Mission Chinese Food

Last year, I successfully bid on a one-night stay at any Club Quarters hotel location in the world. A few months ago, we realized that the certificate was about to expire. While a quick jaunt to London would have been delightful, we opted for the slightly easier route to New York. My husband’s best friend, Jeff, and his girlfriend, Erika, live in the City and this was the perfect opportunity to visit with them and get some great New York eats.

After some discussion, we decided to try New York’s outpost of the popular Mission Chinese Food for lunch. It was a risky move as the restaurant does not take reservations. We figured we’d give it a try and had a back up plan just in case the wait seemed outrageous. Danny Bowien recently opened the NYC location of this “Americanized Oriental food” in a “dive bar setting.” In fact, it made Zagat’s list of the 10 Hottest Restaurants in the World in January.

We drove into the city on a sunny Saturday and quickly found parking just a block away from the restaurant. We descended the stairs into a cramped waiting area where patrons could either order take out or put their name in for a table. As it turned out, the wait was only 15-20 minutes long, said the hipster gentleman at the counter. We grabbed some menus and plotted out our meal. After no more than 10 minutes, we were seated. The tables are jammed in pretty tightly–you don’t even have to strain to eavesdrop on your neighbors (or to check out their food)–score!

Of course I wanted every single noodle dish on the menu. I restrained myself and we stuck to two noodle dishes, one small and one large dish.

First came the BBQ pigtails.

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This is the perfect example of “Americanized Oriental” food, although it certainly leaned more to the American side of the spectrum. This was a generously sized “small dish” and the pork tails were meaty, fatty and messy. Pretty much everything you’re looking for in BBQ. It came with a killer potato salad and plain roll to sop up the juices. This would be a great dish to share because I had my fill after just one lil’ piggy tail.

Next up was the kung pao pastrami. This was THE dish we had heard about and it was one of those ones that sounds too interesting not to order, ya know? My husband was a bit concerned about the two alarm heat factor–the dish contains “explosive chili.” I reminded him that he has handled tastings at Han Dynasty so two alarms should be no biggie.

I was right.

IMG_3880Not only was this dish surprisingly lacking the promised “explosive chili,” I literally could not pick up one iota of heat. The pastrami was tasty, albeit sparing, and I always like a good peanut, but this dish was generally disappointing.

We couldn’t decide between the spicy peanut noodles and the egg egg noodles so of course we got both.

The peanut noodles came with braised lamb neck, cucumbers, chili oil and mint. The description was pretty close to our beloved dan dan noodles from Han Dynasty.

IMG_3881The noodles were good. Nice sauce, the cucumber and mint gave it a refreshing crunch. I could have gone without the dry braised lamb neck on the side though. In my opinion, Han Dynasty’s version edged this one out though. I had higher hopes for the egg egg noodles–egg noodles with a soft-cooked hen egg.

IMG_3882This one had a nice flavor, although if we had to pick, we would have gone with the peanut noodles instead. While two noodles dishes isn’t necessarily overkill, these flavor profiles were a little too closely aligned. Additionally, I prefer my noodles a little less al dente in a dish like this.

Looking back, it seems like I enjoyed my lunch less than I actually did. I would go back and try some other things–the salt cod fried rice seemed to be the darling of neighboring diners. It was also just a fun atmosphere. If you twisted my arm and forced me to choose at this point, I’d rather devour a bowl of dan dan noodles and spicy crispy cucumbers any day of the week.

After lunch, we strolled around the neighboring Little Italy and grabbed a few snacks for later.

IMG_3883Because, you know, who doesn’t need a little rice ball in her life?

On our way back to the car, we stopped at an artisanal popcorn shop. We got popcorn for my parents and for the dog, of course. This is New York, after all.  We then grabbed a late afternoon beer flight at the awesome Top Hops Beer Shop which has an extensive rotating tap list, with the opportunity to create your own flight of any four beers, and a take out bottle selection in the back. Perfect way to end the afternoon. Next up, dinner!

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Cheu Noodle Bar

I love noodles. Give me pasta in any iteration from any cuisine and you have a happy camper. Vegetable lo mein? Yup. Spaghetti carbonara? Absolutely. Pho? Sure. Macaroni and cheese? I love you.

