me when I asked him about it, “Yeah, it’s pretty bad, but the ladies who work there keep calling me honey, so I mean, I guess I’ll keep going there.”
And that’s how it is. I walk into Plaza and its all, “Hey Ren.” and “Hey Babe.”, “How’s it going?”, “How’s work?”. You feel guilty if you don’t go in there, they ask you about it, “Where have you been? Your not working?” I’ve pretty much committed at this point.
Not to mention, it’s quite the scene in there. The owner stands off in an aisle to the left of the counter staring blankly into the kitchen occasionally screaming things in Greek to the rest of the staff. Sometimes he’ll pick up the phone, “I need your credit card number! I need the number! Hello? He hang up on me!” The all female counter staff constantly in mid discussion about family drama or debating the merits of the new Beyonce versus the old Beyonce.
They operate on a different level. On Friday, there was a guy in a wheelchair out front trying to bum change from people, not too uncommon, but when he came in the store and paid for his already eaten meal with the change he just bummed, I was surprised. “Oh, no, it’s only $2.50 honey, you got some change.” the waitress told him, handing back some coins. They know customers by name, they sit down and talk with them while they eat, they help the elderly cross the street!
Their client base is quite diverse. My regular visiting hours being Monday through Friday between 1 and 3 PM, I see a real blend of humanity. They get the office lunch break suit and tie crowd, the assisted living crowd, the living on the street off their meds crowd, all sitting in a room together eating awful pizza. The beer cooler brings in a different element, a lot of people just passing through to pick up a 6 pack, or a lot of people sticking around for a while because it’s not like a bar so you don’t have to tip.
Wednesday there was an older hunchbacked man at the counter talking to the Greek boss, “Tell Jimmy you saw me.”, he told him.
“Yeah, I’ll tell him.”
“Tell him I lost weight. I lost almost sixty pounds. I got the turkey neck now.”, he said, securing his loose neck skin between his pointer and index fingers and giving it a good throttle. To me there’s nothing like seeing something like that and then eating two slices of overly cheesed saliva producing slices of pizza and going straight back to work.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Panaderia La Espiga

Monday March 22nd 2010
Panaderia La Espiga, 10th and Spring Garden, Philadelphia, PA

Friday I got the idea in my head that I’d walk the opposite direction down Spring Garden than I usually do on my break. It was Friday after all, and I felt deserving of a particularly long lunch. After passing 10th st, the word “Tacos” caught my eye on a near by awning and I knew right then and there, that’s what I needed to eat.
Knowing absolutely nothing about this place, it caught me off guard to be in a market upon entering. Goya products as far as I could see. Mexican calling cards. A display case of Spanish cakes and pastries. I wandered towards the back of the store, but dead ended at the meat cooler. Going towards the right I ended up in the adjoining latin music store, half of which was empty and appeared to be used as storage for cleaning products, the other half a mix between center floor displays of toilet paper and walls lined with salsa and reggaeton CD’s. Perusing the CD’s for a bit, I say damn near everyone of them had a beach scene cover with a spread of scantily clad Latin women, “Reggaeton” in bold block lettering at the bottom (let me just say I think it’s great when an album cover states what type of music the album is).

Still looking for tacos, I went in another adjoining room to the left and found about four empty tables that looked ideal for eating tacos at, but no sign of a place to order them, a kitchen to make them in, or a list of what they had. I double checked at the front counter to make sure I hadn’t missed something. No mention of freshly prepared food. I looked back around the store. They had a great selection of tortillas, cheeses, meats, vegetables, I could if I planned on going home, buy everything I needed to make my own tacos. Is that what they were talking about? Deep confusion set in. I was lost, out of place, and began to get anxious, so I blasted out the front door and ended up eating two giant and bland slices of pizza for lunch. It was a defeat.
Back at work I sought information from James, the Spring Garden Confucius, about this establishment and their immense lack of clarity in food service. He told me he thought they did sell tacos, but you had to order them at the check out counter where you’d normally pay for your Salsa album, Chorizo, and Jumex, but he only went in there to get sodas once in a while. So today, despite the rain, I went back, and asked the man at the counter bluntly,
“Do you sell tacos?”
“Yes we do.”, he replied.
“Where do I order them?”
“Right here.” Well how about that. I asked him what kind they had, how much they were, and placed my order. “Ok.”, he responded, leaving the counter unattended while he dashed away to wherever it was they were hiding the kitchen. Now, this is weird right? Its not just me I hope.
I walked out with a bag of three pork tacos. Double layered corn tortillas with huge chunks of pork in them. Look at that! This cost $7.50, which having briefly lived in California seems utterly ridiculous to me. One taco is maybe one dollar, a dollar in change. $7.50 for three is rough. But this is nowhere near Mexico, and there was a whole lot of meat in those tacos, so I guess its ok. They did taste pretty good, and I was able to adequately fill up on two and eat one later on. The only real bummer was that there was a real fatty chunk of pork in one of them, and I know some people are way into pork fat, but I’m not really one of those guys yet and even if I was I’m not sure pork fat paired with corn tortillas is the best taste or texture combination.

