Among the many things we have to be thankful for—not being homeless, our health, and the people in our lives who make getting out of bed worthwhile—there’s having the luxury of enjoying incredibly delicious food from the people in Philly’s richly diverse and highly inventive food scene.
And while I feel I have a decent handle on what’s good, there is some degree of subjectivity involved (hence the silly title for this post). Beyond that is the realization that I can’t eat everything, especially with the need to revisit Paesano’s, Viet Huong, Cheu Noodle Bar, and Nomad Pizza[featured here] as much as possible during the course of the year.
With that in mind, I hit up some people in the Philly restaurant scene for their top picks, and left to it open to food both inside and outside of Philly.
I’ll go first. Everyone else speaks in their own words.
The things that jump out for me every year are creative, inventive twists with familiar elements. Last year, it was Nick Elmi & team’s pho hot dog at The Garage. This year, it was a foie gras stuffed churro that I had at Sancho Pistola’s monthly Taco Exchange back in March where they featured Waldemar “Val” Stryjewski (formerly of Le Bec Fin, A. Kitchen, and Le Cheri for a brief stint) when he was at Llyod Whiskey Bar.
I talked to him about the dessert, which employed Sancho chef Adan Trinidad’s amazing churros.
Brion Shreffler: When I had the foie stuffed churro I knew it would be the best thing I ate all year. How did that come about?
Val: Adan [Trinidad] and I were joking around because I was doing the taco exchange and I had done foie gras jelly donuts and foie gras donut holes in the past. I’ve made foie gras ice cream. No one else [at the taco exchange] had done a dessert, so I was like why not do a churro. It lends itself perfectly to the parfait. Pipe it into a hot churro and add a glaze—you can’t go wrong.
Brion: How did you make the foie gras parfait?
Val: Slightly cured foie gras sautéed with honey and bourbon, spices, little bit of espelette. You cool it down, you set it with all of its fat and then you puree it with butter and you whip it. It’s like making a foie gras butter cream, but when you whip it, it gets light and fluffy. We put a sumac glaze on them—any glaze will go great with it. It’s a simple syrup with sumac which gives it a citrusy, fruity flavor. The churros were Adan’s recipe. He has churro’s on the menu at Sancho’s all the time. All it was, was pipe them into the fryer and as soon as they come out, stuff ‘em. His churro dough is badass.
Brion: I think the reason it worked so well, is they’re donut-y, light, hot from the fryer and crusted in sugar and cinnamon—perfect for sweet foie.
Val: He’s put them on his menu, I think. I remember he asked me for the parfait recipe. I was like, more power to you, do it.
Brion: Is there one thing you could pick out from 2015?
Val: There’s been quite a few actually. Man, that’s hard. There’s the scrapple at Kensington Quarters for brunch. I came here about two months ago. Just scrapple, eggs, and potatoes—it was phenomenal. The chicken pho at stock is amazing. And the papaya salad is just killer.
Speaking of foie, there was the inventive torchon at Black-Eyed Susans on L.B.I.[which I wrote about here] that is made to evoke French toast. There’s the anchovies soup I had at a little side alley place (Osteria di Vico Palla,found online the day of) in Genoa during a trip to Italy that was two years in the making (I was kind of broke during year-one of planning). The warming and heavy garlic, onion, and herb based broth accentuated with tomato and breadcrumbs was enriched by every last ounce of flavor pulled from said anchovies.
But speaking of the familiar, after not having prime rib for Christmas last year (we did rib-eyes and scallops in ’14), my mother’s perfectly cooked version—I realized this year that it’s much easier than I thought—stood out. And the next day, brie smeared olive bread with gravy heavy prime rib leftovers was one of the best flavor combinations of the year.
Jacki Philleo; contributor/photographer
My friend Corinne texted me one night to let me know this event was going on. She works at Osteria, and The Publican (out of Chicago) was doing a kitchen takeover and despite her being a long-time vegetarian, she could appreciate how much I would love the menu. So I got my ass off the couch and we had an impromptu date night. The big gets were beef heart tartare [with pickled beet, chimichurri, pumpkin seed, and robiola cheese] which was surprisingly tender and not remotely offal-tasting like I thought it would be. It was served on crusty toast. I mostly just like saying I’ve eaten beef heart. We also had a blood sausage and squid dish [green chili dressing, parmesan, and marcona almond] which was incredible. I really found it to be a unique pairing – hearty, grainy, robustly flavored blood sausage and smooth, tender poached squid. It was bizarre and so good.
For my birthday dinner this summer, we did the seasonal Omakase (chef’s tasting) at Morimoto. Sure, it’s a Starr restaurant, but they know how to make some damn good food. And it was definitely a treat, to say the least. The first course contained caviar topped with gold flake for Christ’s sake. It’s really hard to pick a highlight between the loads of Waygu and exotic sashimi (like Barracuda), but one course (and one that’s actually present on the regular appetizer menu) is seared foie gras with grilled eel. The proteins are so incredibly over-the-top rich and savory, but perfectly balanced out by accompanying Asian pear and Meyer lemon flavors. The whole meal was a knockout.