Philadelphia is a great noodle town. From my favorite red gravy restaurants in deep South Philly to the pho spots on Washington Avenue–and hand drawn noodles in Chinatown, of course–it’s easy to get a big bowl of carbs. Until a year or so ago, however, one noodle niche that we were sorely lacking was ramen. Much to the delight of many, ramen has recently become the next big thing. From Terakawa Ramen to Nom Nom Ramen to Hiro Ramen, there are growing opportunities to get a large bowl of chewy noodles with pork belly, soft-boiled egg and other accoutrements in a rich and steamy broth. When Cheu Noodle Bar first opened, as a series of pop-up dinners at Matyson Restaurant where Chef Ben Puchowitz works, they wowed diners with a ramen-centric Asian menu with a modern flair. Their pop-ups were all the rage, people (myself included) dialing endlessly to snag a seat at one of their popular events. I still remember the sweet Vietnamese sausage and broccoli that is now on the menu at Cheu. Almost as notable as the food was the neat and diverse play list which was much appreciated by our DJ dining companions.

Fast forward to Spring 2013 when Puchowitz and friend, Shawn Darragh (who has experience on the retail side of things) finally opened their store front. The space is small, with just a few tables and a long bar where you can watch the food being prepared. In my opinion, the bar is a prime spot as it affords you the opportunity to take in the show.

Because they do not take reservations, my husband and I stopped by for an early dinner one Sunday. The place was packed and we were lucky enough to snag two seats at the end of the bar. Note: they will take down your name and number and call you when your table is ready if you so desire.

Rather than bread, we were greeted with a snack of the dry ramen noodles that we are all familiar with.
IMG_3837It was a kitschy yet cute move that would only work for these guys.

We checked out the menu and had our usual conversations about what apps to split and what entrees we wanted to claim. You can’t order the same thing, of course.  We could have ordered every appetizer but stopped at three. It would be great to go with a group so you can get a little taste of everything.

We started with the black garlic wings with shishito peppers and herbs. We got them literally right out of the fryer and they piping hot but not spicy and the definition of finger licking good.
IMG_3838Following that, we tried the buns. This is the perfect example of their spin on traditional classics.

IMG_3839Buns are a staple at ramen houses and Cheu does steer slightly towards the traditional with their pork belly, but the cheeseburger option (you can select two. The other choice was mung bean) infuses the most traditional American food with this Asian standby. These are not the most “splittable” items on the app menu and I quickly found out why. As I carefully took my bite of half of the cheesesteak bun, I accidentally ate the entire pickle. Whoops! Even without the pickle, my husband confirmed that these were a tasty little snack to start the meal.

Our final app were the BBQ rice cakes. I really had no idea what to expect but had read that they were a can’t miss so we obviously had to order them.

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While my husband and I didn’t agree on these, I was ok with that–more for me! I had expected the rice cakes to be crispy but they were chewy, glutinous delights. When we had them, they were dressed with a sweet tatsoi, black bean sauce and sesame combination, although they’ve changed it up a bit since. While the rice cakes themselves could be considered an acquired taste, we both agreed that the dressing was worthy of licking the bowl.

Next up was the main attraction! While the cold sesame noodles are usually a weakness of mine, I was pretty set on getting one of the soups. I ended up going traditional (well, as traditional as you get get at Cheu) with the pork belly ramen and my husband got the duck pho.

IMG_3842While I love ramen, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m certainly no aficionado. I’ll just say that this soup was pretty damn good. The broth was smooth with a little funk and the noodles had just the right amount of bite. Oh, and the pork belly was pretty freakin’ tender.

I only had a bite or two of the duck pho but my husband declared the foie gras meatballs (foie gras meatballs?!) to be the best thing he ate all night. Delicate and fluffy, they melded perfectly with the slightly more refined pho broth than the ones that we are accustomed to.

IMG_3841Meanwhile, the soundtrack to the dinner had me tapping my foot all night long.

While I don’t usually take bathroom photos, I just couldn’t resist this adorable one. Glad to see they’re concerned with the environment.

IMG_3844Overall, I was beyond pleased. After the pop up at Matyson, I knew I’d like it. Didn’t know just how much I’d love it from the vibe to the friendliness of our waitress to, obviously, the food itself. While I came for the noodles, everything on the menu was top-notch and eating there just made me feel good.

