Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tony Luke's

Monday April 26th, 2010
Tony Lukes, Oregon at Front, Philadelphia, PA

It was the day after an insane late night party, after a slow worn out day of struggle, after a not so wild but still insane ‘dudes-in-hats’ style fake south lounge out. Come Monday, I couldn’t wrap my head around it either. Shockingly I showed up for work, went through all the regular motions, but only an hour in, I hit that wall. Usually it takes at least two hours, three on a good day, before I hit the wall and my progress meter swan dives to zero and sits idling. So I did what I felt was best for everyone, and left.
The previous night, Roast Pork Italians came up in conversation twice. A not so well known traditional Philadelphia sandwich sadly overshadowed by the Cheese Steak, which although I’ve wanted to try since finding out about it, have not. A place called Paisano’s on Girard came recommended in both conversations about the sandwich, but was closed, so we opted for the famous Tony Lukes. Located in deep south Philly, it was about halfway there, after already stopping at Paisano’s that I realized I wouldn’t be returning from this ‘break’ I was on at work.
Tony Luke, appearance wise, is the sort of typical South Philly goon I would expect to be fighting with the auto body shop guys on my street, or calling me a fag when I walk past his sports bar, but instead of going that route he followed his passion for the Cheese Steak and made it big. This guy’s all over TV, he’s opening a restaurant in Dubai, he’s got microwave-able Cheese Steaks for sale in the grocery store with a picture of one of the nasty things reflecting off his bald scalp. A regular entrepreneur this guy.

We considered these “Frank Fries”, but five out of six of us got the Roast Pork Italian, a blending of slow roasted Pork, Broccoli Rabe, and sharp Provolone cheese on a regular sandwich roll. This was my first time having it, but I think Tony put a fine recipe together and trained his people well. The bitterness of the Broccoli Rabe provides a pleasant backdrop and contrasting accompaniment to the star of the show, the soft slow roasted pork slices. The two of these being bridged together by the sharp provolone, both literally with its melted glue like qualities adhering the rabe to the roast, and flavor wise with the sharp provolone being relatable to the rabe in its sharp flavor and to the pork in its creamy and pleasant texture, it was the perfect segue between the two. A truly exciting three ingredient sandwich.
Quickly, we hurried the end of our meals, tossing the scraps aside in effort to escape photographic stares from the near by ‘cheese steak challenge’ board, full of post ‘victory’ images of the grease sweating ‘winners’ of the five pound cheese steak challenge, and the army of New Jersey cops who boldly parked in the middle of these South Philly streets (I’m sure there’s a secret favor explaining this somewhere), caravanning back to the homestead to bid our guests farewell and get started on some home-rejuvenation. Gladly sacrificing a full days work and a full days pay for the experience of the Roast Pork Italian.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Richmond Diner

Saturday April 10th 2010
Richmond Diner, Richmond and Tioga, Philadelphia, PA

Consistent mediocrity is what separates diners from restaurants. When you say your meal at a diner was good, your saying that nothing was seriously wrong with it, there were no elements of danger involved. A place you’ve never been before, in a city you’ve never been to, can serve you the exact meal you were expecting to have, and we’re talking independently owned businesses. In that respect diners rarely dissatisfy, yet in the case of the Richmond Diner and my friend Kevin Esposito, every time he goes he, “Comes expecting nothing, and somehow leaves disappointed.”
Esposito had been on a personal mission to stay awake for 48 hours for no real reason other than just wanting to. About twenty hours in a group of us joined him on a trip to the Richmond Diner for an early breakfast and caffeine re-up. The informative marquee greeted us in the parking lot.

