50 Must-Eats in Philadelphia" which we had been working our way through slowly, but diligently. Some of the food on their list really was good, but we could identify dozens of other foods that topped anything we ate on that list.
So here is our list! Today, you get part one (1-10, but not in any particular order). Next Sunday, I'll try to write up the next 10. Oddly enough, today's list is heavy on the latin food (three tacos, one guacamole, one amazing puerto rican treat), but the complete list includes all different kinds of food from Philly's eclectic neighborhoods.
Enjoy! And leave a note in the comments if you've found any good food you think we haven't found yet that we should definitely try.
1. Mahi Mahi tacos from Distrito (3945 Chestnut St)
The first time we went to Distrito, we got these fish tacos as part of the tasting menu, and haven't stopped talking about them since. It's three excellent flour tortillas filled with a Mahi Mahi fish stick, a perfectly ripe avocado, and marinated red cabbage. It's so simple, and positively delicious. You get three for $14 (Distrito is tapas-style), which is pretty reasonable considering the quality and uniqueness.
2. Meatball spring rolls from Viet Huang (1100 Washington Ave)
Usually I shy away from things called "meatballs" anywhere but Italian restaurants. But I accidentally ordered this one time and they are amazing. First off, they're not really balls; they're more like sausages. And they come on a plate with delicious herbs, carrots, cucumber, vermicelli noodles, and nuoc pham sauce. The novelty of this dish is that you wrap your own spring rolls, right there at the table. They bring you hot water, and you put the rice paper in until it's cooked (10 seconds, max) and then put whatever you want in your spring roll. The dish is around $10, and you get a ton of spring rolls. It's a really fun way to eat your veggies!
3. Dr. Dovey's Classic Banana Split from Franklin Fountain (116 Market St)
If you looked at the price on the menu, you'd probably skip this amazing ice cream treat. $14 seems like a lot for a banana split. I mean, it's just a banana and a couple scoops of ice cream, right? Wrong! It has chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream, and a banana, but that's really where the comparison between what you're expecting and what you get ends. This one is definitely a 2-person meal. Each of the scoops of ice cream is topped with pineapple, strawberry or chocolate, and then whipped cream, nuts and cherries. It's a classic! The Franklin Fountain's ice cream is made right there in store, and is some of the best ice cream this side of, well, the universe.
4. Hot chocolate from RIM Cafe (1172 S. 9th St)
Rene is the man behind the counter, and he is a character! Whatever you order, he'll do up the preparation ("make it happen" as he says) so you think you're the only person in the store. Each hot chocolate (and it doesn't really matter which one you get) is made by hand by Remy or one of his assistants. They shave the chocolate right there. Some of the hot chocolates have as many as 10 different kinds of chocolate in them. This place is a blast, especially after a few hours shopping in the Italian Market. I particularly like the dark chocolate one, which is almost entirely chocolate and just a little bit of water to make it sippable.
5. Cesar Chavez Balsamic Guacamole from El Vez (121 S. 13th St)
I have to admit that El Vez is a guilty pleasure of mine. It's overdecorated (a rotating motorcycle above the bar? I mean, c'mon!) and pricey. But they have this one guacamole that can kick the ass of any other guacamole I've ever tried. Imagine this - avocados mashed up with roasted garlic and sea salt, and then topped with a balsamic reduction… it's perfect. The first time I had it was five years ago, and I've had dreams about it since. In preparing this list, Max and I went to try it again, and make sure it really was as good as I remembered. Surprise, surprise! My memory didn't hold a candle to how good it really is.
6. Semi-Spicy Tacos al Pastor from Don Memo's truck (38th and Sansom, right by the 7-11)
Philly food trucks have been getting a lot of attention recently, but this one is my all-time favorite. It's so good that, at lunch time, you could wait up to an hour for your tacos, and people do it! The tacos al pastor are incredible. They're simply pork marinated for like 100,000 years, and then served with guacamole and onions, on corn tortillas. I don't know how Americans got the idea that tacos are supposed to include lettuce, tomato, cheese, and weird beef goo. This is the way tacos are intended to be made. $7 for three isn't bad, either! Get them slightly spicy - the hot sauce is delicious, but too much and it'll burn off your taste buds and you'll miss the whole point.
7. Sweet Potato Tacos from Honest Tom's Taco Truck (various locations, including 42nd and Chester on Saturday mornings)
Another food truck? With more tacos? Yep! These are different than the preceding tacos on this list. First off, they're base is sweet potatoes, which are charred and delicious. They're topped with guacamole, of course. The whole idea is pretty amazing! 2 of them cost around $5, and you get them from the food truck that's painted to look like chaos erupted at the Home Depot paint department.
8. Any coffee from Ray's Cafe and Teahouse (141 N. 9th St)
So you want some coffee, and you're in Chinatown. You see a cafe, and go in, expecting to grab a quick cup of joe and be on your way. Well, that won't work here! At Ray's, each cup of coffee is brewed just for you. And when we say brewed just for you, we mean with those nifty science-experiment-looking personal brew thingies. The hot water burbles up through the coffee into a glass bulb, sloshes around getting extra tasty, and then falls back into the cup. No flavors lost into the air, just perfectly brewed (and entertaining!) coffee.
These are some of the best coffees you can get. You look at the prices on the menu and think "oh no, I will never pay $9 for a cup of coffee". Well, if you've ever paid $9 for a shot of good whiskey, or a great glass of wine, then you understand why sometimes it's OK to pay a little more, because it's just that good. Ray's coffee is just as complex as any glass of wine I've ever had! On top of that, the atmosphere is totally low-key. You can get decent chinese food (I had chicken and bok choy that had just enough bok choy to make me happy), and the servers are relaxed. So, in short, it's like going to a wine bar, except it lacks all pretentiousness and you leave awake instead of sleepy! Win-win, I think.
9. Papas Rellenas from Freddy and Tony's (2nd and Allegheny)
Back when I first moved to Philly, I worked for a social service agency based in North Philly. One day, on our lunch break, my coworkers took me to Freddy and Tony's for some quality Puerto Rican food. Up until that moment, I had never tried Puerto Rican food. I was a bit lost looking at the menu (exactly how is the pollo different than the pollo especial?) and my buddy kindly led me to the greatest treat in all of Puerto Rican food - the Papas Rellenas. Here's what you can expect - a fried ball of mashed potatoes, stuffed with seasoned ground beef, and topped with gravy. Sound good? It is just as good as you're imagining. Probably better, actually. And Freddy and Tony's whips up an awesome one!
10. Pastry Sampler from Manakeesh (45th and Walnut)
Manakeesh is the latest edition to the West Philly food world. It's a place to go get some tasty flat-bread with delicious toppings (see next week's list!), perfect mint tea, and cinnamon-y spinach pie. On top of all of this, it's also a bakery! When we went the first time, we were overwhelmed by the massive assortment of honey-glazed treats behind the counter. We had no idea what anything was (even the baklava was disguised!). So, the nice guy behind the counter offered us a "trust-me plate". We told him how many items we wanted (12, for four people) and a few minutes later he presented us with a platter of pistachio, honey and dough treats. We had baklava that had honey running off the sides (this is a good thing!), and some fried dough bits covered in honey, and thumb cookies with pistachios, and all kinds of other things I can't even describe. Thank goodness for the "trust-me plate" of I'd never have discovered such delicious treats in my neighborhood!