Forest and Main

My in-laws live about 45 minutes outside Philadelphia and often come into the city to meet up with us and try new restaurants. However, we thought we’d give them a break from 76 and come closer to them last time we met up. After conferencing with my friend, Dorrie, we decided to meet at Forest and Main Brewing Company in Ambler, PA. Dorrie said they had a great beer list and we were looking forward to checking it out. In fact, unbeknownst to us, Forest and Main won Philly Mag’s coveted “Best of Philly” award in the brew pub catergory.

Forest and Main is just off the Main Street in “downtown” Ambler in an adorable old Victorian house. It was a gorgeous evening and we were able to dine at one of the few tables on the front porch, giving it an incredible homey feeling. Our visit happened to be during Ambler Restaurant Week. I’m not usually a big fan of restaurant weeks, due to overcrowding, sub-par food and service and the fact that you’re not always getting a deal (paying $35 for 3 courses when you would normally only order two for $25, for example.) Forest and Main’s Restaurant Week menu had two things going for it: you could choose any three dishes, none of which had to be a dessert AND the price tag of $25 included a beer. What a great deal!

My husband and I both opted for the Restaurant Week menu while his parents chose to order a la carte. Before the food order, we had a more important decision to make–beer. Forest and Main’s beer list is split into two sections: of British Inspiration and of Belgian Inspiration and you can get 16 or 20 oz. pours ranging from a reasonable $4.50-$7. For the indecisive, or those who like to taste a little bit of everything, flights of four are also available.

I am of the “like to taste a little bit of everything” mindset and got the flight of all four “of Belgian Inspiration” beers.

Of the four, my favorite was the tripel-style Ablution. Big and fruity, it was a favorite to everyone at the table, even my non-beer drinking mother-in-law.

For my three food choices, I selected summer corn soup, pierogies and the F&M sliders. My husband chose the same, but swapped the sliders for the fish and chips. We had a discussion at the table about whether we wanted to order bacon popcorn. My father-in-law was mysteriously quiet until we asked his opinion.

“You can get what you want, but I’m getting one for myself,” said the bacon lover.

The popcorn came out with the soup. It was adorable in the tin, Ikea buckets.

The popcorn received mixed reviews at the table. The in-laws loved it, but I found it to be a bit greasy for my taste. There was a definite smoky flavor from the bacon, so be forewarned if you’re not a fan of smoke!

The corn soup was a hit.

It was thick and chunky with just the right kick of jalapeno and creamy sweet corn. Besides, it’s the height of corn season. It would be hard for this dish not to taste good. I did sneak a few pieces of the popcorn into the soup which is highly recommended! This was probably my favorite dish of the night.

Next was a generous serving of pierogies. They looked beautiful.

I was surprised to receive such a large serving and ended up taking two home. These pierogies had potential to be good–I loved the sauteed leeks on top–but they were absolutely swimming in butter. And I do love butter.

I was looking forward to the sliders. Sliders are so cute. And they came with aged cheddar and bacon mayonnaise. Sold!

The sliders turned out to be a bit overdone with a bread to meat ratio that leaned heavily on the side of bread. Perhaps the full-sized version would be better. The house made chips were a great side, though.

The fish and chips were decent and came with a bottle of malt vinegar for that extra sour tang and a solid side of fries.

We decided to forgo dessert and took a stroll around “downtown” Ambler. Before heading back, we stopped at Toto’s Gelateria and Caffe for some gelato made in house.

I chose a decadent mix of dark chocolate fudge and nocciola (hazelnut.)

What a perfect combo. After chatting with the friendly owner, we sat at an outdoor table and enjoyed our dessert.

Overall, Ambler is a cute little town. While I wouldn’t go out of my way to hit Forest and Main, I think it would be a great stop for a beer and some apps. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt since I did go during restaurant week, but I’d like to see some more consistency in the food because this place really has potential.

Cosmi’s Deli

Cosmi’s is one of the neighborhood stalwarts. Sitting on the corner of 8th and Dickinson since 1932, Cosmi’s is both a go-to lunch spot for South Philly regulars and a destination for others. With hoagies named after Rick Nichols, Questlove, Howard Eskin and someone named “Big Ant,” this place does meat right.

On a lazy Friday evening, we were looking for a new place to deliver dinner. In the mood for sandwiches, we discovered that Cosmi’s did, in fact, deliver and was open for dinner, unlike some of the other local delis. I took my husband’s order, made my selection and then, well, something caught my eye.

Our food came quickly with a friendly delivery guy.