Orders varied across the table. I had a traditional two egg breakfast, scrambled with cheese, and as I expected they used the ‘waste no time’ style of cheesing eggs where two slices of processed American cheese product are laid out on top of the egg strip like a warm blanket. This came with wheat toast and home fries. Everything was exactly how I thought it would be, not that great, which is very reassuring.
The coffee’s, ordered black, were unashamedly spiked with pure hot water in plain sight of the recipient. The insides of the water glasses were coated with a thick film of bleach based cleaning product, able to be visibly scraped off with ones fingernail. Weaver’s cole slaw, after being dumped into his turkey sandwich, flowed out in one rush like a quick turn of the faucet, spawning tributaries of watery mayonnaise across the plate. Queasy on 7 hour energy drinks, Jonny couldn’t finish his side of home fries, the only food he felt safe ordering. We discovered Noah’s ‘Happy Waitress Special’ to be named so possibly because it was so easy to make; an open face grilled cheese sandwich.
We were offered desert, “We got some fresh pies over there. I wouldn’t offer them to you if they weren’t fresh.”, our waitress told us. Fresh meaning freshly purchased from the store. We politely declined, which for some reason gave her an excuse for her to start talking to us about her son. She was saving up to buy him a car so he can come down and visit more, being all the way up in the Lehigh Valley without a ride. There was nothing for him in Philly anymore and she didn’t want him down here anyways, falling back in with those “Corner Chubs, out on the corner all night, selling drugs and guns.”
Tipping was done so with wild abandon, silently having come to a mutual decision that if your going to spend any of your money at all on average borderline bad food, you might as well spend a lot of it. And that guy needs a car.

Taco Loco

Friday April 9th 2010
Taco Loco, 4th and Washington, Philadelphia, PA

First of all, notice the abandoned baby stroller in front of the truck. I had nothing to do with that. Possible abductions aside, this place is good, I would say the best Mexican food I’ve had in Philadelphia. Slight east coast inflation, but better than average at $2 a taco.
Only you speak. The woman working, who was visibly bummed (and I mean, why not? Stuck in that trailer all day.), approached the window and gave me a stare. She was looking right at me, so I told her what I wanted, a pollo taco and a barbacoa taco. She scribbled it down and left the window, no repeating the order back to me to make sure she got it right, no ‘just a couple minutes’, no small talk, she gets the information and assembles the product. We wouldn’t have had much to talk about anyways.
If you can see here, the shelf above the sink is loaded with cartons of cigarettes. Classic Philly style, branching the business out in different directions. Not always the sign of a good place, but the sign of a real one.

The taco’s were done in about five minutes. The barbacoa, a slow cooked beef, was exceptional, very moist and flavorful, the meat flaked apart nicely. Large portions of meat too, topped with diced onions and cilantro with a lime wedge on the side, double layered corn tortilla.
The chicken was also quite nice. Shredded, cooked in hot Mexican spices, providing a good kick, but nothing too overwhelming.
I ate the barbacoa first. Enjoying it immensely, and also because I was sick of trying to hold it and drive at the same, I ate about the last third of it in one bite. This third contained an undetected fat globule which I was forced to swallow having already mashed it up in with the rest of the meat and tortilla, unpleasant, but what can you do. Then a similar thing happened with the chicken, I was really having a good time eating it, and then in one of the last bites there was a crunch, and then another one. Not like the crunch of an onion, and chicken has never crunched on me before. I don’t know what it was, possibly a strange piece of the animal, cartilage, bone perhaps.
Don’t let this deter you from Taco Loco. Everyone makes mistakes and that lady was fresh out of love to cook with. Much better than most of the other Mexican places I’ve tried in that neighborhood, and easy to park at.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Wazobia Restaurant

Thursday April 8th 2010
Wazobia Restaurant, 11th and Mt Vernon, Philadelphia, PA

African food, I know not much of it. I’ve seen people eat an Ethiopian dish where there’s some sort of spongey looking bread, almost like a thick pancake which they use as an edible glove to mop up all the meat and sauce and slop on the plate, but I’m not even sure what that’s called. Despite my lack of knowledge, and the fact that every time you see a food related TV show where someones in Africa they always have to eat weird bugs and rotten meat cooked in hot dirt and spit, I was excited to eat at Wazobia after spotting it on my drive back to work. I had high hopes for some potentially delicious food I had never before discovered.

