B. A. Nilsson
the long drive home from Philadelphia last weekend, my family
and I visited Valley Forge and sought lunch in a nearby town.
We found a street flanked by chain stores and restaurants,
but we also spotted a local place promising pub food. It was
so disgusting inside (filthy walls, sticky tables, apathetic
servers) that we hightailed it to one of the chains and contented
ourselves with an acceptable, if boilerplate, meal.
a depressing culinary end to an otherwise delightful weekend,
during which my wife escorted my daughter to a concert by
her favorite rock band at a downtown arena while I drove around
South Philly to check out recommended restaurants. Finding
a restaurant these days couldn’t be easier when you take advantage
of current technology.
been consulted by a visiting alt-weekly writer in the past,
I sent my own request to Drew Lazor at Philadelphia’s City
Paper. He and his colleague Felicia D’Ambrosio generously
put together a list of eateries reflecting the area’s ethnic
variety. The magazine’s website (citypaper.net) also has restaurant
listings and a lively food-related blog.
city has its share of passionate critics, and in light of
the blogging obsession, many use easy-to-search blogs. Albany
has a helpful variety that I regularly consult, and I noted
that City Paper did a roundup a while back of its favorites.
with restaurant names and addresses, I then look for Web sites.
Those aren’t always as easy to discover, if they exist at
all, and sometimes they’re insufficient or outdated. The quickest
and best tool is a phone call. If you plan on driving to a
restaurant, be sure to do what I forget to do when I remember
to call at all: Ask about parking. I even go so far as to
look the places up on Google Maps and use the Street View
feature to get a look at the place. My most important gadget
is a GPS.
first stop, I sought Wing Phat Plaza (1150 Washington Ave.),
a bright yellow strip mall of Asian stores and restaurants
with more Vietnamese restaurants in one block than exist in
the whole Capital Region. Spaces in the small parking lot
got snapped up quickly, but I bested a Jersey driver for a
slot and had an early meal at Viet Huong Restaurant. I had
rice-noodle soup that sported thick chunks of stewed beef
in a liquid so meaty that I limited myself to a few slurps
and packaged the rest to save room for more stops.
octopus at a popular Greek restaurant named Dmitri’s (795
S. Third St.) sounded appealing, and I made it there despite
a fit of wackiness from the GPS. Instead of sending me on
a highway that bordered the Delaware River, I was led through
a maze of one-way residential streets, each block ending in
a stop sign, traffic light, or, as far as I could tell, a
free-for-all. After all that, the tiny dining room at my destination
was packed and the sidewalk was thick with waiting customers.
I couldn’t imagine the crowd thinning too soon, so I moved
on to Chinatown.
was more direct, but parking on the narrow streets eluded
me. I dropped the car at a for-pay lot where it was crammed
into an array that looked like it couldn’t possibly be untangled
when I chose to depart.
cuisine has yet to arrive in Albany, so I elbowed my way past
the crowd in front of Penang (117 N. 10th St.) and got a single
seat. I liked the warehousey feel of the interior with its
creative corrugated steel on the walls. I had just a few spoonfuls
from a very hot clay pot full of green curried chicken, set
off with lemongrass and chilis, and this was enough to liquify
my face—an effect I consider a spicy recipe’s mark of success.
Café is a short distance down the street, at 220 N. 10th.
This sort of Chinese-takeout storefront is common, but I’d
never before seen one offering “Frog with Three Kinds Mushroom
in the Hotpot.” I like to boast of epicurean adventurousness,
but that one was daunting. I settled on pork kidneys with
homemade hotbean paste, a more rugged meat than the veal or
lamb kidneys I’m used to, but excellently sauced.
at the parking attendant’s skill at vehicular Tetris as he
brought my car to the head of an exit lane. I wanted to get
to a restaurant named Indonesia (1725 Snyder Ave.), and was
eager to sample fare from Ethiopia or Eritrea, but most urgently,
I was running out of hunger. I drove a short physical distance
through a huge change of neighborhood, and entered Wazobia
(616 N. 11th St.) for a Nigerian meal.
humbling, as a middle-aged white guy, to be the minority.
I gamely introduced myself, explained my purpose and was served
a tray of steaming goat stew with sides of amala, a
sticky yam derivative, and okro, a stringy, viscous
okra soup. I pathetically addressed each item individually,
forking a bit of this and a bit of that. “This is Nigerian
food,” explained a man named Peter, taking pity on me. “You
mix it all together; that’s how it’s supposed to be eaten.”
Then he launched into a fascinating comparative survey of
African cuisines, describing so many unfamiliar aspects that
I failed to follow much of it.
done more careful research, I would have discovered that the
acclaimed Indian restaurant Minar Palace (1304 Walnut St.)
closes Saturdays at 7. It was well past 9 when I read the
sign on the door. Good as the GPS was at delivering directions,
it didn’t stop me from misinterpreting some of them—a mistake
that had me crossing the Delaware into New Jersey only to
laboriously find my way back.
luck continued: Vic Sushi (2035 Sansom St.) had just closed
when I neared the place, dashing my hope for sashimi.
The walk to Almaz Café (140 S. 20th St.) also proved fruitless;
I missed the place by minutes.
however, get there in time for lunch on Sunday, this time
while sightseeing with my family. We sat on the tiny balcony
of the coffeeshop, which also sports a creative Ethiopian
menu, so I was able to enjoy cappuccino with my zilzil
tibs (tender beef strips sautéed in butter with an aromatic
sprig of rosemary that leached its juices into the enjera,
a soft bread on which it was served).
persuade my tablemates to go gursha and abandon their
forks in favor of scooping the food with swabs of enjera,
but I gladly did, and hopefully earned some spiritual redemption
after having been so lame at Wazobia.
our Philadelphia visit with dinner at Distrito (3945 Chestnut
St.), one of three city venues run by chef Jose Garces. The
combination of outrageously pink decor, deliciously described
menu items, and a potent margarita turned my wife into an
whole-wheat wrappers on the squash and poblano purée were
more like empanadas than quesadillas, but I couldn’t quarrel
with the inspiring intricacies of its flavor. The rabbit molé
was as beautiful to look at as it was to consume, served
in a small metal pot with a wonderful purée of nuts and peppers.
By the time we finished, five dinner selections and three
desserts had laid waste to our appetites.
very prepared now to return to Philadelphia and try out the
places I missed, but with modern technology, the whole country—to
put it in culinary terms—is my oyster.