The husband, who often veers for the Italian, had the “Vespe” with prosciutto, sopressata, hot coppa, mortadella, sharp provolone, roasted peppers, along with a few of his own, personalized add-ons. Extra special bonus to Cosmi’s for slicing their onions paper thin on the meat slicer which is obviously the best way for hoagie onions. He enjoyed the Italian trimmings, especially sharp provolone like you can only get in South Philly.

Preferring a softer, simpler roll, he got a plain roll while I went with seeded for my “award winning” cheesesteak hoagie.
Meaty, cheesy and a great balance of filling to the chewy, seeded roll. I can certainly see why these are “award winning.”

And just in case I didn’t have enough cheesesteak, I figured I’d check out their cheesesteak fries. Yep, cheesesteak fries.

I opened the container to this glorious concoction staring me in the face. We know I love cheese fries but cheese fries with meat AND fried onions? Oh yeah.

This is what was hiding under that delightful layer of whiz.

OK, I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t need the cheesesteak hoagie AND the cheesesteak fries. But they were both oh so good. A word to the wise: eat the fries first as they won’t keep well. My husband and I split the fries (most of them, at least,) and by the time we were halfway through, I was already too full for my sandwich. Well, I suppose I did eat some of it…

Cosmi’s is a neighborhood institution that has remained true to itself throughout all of the neighborhood’s changes. I look forward to going back to try some of the other hoagies and chicken cutlet sandwiches. But really, ya gotta try those fries.

Khmer Kitchen: From Cambodia with Love

My brother is the nomad of the family. He’s lived in Salt Lake City, London, Ohio and myriad cities in the Middle East, just to name a few. Recently, he fell victim to the death of paper journalism and was hit in a round of layoffs at a newspaper in Florida. He quickly began to freelance (which was aligned with the unfortunate events of the Trayvon Martin case just a few miles from Orlando) in hopes of eventually writing longer pieces for The New Yorker and other fancy rags. Amidst a flurry of writing, he submitted an application to the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia. A few months later he was packing up, selling his car and moving to Cambodia. Sure, why not.

When he’s abroad, conversations with my brother (thank you, Skype) often involve food. In Cairo I heard about the falafel cart by his apartment, in Jordan it was the tea. Ironically, even though he’s in Cambodia, he hasn’t eaten much Cambodian food. Because there is such a large Vietnamese population, he’s enjoyed enough pho to last a lifetime. Regardless, when I drove past Khmer Kitchen on 6th and Morris a few weeks ago, I was excited to share a gastronomical experience with my brother across the globe. I pulled over, grabbed a menu and impatiently waited for him on Skype. I then proceeded to read much of the menu to him as he could bear (while holding it up to the camera too, of course.) He pointed out lok-lak, sauteed meat over lettuce tomatoes and onions with lime sauce, as a popular Cambodian dish. Then he asked if any dishes had prah-hok in them. I scanned the menu, finding prah-hok kahteeh under the “Traditional Khmer Dish” section.

“What’s that?” I asked him.

He proceeded to describe the dish as little fish being fermented in large buckets. It sounded disgusting…but also kind of intriguing.

The following week, my husband had off from work on a weekday and we decided to check out Khmer Kitchen. We were joined by my father and his friend–Dad was delighted to go to a Cambodian restaurant as he and my mother will be visiting my brother in November.

We walked into the colorful store and sat down. There are about eight tables, two or three of which were filled. The waiter walked over to our table and immediately told us “the only appetizer we have is the meatballs.” Um, ok. Guess we won’t be getting the grilled meat skewers or spring rolls. Boo. The meatballs were priced at $1.50 so I asked if that was per meatball. He responded affirmatively so I ordered one for each of us, with the exception of my father who eschews pork. We also got the bok la-haong (papaya salad) so there was something for Dad.

The salad came out quickly.

Papaya salad is a staple in many Asian cuisines and this one wasn’t earth-shatteringly different than others I’ve had. Fresh and cool with a bit of a kick for the hot, summer day.

The meatballs arrived next. For $1.50 per skewer, we actually got four hearty pork meatballs with a mild chili dipping sauce.

The ordering of the entrees was a complicated affair. My father, husband and father’s friend planned on ordering the same thing (two with beef, one with chicken,) but the waiter convinced us that the portions were “very, very big” and another gentleman walked by to let us know that “Cambodian food is meant for sharing.” We ended up deciding on the same dish–one of chicken, one of beef; fried calamari and the pra-hok that I was just dying to try. It was a confusing interaction and I was intrigued to see what we would actually end up with.