The interior was pleasant, lots of plants and natural light, nice tables, a poster showing skylines of African cities, a bar/counter area at the front of the store, which was not where you ordered food or drinks, but seemed to only be an off limits area where they kept supplies. The place where ordering is done is a small glass window that slides off to the side revealing the kitchen, employees, and a dozen steaming pots boiling on the stove.
No descriptions or even mild explanations are given on the menu, absolutely no hints. There were two sections, one which appeared to be for entrees, and another for smaller rice dishes. The entree section had about seven items to choose from, all completely foreign to me. At the top there was a caption saying ‘your choice of meat: beef, chicken, goat, etc...’ So I figured I’d just go with the first item, because in a blind situation like this what’s the difference? Culinary roulette.
“I’ll have the Amala with chicken.”, I told the woman behind the window. Although it says on the menu ‘your choice of meat’ and chicken is offered, this was apparently an incorrect combination.
“Amala with chicken?” she asked, tilting her head to the side as if she’d misheard me. “You’ve tried this before?”
I came clean, “No. I haven’t, but I’d like to.” She wasn’t convinced. There was a long pause in our verbal exchange as she ran it by the others in the kitchen in a different language.
“You try the Fufu.” she corrected me, apparently having come to a group decision about it. Another woman approached the window after this to confirm my order for Fufu, which I agreed to, because I’m sure they know best after all. After this I answered ‘yes’ to a lot of questions I couldn’t understand and waited while the food was prepared.
Be it Fufu, be it Amala, be it something else entirely, what I got was a styrofoam container with three pieces of fried chicken which had been coated in some sort of sauce which when fried produced sort of a web like texture on the top (and looked pretty cool), an extremely small portion of beans, more like a tasting of beans than a serving, and about six meals worth of seasoned rice.
So much rice. Which at first wasn’t bad, the seasoning was strong, spicy, but not hot. The chicken was extremely dry and no match for my plastic fork who’s talons would be deflected upon contact. The beans were actually the best part, too bad there was only three spoonfuls. I couldn’t finish it. To my disadvantage most of the chicken was consumed, and about half of the rice, which was just a silly amount of rice to eat, I laughed a little harder with each bite.
Having done some post meal research I’ve learned Amala to be yam processed into a doughy ball, and Fufu to be mashed yam and plantain. Two things that sound great to me, neither of which I had. Doughy yam balls and chicken! What on Earth could be wrong with that, it sounds amazing.
So instead of laying their best most authentic meal from the homeland on me, which it sounds like I would have enjoyed, they hit me with some bogus and boring "safe" meal. Why would I be in your restaurant, blinding ordering things off the menu if I didn’t want to try them? Why would you assume that I’d rather have a villages worth of rice and stale chicken? I was disappointed to say the least.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Memphis Taproom

Sunday April 4th 2010
Memphis Taproom, Memphis and Cumberland, Philadelphia, PA

My neighborhood, being closed in by Frankford Avenue to the west, York St to the south, Lehigh Ave to the north, and Aramingo Ave to the east, is an unidentified conglomeration of three real bordering neighborhoods. Fishtown, the hip somewhat pleasant tree lined area full of cafe’s and trendy bars. Kensington, the more run down industrial zone. And Port Richmond, a calm working class area along side the Delaware river. The central overlap of these three areas is where I am. An area with a split population, half of which most likely hasn’t ventured past this four street boundary. A cast of degenerate mutants with sagging guts, oversized clothing, local sports pride, and an uncontrollable desire to be loud no matter what the cost. Ugly undesirables with a looping root somewhere in their malnourished family tree. The other half being the displaced runoff of youth thinking they were moving to Fishtown. Put me in the second category. Normally I would argue, say I wasn’t one of those people, that there was more to it, but lets face it, I’m 25, white, and here I am BLOGGING about the BRUNCH I god. And if you have to pick one of those to be in, the later is most definitely the better in this case.

The Memphis Taproom is, for the neighborhood, an upscale bar and restaurant, catering specifically to part two of the population. They stock specialty beers, local beers, Belgian beers, all ranging from $4 to $65 a glass. That’s right there’s $65 dollar beers here. Who? How? Why? I don’t know. They serve pretty standard fancy bar food. Seen here is about the simplest thing you can get, the breakfast special; potatoes, scrambled eggs with cheese, and wheat toast (note: I ate about half of this before I remembered to take a picture). Thick cut potatoes, and probably at least three eggs with a generous portion of cheddar tossed in there, not bad at all. Kept me full for several hours afterwards, and with the addition of the two pints of Fleur De Lehigh, feeling quite good as well.