I was in LA visiting my brother this summer. In what is becoming a tradition, I will drag him out for one of my favorite cuisines: Korean soft tofu. This time, he had a place to show me in Koreatown. It’s a chain – apparently with locations in such exotic locales as New Jersey – called The Boiling Crab. We waited for at least 45 minutes to get in, after which we were escorted to our table by a waitress carrying a giant sheet of paper, which turned out to be our table cloth. The restaurant looked like a low-budget bayou rip-off of Bubba Gump’s. They have basic seafood of various types handwritten on a board and priced per pound. There were four of us and we ordered a half pound of crab, shrimp, and clams for our first round, as well as some soju which came with plastic portion cups for shot glasses. The waitress tied on our bibs. We were given no utensils. The seafood we ordered arrived in hot plastic bags, shaken with our preferred seasonings, plopped on the table out of a giant metal bucket by our waitress. Untie bag, pass around, rip apart dozens of sea creatures, leaving carcasses heaped on the table. There is absolutely no point in attempting to keep your hands clean. It is a filthy and delicious experience. We left full of soju and seafood, hands still hot from the chile in the seasonings. The food is decent. But, as most things in Koreatown, it’s about the experience and it was one of my best of the year.
Brian Fite; Doorman/Bartender at Fergie’s, Head of Security at Underground Arts
The choriqueso mexican pizza from Rosario’s or the duck sausage quail egg bruschetta from Jamonera.
Well, the Jamonera dish is just beautiful. The cheese is kinda sharp. It compliments the duck sausage really well, and the yolk from the quail eggs is still runny so it runs down and soaks the bread once you break it. It’s just perfect. The pizza, is more of a novelty. Until last week I’ve never had a pizza with all Mexican ingredients—with the exception of the crust. Which could have been better. That being said, the chorizo and poblanos lend themselves perfectly to pizza and to use hot salsa instead of pizza sauce kept it from clashing. The novelty may wear off soon, but I’ve ordered it twice this week so far.
Best Philly Dish of Year: Chicken Liver Mousse with Green Olives and tomato emulsion by Chef Ron Fougeray. This year, Bibou BYOB—unabashedly my favorite restaurant in the city—underwent a renovation + resurgence….but before that happened, Chef Ron Fougeray continued his brilliance in the kitchen before departing for California. I dined at Bibou on many occasions before he left [in April] on what I termed the #AuRevoirBibouRon tour, and those Chef Tasting Dinners in which I indulged remain etched in my mind as brilliant and revelatory. While his risotto dish with winter truffles and sauce Ivoire remains a standout memory, the one that still resonates is chicken liver mousse. As part of a dinner focusing on offal, this dish encapsulated everything Ron was able to produce as well as what Bibou represents: a focus on Classical French cooking, elevated with supreme sauces and modern execution. I still close my eyes and savor it.
Best Dish Overall: Food is transporting. When one is able to recollect a memorable dish and be transported to a time + place, it’s a powerful experience. In Tulum, Mexico, there is a tiny taqueria called Honorio. It opens at 6 AM and usually sells out of its incredible Cochinita by noon. Lucky enough to be in Cancun late September this year, I took a 1 hour+ Road trip to Honorio to indulge specifically in the Cochonita Pibil tacos showcasing slow roasted pork rooted in Yucatán culture. The tortillas are deftly hand-formed in front of you by a couple of sweet elderly Mexican women, the melt-in-your-mouth, luscious pork piled on beer-coaster sized corn blankets and served on cellophane-wrapped plates awaiting the pickled onions + homemade salsas on the table.
This is street eats at its best, served in an open-air dining space that truly reflects traditional Mexican eating. I proudly profess my love of Mexico, its people + cuisine, and when I’m hungry, my mind drifts to these hand-held beauties that take me back to this special Taqueria where all five senses are truly awakened.
At under $1 apiece, indulging in five is no problem at all, but save room for the lechon (suckling pig) on homemade tortas or on the taco topped with chicharrón.
[Ed. Note: Others were a bit more succinct/busy with NYE approaching]
Jhonny Rincon; Chef de cuisine at Chris’ Jazz Cafe
1.50-day dry-aged bone in strip! First time for Christmas.
2. beef tartar from Tonwsend
3. NY strip steak and a glass of Château Vieux Chevrol with my boss at CJC
Lê HopSing; owner, Hop Sing Laundromat Three classics done the right way
1. Carbonara from Zeppoli.
2. Hamburger from Kensington Quarters.
3. Flat roasted duck from Ting Wong
I don’t know how to explain dude! They just tasted “right” in my humble opinion.