Khmer Kitchen seems to be a family affair, with the older parents cooking in the kitchen, younger folks waiting tables and youngest children hanging out, playing games behind the counter. The dishes are all cooked to order which can mean hurry up and wait. Finally, the first dish came out.

Whoops, miscommunication. We got two of the sauteed beef with celery and peppers.

The dish was simple yet tasty. The tender beef had a bit of heat and a slight curry flavor. I don’t know that I would order two of the exact same dish next time, but it was certainly a solid option.

Next up was my pra-hok. Yes!

The waiter told me that I could pick up the veggies and spoon a little pra-hok on them all fancy “like caviar” or I could do it “like we do it” and load a bunch of veggies together with a huge dollop of the ground pork. I think I hit those two somewhere in between. When I initially ordered the pra-hok, the waiter perked up, mentioning that it was a Cambodian special. The dish did not fail to delight. It was smooth and creamy with just a hint of coconut and little heat. The vegetables were a great vehicle for the pork, letting the protein shine. My favorite veg for this purpose was probably the cabbage as it has little flavor and perfectly encapsulated the meat. This is a great dish for sharing and no need to be scared of the fermented fish. There was no fish flavor to be found. I’m not sure if I was happy or sad about that one.

Next came the fried calamari.

The calamari wasn’t heavily breaded and was surprisingly tender. It was reminiscent of salt and pepper squid that you might find at a Vietnamese restaurant.

We waited and waited some more and finally out came the chicken saute.

Nope, not the chicken saute. I think it was the Sah-Law Kah-Rhee Mohn, a curry chicken dish also listed in the “Traditional Khmer Dish” section. The waiter did, at some point, suggest that dish but none of us quite remembered ordering it. Oh wells. It was a nice change with lots of veggies, peanuts and a not-too-overwhelming curry flavor.

This feast was a whopping $55 for four people, an incredible deal given the amount of food we ate (and leftovers we went home with.) The service is slow, yet friendly and they pour bottled water to everyone. I will certainly be making a return trip or two and hope their appetizer menu expands on my next visit.

JT Farnham’s: New England Fried Clams at their Best

We spend time in New England a few times a year, visiting my husband’s family in the fisherman’s town of Gloucester, MA (made famous by The Perfect Storm and, more recently, fishing shows Wicked Tuna and Swords: Life on the Line.) During each trip, it’s our goal to eat as much fried seafood, lobster rolls and clam chowder (chowdah) as possible. We’ve hit most of the famous spots such as Woodman’s and the Clam Box. However, we had never made it to JT Farnham’s in Essex, just 15 minutes from Gloucester. The first full day of our vacation started off dreary and rainy so we thought it would be a great day to visit my husband’s grandmother and grab lunch at Farnham’s. My ulterior motive, of course, was to stop at the cripplingly cheap Ipswich Bottle Shop to stock up on (cash only) spirits.

By the time we made it to Farnham’s, just down the road from its rival, Woodman’s, the weather had cleared. A rule of thumb in New England is that often the shabbier-looking the place, the better the seafood.

We stepped inside and got into line.
While lobster rolls are usually our fave, Farnham’s is known for their fried clams so we figured we’d go with the house special (aptly named “Our Famous Fried Clams”) of fried clams with onion rings and french fries. In our neverending search for the best bowl of clam chowder, we got an order to share. I ordered a large and had a humorous interaction with the counter lady whose iteration of “large” is much different than mine.

We headed outside to grab a slightly damp picnic table overlooking the salt marsh.

Don’t feed the waterfowl, by the way.
My husband brought our food to the table. Lots of greasy, fried goodness stared us down.

Check out the butter swimming in the creamy chowder. Unfortunately, the chowder was completely bland. The same went for the fries and onion rings. But the clams, oh the clams. Dipped in a vat of their homemade tartar sauce and gazing out over the salt marshes, there’s pretty much nothing better. If you go, stick to the clams. You’ll leave full and happy.

Not Just Pork at Jake’s Sandwich Board

Since its opening two years ago, Jake’s Sandwich Board has gotten great buzz from the foodie world and Center City lunch crowd alike.  I’d been meaning to go and finally ventured there when Level Up ran a promotion where anyone using the app would get $10 to spend at Jake’s. What the hell, free lunch.