Our waiter was our friend Michael Barker, except it wasn’t, it wasn’t him at all, it was his toned down dolled up PG-13 doppelganger. So that was kind of strange.
Part one of the neighborhoods population could almost come in here. It’s not like they all only eat Kraft products. Some of them might enjoy the ‘Memphis Brefis Sandwich’ and extensive beer selection, but some of the options are definitely leagues away from the world they live in. The vegan blood sausage being number one among them. A loose definition of the word vegan could be: a strict vegetarian who consumes no animal food or dairy products. Making the words ‘blood’ and ‘sausage’ following the word ‘vegan’, nothing more than plain wrong. It just can’t exist. They are attempting to serve imaginary food. The worst part of all this being that real actual tangible blood sausage was nowhere on the menu. While I looked for it I noticed scrapple and pork roll cutely thrown into certain dishes, and then when I heard Michael Barker go into his practiced spiel about ‘what is scrapple?’ to an inquiring table, I knew they weren’t serious about serving it and it was only a gimmick on their part. Treating scrapple, a proud Philadelphia tradition, as a novelty, although I don’t care for it, is a shameful act.
Closing up, this is a great place to walk to with your friends and spend some extra money on some good beers and decent food, blah, blah, blah. My only advice is to be aware of what side you’ve joined upon doing so.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Cafe Nhuy

Friday April 2nd 2010
Café Nhuy, 8th and Christian, Philadelphia, PA

The best thing that I’ve ever bought in my whole life is my van. Old Vanny, a mobile green room who pampers all of her passengers with her luxurious transportation amenities. Aside from just loving that I own it, it’s great because people need it sometimes, like often happens at work. Another shipment of batik skirts and leather cross necklaces will be stuck in a cargo center somewhere and Old Vanny and I will be called upon to save it. These are my best days at work, because I completely ignore the presence of a major interstate system running through the city, and I take the old fashioned way, back roads. On my own time, this would infuriate me. Traffic lights, other people trying to drive near me, but when your on the clock and in your in your car, every day is like Sunday.
Not being in any particular rush to get the goods back to the man, I swung into Café Nhuy for a morning iced coffee and Vietnamese sandwich. Waiting rooms, walk in closets, handicapped bathroom stalls, maybe even cubicles for some of the more important employees are larger than this entire restaurant. As soon as your inside the door, your right up against the counter and whomever’s working is immediately asking you what you want. Mentioning cubicles, the place does sort of have an office decor. There’s a bunch of calendars around, and framed magazine-esque typically beautiful pictures of the Vietnam countryside. Seating isn’t necessarily offered, I suppose you could eat in there, but if anyone else at all came in, even if they were getting something to go, it would be incredibly cramped and uncomfortable the entire time.

To-the-point menu’s are something I’m a big fan of. I went to a place in Kansas City once and the entire menu consisted of two sandwiches. My mind was made up instantly, “I’ll have the chicken salad.” When a place has a several dozen item menu, specializing in about six different culinary fields at once, foods that shouldn’t mix accidentally do in your mind, and suddenly nothing on the entire gigantic menu seems even the slightest bit appetizing. Café Nhuy does not have this problem. Their menu lists six different sandwiches and then coffee at the bottom. It only took a moment to decide.
This was just after 10 AM, so I ordered an iced coffee first. Café Du Monde over ice blended with sweetened condensed milk, tasty, refreshing, invigorating. Being it so early, I wasn’t sure if a hearty meat were the right choice, meatball was definitely out, pork didn’t sound right, chicken either, so I went with the vegetarian. Thick strips of a marinated and seasoned tofu provided a pleasant squish and added a nice soft texture to the crunch of the carrots and radishes. Bringing me to the point where I mention I’m not really sure what all is in these things, aside from the obvious. Every time I eat one of these sandwiches, about halfway through I bite into something insanely spicy and my mouth is numb for the next twenty minutes. Quite the surprise being used to the sandwiches mild flavor and then getting whammed by a spice bomb someone hid in the center. I guess I like it enough though. And sometimes I detect the presence of a spread of sorts, perhaps a pate.
At an average price of $3.50, Vietnamese sandwiches are an affordable light meal, and a different mix of flavors than usually found in a loaf of French bread. I saved the last bite, keeping it wrapped up in the van while I worked and enjoyed it (briefly) on the ride home. A good choice.