The more I think about it, Philadelphia isn’t really known for having very many good things at all, in general even. Mexican food being another one you can throw right up on that lengthy list of failures. I’ve only tried a few places, but I kept finding white people eating burritos with peas in them. The quality of all Mexican food around here is obviously below the standards for Southern California, or say Mexico, so shouldn’t it be priced accordingly?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pho Ha

Saturday March 20th 2010
Pho Ha, 6th and Washington, Philadelphia, PA

I almost can’t think of anything to write about this place, because there’s nothing really that funny about it. It’s an amazing restaurant run by true professionals. This whole strip of Washington Ave, starting at 6th St and continuing until about 12th or 13th, is littered with Pho restaurants, almost all of which look like they’d be good, yet every time I come down this way, it’s straight to Pho Ha.
The moment you enter someone shouts from the opposite side of the room and flashes you a hand signal indicating how many people they assume to be in your party. Like, two people walk in, he throws up two fingers and then points at which table we sit at. Or, we’ve got three more people meeting us, he throws up two fingers, but I flash him the whole palm so he directs us to a larger table. It’s startlingly efficient, you don’t even have to pause your stride, the whole thing takes place in less than two seconds.
Usually the waiter/host meets you at the table they just pointed you towards bearing menus and a pot of green tea. Time to make your selection is limited, a couple minutes max. This isn’t the type of place you order drinks and then food. It’s all at once. And it comes quick. Sometimes you even get your food before your drinks.
Generally I get the same thing every time I come here: a small white meat chicken pho and a Vietnamese iced coffee. Val and I’s first time here we ordered large pho’s, a wasteful mistake. Scott Reber, master of consumption, is the only person I’ve seen take one of those cauldrons down. For a while I was simply ordering chicken pho, and sometimes it would come with a lot of thin white meat chicken strips and sometimes it would come with mostly chicken skin and strange tissue pieces, until it started always coming with mostly skin. I gave it a shot, eating a few bowls prepared that way, but in the end decided I, for whatever reason, prefer the white meat slices, and began requesting them.

The iced coffee’s are served in a small glass with about a half inch of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom. The coffee slowly trickles onto the milk from a metal filter on top of the glass, forming two precise layers which are mixed with a spoon and poured over ice. This might be the only way I drink sweetened or creamed coffee, which normally I would consider contaminated.
On this particular day our pho bowls were as perfect as they’ve ever been. The broth’s steam and layer of floating onions hid the tangled treasure of firm noodles which I promptly surfaced from the bottom of the bowl. A bottle of Sriracha chili sauce is at every table and I like to squirt a little bit of that at each end of the bowl and mix it all up with the noodles. I think I went a little too heavy on it today, but it makes it feel so much more rewarding when you finish it that way, like you broke a sweat working too hard or something. It’s a feeling of accomplishment.
This combination of the coffee and the pho is unstoppable. It can be eaten for any meal at any time of the day and can cure almost any ailment. Last time I was here I laid across two chairs, wearing crooked sunglasses, sluggishly stirring my coffee and milk together, slurping one noodle at a time, trying not to cause any inner conflict. I thought I might have been a little overconfident in leaving the house and ordering food. With time my slurping pace increased, my drink was successfully stirred and sipped, and before I knew it, I was back in the game! A miracle meal.
Pictured below is my bowl of chicken pho and Val’s bowl of chicken and tripe pho.

Rosa City Diner

Thursday March 18th 2010
Rosa City Diner, 4th and Spring Garden, Philadelphia, PA

The Rosa City Diner is a small food truck located in close proximity to my workplace, at 4th and Spring Garden. They serve pretty standard on the go style food truck fare; hot dogs, egg sandwiches, cheesesteaks, etc... I read over the menu a few times before approaching the window and ordering the chicken cheesesteak. A different take on the Philly tradition, and possibly completely undeserving of the steak title in the name.
The one woman working the truck, taking orders, cooking food, maintaining everything, spoke a foreign word at me in an inquisitory tone immediately following my request. I did not understand, but I agreed. “Yes.”, I answered. It took me a few moments to process the sound she emitted and relate it to my native “onions”. I was to be having onions on this sandwich.
Now I am in no way mocking foreign accents, but post onion agreement, she launched into a series of questions about what I would like included on my sandwich, none of which I understood. I simply nodded my head. She would glance back at the grill, think of something else that could be added, turn back towards me, make a suggestion, and I would blindly agree. “Everything.”, I finally told her.