We popped in and got to know a little more about Level Up, but then we got down to business with our order. During our conversation with the friendly Level Up gentleman, he pointed out one of the specials–BBQ brisket with swiss, sauerkraut and Russian dressing. Sold. My husband went with the Barnyard–pork, ground veal, sharp provolone, spinach, roasted peppers and roasted garlic spread. I also wanted to try the fried pickles that Midtown Lunch had raved about. There was a quick moment of terror when they thought they might be out of pickles. As it turned out, they had ONE order left. It was obviously meant to be. Then I saw the farm fries. Crispy fries topped with sharp provolone, pulled pork, bacon and homemade pork gravy. STOP IT RIGHT NOW! We obviously had to get them too! With the $10 promo and $5 for signing up, we ended up paying just $10 for all that food! I took a seat and twiddled my thumbs as we awaited our bounty, which came in just a few short minutes.

The Barnyard had a nice, Italian flare. It was stuffed to the brim with meat and topped generously with sharp provolone and fresh veggies (to make you feel a tad bit healthier.)
But I was more interested in this.

The dill pickles were thinly sliced and coated with a light batter with a creamy sriracha dipping sauce. It was the perfect side dish and a complete steal at just $2. The pickles were warm and crispy and the sauce provided the perfect heat to balance out the crunch. Heaven.

My sandwich was pretty darn good too.

Just look at it! Brisket slathered in sauce and topped with gooey Russian dressing, Swiss cheese and a hearty portion of sauerkraut. This is a six-napkin sandwich, folks. There is nothing not to like about it. The BBQ sauce was sweet but not overwhelming and the tangy kraut is always a palate-pleaser.

While one might think this sandwich would distract me, I also managed to dive headfirst into these guys.

LOOK AT THAT!!! These are no Caffe Chicco “gravy fries,” my friend. You can SEE the hunks of pork and crispy bit of bacon slathered generously atop these fries. When I’m looking for a gravy fry, THIS is what I’m talkin’ ’bout.

Jake’s Sandwich Board is making some of the better sandwiches in Philadelphia these days. Not sure why it took me so long to get there but I can certainly promise I’ll be back soon. Farm fries. Swoon.

Editor’s note: If you’re not using LevelUp, you’re missing out! It’s a way to pay using your smart phone by linking it to a credit card. It’s fast and you gain rewards by using it at certain merchants. For example, for each $100 you spend at Giunta’s in The Reading Terminal, you get $10. Sign up here using my referral code (172989)  and we’ll both get $5 to spend anywhere!

Caffe Chicco

A few months ago, I tweeted that I was going to Nick’s Roast Beef for the first time. I got a tweet back from someone imploring me to try Cafe Chicco on South Broad Street, just blocks from Nick’s. I had never heard of Caffe Chicco and despite driving up Broad Street frequently, I couldn’t even picture the space. I tucked it away for a day that I had off from work as their weekend hours are limited. When I started my summer break and still hadn’t gotten there, I knew it was on my short list. In fact, I went there on my second day off!

Caffe Chicco is easy to miss amidst some of the other more prominent store fronts on South Broad Street between Snyder and Oregon.

With a simple glass sign and a small sandwich board advertising their specials (gravy fries!) it’s rather unassuming. On one of the hotter days in June, I dropped my husband at work and hustled back down to Caffe Chicco to try the famous roast beef sandwich. Once I saw the sandwich board, I was obviously planning on adding gravy fries to the order. Duh. I snagged a meter right out front with 32 minutes on it. Score!

I walked inside the small shop with just a few tables holding a woman studying and an older, Italian guy waiting for his order. I waited. And I waited some more. Finally, a younger teenager emerged from the back to take my order of gravy fries and a roast beef sandwich with sharp provolone on a round roll ($5.50 + $1 for sharp provolone.)

I sat at an empty two top and waited. Then I waited some more. When I was done, I waited a little more. In the meantime, two others came in and ordered roast beef sandwiches. Finally, a gentleman came out of the back and started composing the sandwiches. Like Nick’s Roast Beef, the roast beef sandwiches are made in front so you can watch the meat being sliced and dipped in the juicy gravy. As the man kept making sandwiches, I kept thinking ONE of them had to be for me. Finally, the girl walked up to me.

“Are you allergic to peanuts?” she asked.