The Smoothie Truck

Thursday April 1st 2010
The Smoothie Truck, 4th and Spring Garden, Philadelphia, PA

Every day I’d been looking for it, waiting, hoping it would be there. The weather would be nice and I’d say, “Today. Today’s the day they’ll be back.” And today my friends, today was that day. This place is on some next level realm where names are meaningless, portions although taken into consideration are not abided by, and the threat of giving product away resulting in loss of profit is nonexistent. Simplicity reigns supreme.
Like I said, this place has no name. The closest it comes is where in the boldest of all the letters on the truck it clearly and simply states what they have; Fruit Salad and Smoothies. I have personally taken to referring to it as ‘The Smoothie Truck’. A truck who’s absence made this multiple blizzard Winter just that much worse to deal with.
Standing at the front of the truck you can see through a glass window their freshly cut selection of fruits to which you can point and add to your salad. Mango, pineapple, strawberries, coconut, melons, it’s a pretty decent selection. Two women run the whole operation. One cuts up and prepares the fruit while the other does all the blending and assembly.
Lets tackle each specialty separately. The fruit salads come in large and small sizes in circular plastic ‘to go’ containers with lids that snap in place. Only they don’t snap them shut. So much fruit is placed in the bed of the container that the lid is unable to close and is rubber banded on leaving an exposed gap of fruit all the way around. As if that already isn’t going the extra mile, once the rubber bands are in place, she then stuffs more fruit into the open crevasses left in the exposed gap, handing you a fruit salad that is literally exploding out the sides.

Smoothies are offered mostly in colada form (pina colada, strawberry colada) except the number five ‘special mixed fruit shake’, which is what you see here. This special mixed fruit shake, having watched the creation process, is just a few pieces of every kind of fruit they have ready to go tossed into a blender with some ice and pulverized into a delicious slurry. You figure if you order the medium size they’d grab the appropriate cup, fill it up to the top and give it over. It would even be possible that they would know what point to fill the blender to equal a medium or large size. Not the case. They seem to always be over guessing the amount to blend, leaving them with extra smoothie at the end. Is it stored in the fridge until the next person orders a number five? No! It is given to you in an additional cup at no extra charge. In the dead of the summer I’ve seen this lady point to people on the street who are waiting in line for the truck and hand them complimentary smoothie samples to make the wait, which can be quite long, more enjoyable.
One time, taking it back a few years, I worked at Subway (the miracle weight loss sandwich chain) for one full day. During my time there an employee explained to me that were a cookie to break, either by it falling on the floor or simply being handled too roughly, it was not under any circumstances to be consumed. A note explaining its loss was to be left in a log book and approved by the manager on duty. The same went for leftover bread. Obviously this was on my mind on the walk back to work the next day, a walk which was never completed.
Clearly, The Smoothie Truck is not a chain, exact amounts are not measured and calculated, there is no log book. And although it didn’t change the way I was feeling after a random walk around North Philly until 4:30 AM with Matt “The Priv Dog” Sullivan, pockets lined with National Bohemian, it was comforting.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Syrenka Restaurant

Monday March 29th 2010
Syrenka Restaurant, Richmond and Allegheny, Philadelphia, PA

Monday, work had me taking a Budget moving truck up to what is an incredibly inappropriate area of the so called Garden State, to pick up 88 boxes of “Leaf” and “Chakiwara” tapestries which had been shipped over from Mumbai and were being held in a U.S. customs cargo center. Summing it up, I went to the wrong place in Elizabeth, and then eventually found the right place in Carteret, and barely fit all the boxes in the truck even with the help of the muscle bound warehouse goons all wearing “I Love Puerto Rico” shirts.
Skipping breakfast as always, I had worked up quite the void in my stomach by the time 3:30 rolled around and I was getting back into Philly. Having spotted Syrenka a while ago, but never visiting, I was reminded of it as I drove down Richmond St, having gotten off at an early exit to avoid possible downtown traffic, so I stopped.