Once the cooking and assembly process had begun, I noticed this sign on the side of the truck. “Bottle it’s better.”, was the caption, with a royal display of sodas standing tall before their sergeant. Now, weird grammar, possible lack of punctuation aside, does this mean anything? I mean, if you look closely theres cans in that picture!
All this nodding and yessing got me a sandwich full of minced chicken smothered in American cheese, some caramelized onions, and despite how many ingredients it seemed like I agreed to the only others I could pin point were ketchup and mayonnaise.
An occasionally wise man by the last name of Otis, over a meal of mayonnaised cheesesteaks, once told me amidst my complaints and confusion, that if you didn’t have mayonnaise on the cheesesteak that you would simply be “choking on dry steak and cheese with nothing to help it go down.” This could be debated, but in the case of the chicken cheesesteak the portions and tastes of both the tourist condiments were complimentary, and not offensive in any way like you might have expected them to be.
At $4.50 the chicken cheesesteak provided ample sustenance and a taste I’ll settle for at a pretty reasonable price. I believe this truck gets there pretty early in the morning, but is usually gone by 5 pm.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sketch Burger

Sunday March 14th 2010
Sketch Burger, E Girard at Columbia, Philadelphia, PA.

There’s a funny story about Sketch Burger, which involves a guy named Alex Hampshire, who’s a little bit of a funny story himself. Alex committed himself to the inexplicable torture of vegetarianism for nine years of his life, a diet that consists mostly of chick peas and spaghetti, until one day he stopped into Sketch Burger.
“A Vegan Friendly Burger Shack.”, reads the decal on the window at Sketch. And indeed it is, vegan options are offered, vegan baked goods, sauces, the whole deal. They also serve lamb, beef, bison, chicken, and the real stuff, not soy imitations. Alex didn’t realize this.
“I’ll have the burger!”, He proudly declared to the woman at the register.
“Well how would you like it done?”, She responded.
“Really?” He asked, “How would I like it done?”
“Yes, we take our burgers very seriously.”
“Well, I guess I’ll have it rare.”, He instructed her.
And rare he had it, scarfing down near raw beef for the first time in nine years, apparently exclaiming out loud how much he was enjoying his burger the entire time. He left energized and excited, parading about town to spread the word about the Sketch. His friends informed him in no time that Sketch wasn’t solely a vegan place, and that he did indeed eat a burger comprised of rare beef, but instead of throwing a hippy tantrum Alex embraced his love for the Burger and changed his ways after nine years of youthful confusion.
Today I went to Sketch to see what all the fuss was about. Up to this point I thought it was called Sketch Burger because they secretly served vegans raw meat, but they actually give people free burgers every week for doing funny drawings which are displayed on the walls, much like the one seen below of Gordon Ramsey, who the waitress informed me thoroughly enjoyed his burger when he was in town.

Fancy things like Kobe Beef and Bison are offered, but again, the wallet, so I went with the regular burger, which I had with horseradish cheddar, and a tahini sauce. Now I didn’t grow up eating burgers because my mom boycotted fast food restaurants for allegedly tearing down the rainforest to raise cattle, and I don’t even eat them on much of a regular basis these days, so when I do I almost never get through the whole thing, especially from a place like this that serves them real big and all. I was left with a sauce laden half inch by half inch chunk which I certainly didn’t want to waste, but I had such an intense burger high going on that I couldn’t put my will power into finishing it and with my judgement impaired, I allowed the waitress to take it away.
We sat in our booth, my brain reeling out of control in a protein haze, admiring ridiculous crayon drawings of people with burger heads, burger adorned Christmas trees, and stick figure cops chowing down on a Sketch meal. Names of meats and animals written all over place, I couldn’t get my mind off of Alex, possibly sitting in the exact spot I was, having his mind blown to bits by the rush of the burger.
All said, I think Sketch Burger would be a fine place to take someone to break their meat edge.

Jamaican D's

Thursday March 11th 2010
Jamaican D’s, 8th and Spring Garden, Philadelphia, PA.

I work in a warehouse that’s completely overrun with a clutter of precariously stacked boxes placed in inconvenient spots all over the building. So cluttered, that at times I’ve stood at the center of four box towers and remained undetected by the other staff. Going back a few weeks, I showed up for work, walked through the warehouse to my work station, and stumbled upon a person I’d never seen before in my life, tucked into an alcove of boxes, working. Weird, I thought.
Halfway through the day this mystery man disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a styrofoam trough full of chicken, vegetables, and unidentifiable slop on which he gorged himself for the next twenty minutes.
“Where did you get that?”, I asked.
“At that Jamaican truck down the street.”, He replied.
Theres a Jamaican truck down the street? I was baffled. I’d seen the hot dog cart, the smoothie truck, the other truck that simply serves ‘food’, but never the Jamaican truck. Who is this guy?
I don’t really know, and I haven’t seen him since, but I have located and dined at the aforementioned truck which is located at the corner of 8th and Spring Garden, right across from the Philadelphia Traffic Court. Small and large portions of a couple varieties of chicken, goat, oxtail, and beef are served along with your choice of two sides. The list of sides being quite long and containing collard greens, plantains, potato salad, rice and beans, etc... My choice: jerk chicken with sweet potatoes and mac n cheese. The small size runs you $7.