“Uhhh, haha, no,” I responded quizzically. She turned to the guy in the back.

“See, everyone laughs at me when I ask,” Apparently, the potatoes are fried in peanut oil. Luckily, I’m not allergic and all could proceed. Then I waited a little more.

Finally, the girl let me know that my food was ready. I hopped in the car with just minutes to spare in my free 32-minute meter (that was a looong wait.) Luckily, I lived just a few blocks from Caffe Chicco and was able to rush home to rip into my lunch.

Look at that gooery cheese! Opting for a thicker cut than most places, Caffe Chicco’s sandwich was certainly good. The meat was warm and tender, although I could have used a bit more cheese and gravy.

Then I opened the gravy fries. Oooh, the gravy fries. I recently wrote about my love affair for this dish at Nick’s Roast Beef and was excited to try the competition.

What I got were limp fries, bland gravy and just a dash or two of shredded meat. I could taste (and enjoyed) the peanut oil that was used for the frying but they could have benefitted from being twice fried or something to get them just a little crispy. And the gravy was a complete let down. Let’s be honest, folks. The gravy makes or breaks a dish and while the fries were lackluster, the sandwich was good. I think it could have been great with a richer gravy. Guess I’ll stick to Nick’s, unless anyone can give me another suggestion?

l’Angolo

l’Angolo is one of those places akin to Mr. Martino’s that we have been going to for years. Before I even knew the charm of the neighborhood, my family and I celebrated special occasions at these two places. Since moving to the neighborhood, it has become a special place for my husband and me. In fact, we often give it top honors as our “favorite” restaurant in Philadelphia. Why? The food is simple and authentic with rich flavors and no pretension in service. Besides, it’s BYO so we can bring a bottle or two of our favorite wine.

When we got married a few years back, some of our favorite gifts were restaurants gift certificates, of which we received many. We used our l’Angolo one quickly but had $18 remaining and decided to tuck it away for later use. Fast forward three years and it was still hanging out in our gift card file. As we decided where to celebrate the end of my school year, we figured it had been too long since we’d eaten at l’Angolo, despite our proximity. We called on a steamy Tuesday afternoon and were able to get a reservation for that evening (don’t try that on the weekend, folks.)

We walked the eight blocks to the tiny restaurant on the corner of Porter and Rosewood (between Broad and 15th.) As we stepped in, we were greeted by the friendly staff, but both us were drawn to the open kitchen where they were sliding a pan of pappardelle onto a plate. Mmm… Although we were early for our reservation, they were more than able to accommodate us.

Something to be said about l’Angolo is that it is a place where anyone can feel at home. As we sat down, two burly, older men to our left were having a conversation about cell phones (“I don’t really check my text messages,” said the man who later discovered he had 59 unread messages.) In the back was a large party celebrating a birthday next to a very tattooed table of four. As we got ready to leave, a younger couple arrived who appeared to be on a first date. Most interesting, however, was the Italian couple next to us. Our waiter obviously knew them and the three babbled away in a thick regional accent–or so I say, I could barely translate a word or two of their conversation.

Onto the food. Why is it that it always takes me so long to get to the food?

l’Angolo starts each meal with a simple bread basket with a sun-dried tomato pesto. I could, of course, eat it by the spoonful and I may or may not have eaten about 3 slices of bread loaded with this tasty topping.

Some time ago, I heard ago l’Angolo’s grilled baby artichoke hearts (carciofi.) They’re not on the menu but if you ask, they’re happy to make them for you. Ever since, I’ve been ordering them. They have a fantastic char and are swimming in garlicky olive oil.

Since we’re both suckers for grilled food, we also got an order of the lemony calamari grigliati (grilled calamari.) Simple, fresh flavors with a great grill flavor.

Be sure to rescue some bread from that killer sun dried tomato so you’ll have a couple pieces left to sop up the juices from both of these dishes.

When the waiter shared the specials with us, two dishes jumped out. One was a homemade pappardelle with cinghiale (wild boar) ragu. This was what we saw the chef preparing when we walked in. My husband had his eyes on a veal chop that someone at the table behind us had ordered. However, I had a strange hankering for something simple and the spaghetti al pomodoro con ricotta salata jumped out at me. When we learned that we could do pastas in half orders, I cheered with delight! We opted for a half order of the pappardelle special, he got the veal chop special and I went with my gut.

