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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Foraging in Philadelphia

With some Internet research and a (sometimes) reliable GPS, finding good restaurants while traveling is easier than ever

By B. A. Nilsson

During 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.

It was 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.

Having 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.

Every 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.

Armed 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 Those aren’t always as easy to discover, if they exist at all, and sometimes they’re insufficient or outdated.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.

For my 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.

Grilled 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.

The route 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.

Malaysian 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.

Potluck 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.

I marveled 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.

It’s 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.

Had I 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.

My lousy 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.

I did, 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).

I couldn’t 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.

We finished 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 instant enthusiast.

The fried 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.

I feel 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.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Red Thread Confections is a Slingerlands-based candy maker whose wares are featured at Java Jazz Café; it’s also just been chosen to participate in this year’s American Express Holiday Wishlist Guide. Cardholders will be deluged with appropriate documentation, and regular customers are invited to use coupon code RTCNEWS002 for a 15-percent discount. You’ll find the candies at redthreadconfections.com. . . . Heat up your night with tapas and salsa. In this case, the latter refers to the dance, which will be taught at El Platano (198 First St., Troy) at 6 or 8:30 PM on Nov. 10. Featured eats are Spanish tapas by chef Jackie Baldwin, with a menu including shrimp la plancha, grilled mini chorizos, jamon serrano, boquerones (fresh anchovies), bacon-wrapped dates, artichokes jerez, garbanzo beans and spinach, and more. El Platano’s chef Pedro will be concocting some appropriate beverages. It’s $25 per person, and you need to make reservation in advance at the restaurant or by calling 272-3011. While you’re at, make a reservation for Pedro’s Gingerbread House Workshop on Nov. 24, where attendees will be shown the process of producing a gingerbread house and will take home their very own self- decorated unit. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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