It’s a cool area up by Allegheny and Richmond, they’ve got a lot of houses with storefronts showcasing old flowers and antique trash, vintage store front signs, and tons of Polish bars and markets. The inside of Syrenka, much like a lot of places in the neighborhood looks like it might have been exactly the same in 1975. Dated minimal menus, classic cafeteria style counter, wilting newspaper articles hung on the wall without frames. It’s definitely not a place trying to keep up with the times.
No one was in there. For the first minute at least, I was completely alone, no one. For a second I thought it might be like one of those businesses that’s not actually what it says it is, and that maybe I shouldn’t be there, but a nice young woman with a heavy Polish accent came out from the back room and took my order. Figuring I’d keep it simple I ordered an order of potato and cheese pierogies. I washed some of the cargo warehouse grime off my hands in their closet of a bathroom, sipped my ginger ale and waited while she prepared them.
When you walk into a restaurant and not a single other person is eating there it can maybe feel like a bad sign, but that is not the case here. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever had freshly prepared homemade pierogies before, and after eating them I was sure I never had, I would remember something that good.

A heavy aroma of warm dough, just like fresh baked bread, hit me in the face when I opened the container they were in. These were thick doughed, fully packed, plump and squishy, durable pierogies, built to last. In my experience with store bought frozen pierogies, courtesy of Mrs. T or whatever her name is, once bitten, the pierogie has a tendency to become hard to manage. Potato spills out the side, the whole thing is kind of flimsy so its flopping all around on the end of the fork. Not these. With each bite the pierogies stayed firm and in tact, which helped me a lot, as I ate them while driving a moving truck down a narrow street back to work. And they were served with a side of sour cream, something that I didn’t know I liked so much until this year. Great stuff! I used all of it, don’t think I could eat pierogies without it again.
Driving by Syrenka again yesterday, I peeked in to see if I had been there at an off hours time, which I apparently had, because I noticed at least two occupied tables. I plan on going back soon.

Smoke'n Dudes

Sunday March 28th 2010
Smoke’n Dudes, Neshaminy Blvd, Bensalem, PA

At least out of people I know, I would consider myself to be in the top ten percent of those skilled in navigation and dealing with directions. Except when you get me out in the suburbs and we’re making random turns with no identifiable markers passing by identically designed houses with identical lawn ornaments, then I get confused. So, although I’ve been to Smoke’n Dudes twice, I’m not confident in my ability to find it again.
Smoke’n dudes is the humorous on many levels name of a delightful meat oasis located deep in an otherwise sterile suburban labyrinth to the north of Philadelphia, in the town when Ben Franklin first flew his kite; Bensalem. All of a sudden there you are face to face with a faux log cabin brandishing a sign with a cute cartoon version of the animal you are about to eat. A pig in a chef’s hat, adorable. If only they put those on em at the slaughterhouse. A small dining area, a less than confident wait staff, terrible pictures of kids eating barbecue and ceramic pigs in bibs greet you upon entry.

My dining partners included Ohioans Mark Van Fleet (editor and distributor of Married Life Quarterly), Aaron Hibbs (Guinness Book hula hoop champion), Aaron Klamut (Sword Heaven’s half roadie), local Bensalem personality Mat “Bud Newton” Rademon and his lady friend Jackie from down in the city.

The most popular food item among our table was the BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich. A sandwich done well, served on a quality roll with a good portion of juicy pork and a few different sauces on the table to add to it. Sides of hush puppies, cole slaw, cheese fries, scattered across the table.
The problem being that although everyone’s food was pretty good, no ones food was very exciting. Instead of discussing how amazing it was, which I don’t believe anyone even commented on, we talked about other foods. Hibbs mentioned how the hot dog place he works at as janitor in Columbus just got a new bacon wrapped dog topped with onion rings. I suggested they actually slide the dog through the onion rings, making it neater and more visually appealing. He’s going to mention it to his boss. Some reminiscing was done about the time we ordered a whole roasted pig from Smoke’n Dudes for an all day improvised music festival held at my house, and how most of the pigs exterior became integrated into Rick Weavers wardrobe by the end of the night.
Unfortunately the food ended up being a lot like the neighborhood it was in; uniform, safe, and similar to a lot of other places. It’s barbecue, and people tend to like that done a certain way, which made me all the more distraught about their garden burger option on the menu. A true life or death barbecue joint would never cater to the enemy. Imagine that at some smokehouse in rural Alabama! No, don’t actually, it’s too ugly.
The suburbs, (long drawn out sigh) what can you do?