The papparedelle came out and boy were we pleased.

The homemade noodles were chewy ribbons that corralled the ragu perfectly. The ragu, on the other hand, was rich and tender with a mellow tomatoey sauce. We quickly licked our bowl clean.

At this point, I was full. Yup, didn’t even get my entree yet and I was full. Of course our entrees arrived.

The spaghetti was tossed with oven roasted tomatoes and lots and lots of garlic, topped with a healthy shaving of ricotta salata.

You can’t see it in the picture but HELLO GARLIC. There must have been one full head of garlic in the spaghetti. MY KIND OF DISH, although I’m glad I wasn’t on a first date. OK, maybe I wasn’t completely full. Maybe I had just a lil room left.

Meanwhile, my husband was attacking this monster.

The chop was from Esposito’s and topped with an umami mixture of wild mushrooms in a sumptuous gravy, perched atop a mountain of extra buttery mashed potatoes. You pretty much can’t get any better than that. Oh yeah, add a side of broccoli rabe. The meat was a perfect medium rare and the best bite involved a little bit of everything. Ohh, that gravy…

We decided to forgo dessert (being as how I was full before we even hit the entrees,) although I kicked myself for not bringing one of the many bottles of homemade ‘cello in our freezer. Instead, we packed up our leftovers and walked off our lavish Italian meal (which came to under $100, including tip.) We both had our leftovers for breakfast the next day. They were just as good.

Guacamole Mex-Grill

Having grown up in the neighborhood, West Philly remains one of my favorite places in the city. It’s amazing to see the transformation that has taken place outside of just the Baltimore Avenue corridor. Four Worlds Bakery, for example, on 46th and Woodland, has one of the best olive rosemary loaves I’ve ever tasted and it makes people walk south of Baltimore or even, gasp, south of Chester Avenue!

I was recently at my parents’ and wanted to grab a bite to eat with my husband and sister. My parents recommended this new little place that had just opened at 46th and Woodland called “Guacamole.” 46th and Woodland?? I thought. My parents said they hadn’t been there yet but had heard good things and I figured this could turn into a little blogging adventure. I was ready to hop into the car when my sister said “why don’t we just walk?” I guess I’m turning into a South Philly suburbanite. I never would have thought to walk to 46th and Woodland, which is all of 4 blocks away from my parents.

We strolled down a sun-kissed 47th street. West Philadelphia is just so perfect sometimes. When we arrived at Guacamole, its color stood out admidst the otherwise drab homes and businesses on the block.

We stepped inside the bright and cheery looking space and stepped up to the counter. Guacamole is small, with only about 15-20 seats. You order at the counter and they bring your food to the table.

My husband and I couldn’t decide which two burritos to get so we went with carne asada (beef) and al pastor (pork.) The Row Home Eats family has high standards for burritos as we order from our beloved Los Jalapenos 3-4 times a month. Every burrito we eat is always compared to “3 Jalas” as we call it for short. I also ordered a side of tortilla soup because, well, I wanted to try as much as possible. My sister opted for the simple chips and guacamole.

The guacamole came out first and I only had a small bite. It was decent–not the best, not the worst. I prefer mine a bit chunkier with less tang to the tongue.

I love how colorful the place is, from the outside facade to the paint choices and even the brightly colored baskets that the food is served in.

The soup came up next and boy was it a disappointment.

The thing that just makes a perfect tortilla soup is the broth and this was bland and underseasoned to the point of me not wanting to finish it, EVEN with the crispy tortilla strips as accompaniments.

I had high hopes for the burritos.

The burritos were decent-sized. Probably a bit smaller than “3 Jalas” or your local burrito chain. Good new is that the flavor that was missing in the soup was evident in the meat. Both the carne asada and al pastor were flavorful and sweet. My only complaint (and I think it’s legit, don’t think I was being piggy) is that I wish there was a bit more meat, less filling. My parents went to  Guacamole recently and raved about their dishes. If I went back, I think the way to go would be to order one of their platters that highlights the meat a little more. I’m ok with paying $8.50 for a burrito but I want that burrito to be meat forward. You can’t fault for me that!

If the owners spend some time tinkering with some of the flavors and ratios, this place could be a great quick lunch option for those of you who happen to find yourselves in the neighborhood. Oh, and if you do, make sure you swing by Four Worlds Bakery on your way home for a fresh soft pretzel. That’s what we did.