Now at this warehouse I make $8 an hour, wait no, I just got a raise, I make $8.50 an hour. So not being a thick walletted man, I generally try and keep my lunch budget to the $5 and under range. I mean one $7 meal is almost a full hour of my working life, throw in a drink and we’re there. Paying this price made me wince a little at first, but once you dig in you realize you definitely made the right choice. Basically your getting a meal that’s size, if consumed in one sitting, will fully incapacitate you for the next hour. Not ideal for the boss back at the warehouse, but fine by me. So a $7 meal at Jamaican D’s is sort of like one big meal and a snack. Eat 2/3rds on break, show up back at work feeling great, sloppily polish the rest off on the drive back home.
The sweet potatoes are astounding, truly sweet, almost like a dessert in comparison to the rest of the food. Heavily seasoned with cinnamon, which not only tastes good but masks the otherwise unpleasant stale odors lurking in my van. The mac n cheese is no old box on the bottom of a save a lot shelf powered cheese nonsense. A thick layer of coagulated cheese keeps the macaroni below moist and warm. And the chicken, the succulent wonderful chicken comes in four decently sized chunks, which you have the option of smothering in a delicious jerk sauce, which you obviously should do. It is very tender and peels right off leaving a clean bone at the center.
Aside from those beef patties you see around sometimes, I think this might be my only other experience with Jamaican food. I’m not sure how authentically Jamaican mac n cheese is, but it was good, and now knowing that they serve a quality product at this truck I might dip in for some more traditional fare next time.

Liberty Pizza

Wednesday March 10th 2009
Liberty Pizza, 7th and Fairmount, Philadelphia, PA

I’ve heard in the past that Philadelphia has the most pizza places per capita of any other U.S. city. Wether this is fact or fiction I’m not entirely sure, but whereas Philly might be known for having a lot of pizza places, it’s not known for having very many good ones, and quantity over quality is never the way to go. A slice from any random pizza place you happen to pass by in Philly is more likely than not to thoroughly disappoint you. Overly crispy, almost pastry like dough, and small slices loaded with bland low grade mozzarella are the common product.
This being said, I’m hesitant to try new pizza in this town out of fear for possibly getting a slice thats sub par even for Philly standards. I generally keep my distance from nondescript bullet proof glass style pizzerias, at least when I’m looking for food, but my co-worker James, a connoisseur of the eastern Spring Garden area highly recommended Liberty Pizza.
“It’s better than Plaza Pizza.”, He told me.
Which isn’t really saying much, Plaza Pizza being a Greek pizza joint down the road, great for a funny atmosphere and exceptionally friendly daytime staff, but fitting itself right into the mediocre category of Philadelphia pizza quality.
Liberty Pizza might not have the beer selection that Plaza does, their cashiers might not call me “Babe”, and maybe I can’t sit down and watch crazy people play with their soup, but I CAN eat a decent slice of pizza. Slices at Liberty run you $1.50 for cheese, and I think $1.75 for a topping (this is a halal place, so I’m not sure how they feel about pepperoni), and they come in a cone which is made by stapling the edges of a paper plate together, convenient for transport.

Taste wise, a Liberty slice is sort of like the best New York style pizza you could find in a cafeteria. And I mean nothing bad by that, it’s literally as if you ordered the “New York Style Pizza” in the hospital, and then you were like, “Wow! This is actually really good!”. The dough has a nice chew to it, there isn’t too much or too little cheese, and the sauce is spiced in a pleasantly subtle way. When held by the crust, the rest of the slice might sag a little bit, but generally holds its form, and without spillage of sauce or cheese. Napkins unnecessary.
It’s interior is typical for a lot of these unintentional variety stores you’ll find in Philly. There’s a snack cake section to the left of the door, a lightly stocked deli that might not get as much use as they’d like, several drink coolers, and they may or may not sell cigarettes, phone cards, and headache medication, it looks like they would.
I like Liberty Pizza, but at best it’s only decent, and its sad that in a city full of pizzerias something merely decent should be rare. But, hey, that’s the way it is, so congratulations to Liberty Pizza for not making whatever mistake it is that so many others have made.