Philly’s Best New Cheap Eats: Ekta and Zhi-Wei-Guan

Joe and I are headed to Kitty Hawk, NC for a week of internet-free relaxation on the beach.  If you’re in Philly, though, two new spots to try:

Ekta

I posted about Ekta’s opening, so you know I was in a hurry to try the food.  I’m happy to report that Chef Raju Bhattarai has matched the quality that his fans came to expect at his former post, Tiffin, at his new restaurant a few blocks down Girard.  [where: 19125]  I ordered one of the few dishes I hadn’t seen before, Murg Pahari, described on the menu only as “chicken cooked in a village’s style.”  It arrived hot and on time, and it was comfort food– the chicken was cooked in a thick, spicy sauce of onions, tomatoes and herbs.  No heavy cream thickening the gravy here, just fresh vegetables and a low level of heat that allowed the flavors to shine.  Peshawari naan and onion bhajis were tasty, but the real standout was the freebie “chef’s accompaniment” that arrived labeled “semolina.”  It was a dessert semolina porridge with golden raisins and toasted almonds, its subtle sweetness cut by a hint of black pepper.  I hope it makes it onto the menu– I’d order it for dessert or for breakfast.

Zhi-Wei-Guan Restaurant

I’ve posted a lot about Race St. between 9th and 10th: Wong Wong, HK Golden Phoenix and Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodles all live on this blessed block. [where: 19107] Between Nan Zhou* and HK there’s a new neighbor: Zhi-Wei-Guan Restaurant, the Magic Kingdom of Dough.  (That’s what it says on the business card.)  Zhi-Wei-Guan is named after a famous restaurant in Hangzhou, China, and Hangzhou dishes are proudly featured throughout the menu.  We had an amazing Hangzhou-style duck noodle soup with bok choy, and noodle dishes are clearly a specialty.  The real star here, though, is the juicy buns.  When we arrived, around 9:15 PM, our server welcomed us cheerfully** and told us that the pork/shrimp/mushroom buns ($7.50) were almost sold out.  There were only five left, but she’d round out the order with some beef buns.  Who could say no to that?  The buns were indeed juicy, fresh and full of flavor.  The beef buns were very lightly cooked, still pink inside, but delicious, with a lighter flavor and texture than you might expect from a beef dumpling.  Definitely worth the price.  We also ordered a noodle soup with fried tofu and stewed spareribs, and found it deeply satisfying.  Unlike Nan Zhou down the street, which is known for its noodles, the amazing, knock-your-socks-off component to Zhi-Wei-Guan’s soup is the broth.  Both of the soups we tried were all about the complex, rich flavors of the broth.  The way it permeated the fried tofu– oh, man, you’re just going to have to try it.  The soups, by the way, are all in the $5-7 range.
They’re open until 10, and the service is amazing.  Our server was a friendly, personable woman in her twenties who chatted with customers, recommended dishes, brought us freebies (sliced cucumber with a vinegar-soy dipping sauce, yum!) and even took our pictures for the wall.  I wish I’d caught her name.  I’ve worked as a server and in retail, and I’m not a fan of the classic servile style of restaurant service– I’d rather talk to a friendly fellow human being who knows and cares about the food they’re serving.  I loved the food, but our server gave us such a good experience that I know I’ll be coming back regularly.
With that, I’m disappearing for the week– off to enjoy the tasty treats of Kitty Hawk.  Have a nice week, folks!

*a.k.a. Lanzhou (兰州/蘭州), not to be confused with Hangzhou (杭州).  Chinese transliteration is a complicated business; I’m not about to hazard guesses about what’s right or wrong.  Chinese speakers, please feel free to chime in.

** This is a welcome contrast to the dumpling house that briefly occupied this space before Zhi-Wei-Guan– I stopped in one night half an hour before closing time to order takeout and was shooed out by a surly server.

The 2007 Potato List

It’s that time of year: your office is filled with sugary treats, pop divas are murdering ‘O Holy Night’ on every radio station, you are tempted to drop five bucks on an eggnog latté, and every blog, magazine and newspaper is filled with ‘Best of 2007’ lists. Why should the Real Potato be any exception? Here are a few of my favorite discoveries of 2007, in no particular order.

1. Tiffin

www.tiffinstore.com, 710 W. Girard Ave. (between 7th and 8th Sts.), Philadelphia, PA
I can’t believe I haven’t written about Tiffin yet. Not only is this the best Indian food in Philadelphia, but my friend LeftyProf and his partner, both from Bangalore, swear this is the best Northern Indian they’ve had in 15 years in the US. In fact, I know several Indians who have gone out of their way just to get more of Tiffin’s food. We even had them cater our wedding. I am grateful to live in their delivery zone. They’re that good.

Tiffin is a multifaceted operation– they’ve got a dining room on Girard; they do regular old takeout; they have a catering business; and they also have an Indian-style lunch tiffin system. You order a light, healthy lunch online from a fixed menu in the morning, and they deliver at lunchtime anywhere between Fishtown and University City. Make sure to check out their specials, which change constantly and tend toward the fresh and seasonal.

2. Spring Garden Market

Spring Garden St at the corner of 4th St.

This is a brand new discovery– Spring Garden Market just opened its doors this week. This new addition to Northern Liberties, just north of Chinatown, is a cavernous, colorful, sparkling new Asian supermarket. The produce section is huge, and filled with all sorts of specialty produce (five kinds of sweet potatoes, anyone?) for Asian cooks. There’s a butcher and a fishmonger: their prices are low and the quality is quite high. You need pork belly? This is the place. Blocks of fresh tofu are 5 for a dollar; fresh noodles, whole water chestnuts, gigantic sheets of bean curd, you name it. The groceries are comprehensive, from Vietnamese noodles to black sesame oil to a huge range of canned fruits and vegetables, bags of rice, and 99-cent cans of rice congee. This is my new favorite grocery store.

3. The Les Halles Cookbook

OK, we all know I love Anthony Bourdain, but seriously, this cookbook is great. It’s not just the food, though there’s definitely plenty of food porn here. It really delves into Bourdain’s philosophy of cooking, and it’s filled with passion on so many things. It’s also written in Bourdain’s actual voice, so expect cooking instructions that swear at you, tell you that you don’t deserve good steak if you’re going to overcook it, and instruct you to roll your herb butter in plastic wrap “just like you would roll a joint.” Hee. The style doesn’t veer into the gimmicky, though, which is a hard balance to maintain. And the FOOD, oh my god. I’m going to get some pork belly at Spring Garden Market and try my hand at rillettes de porc, oh yes.

4. The Hot Sauce at Taco Riendo

It’s not red, guys. It’s a deep, velvety maroon, with a flavor that penetrates into the dark, smoky heart of chipotle flavor. And it’s totally amazing on al pastor tacos. If they bottled this, I would buy it and give it to everyone I know. (Aside to Taco Riendo: Seriously, have you considered bottling it?)

5. The Headhouse Market

This farmer’s market (which closes this weekend!) appears on Sunday mornings in the historic Headhouse pavilion at 2nd St. and South St. It’s sponsored by the Food Trust and features deliciously fresh produce, breads, dairy products and even wines. And some of the vendors are fellow Philly food bloggers!

6. Country’s Barbecue

3137 Mercury Drive, Columbus, GA

I was down in Columbus on a business trip a few months ago. The highlight of the trip was getting to see my cousins Maggie and Sheryl, but the culinary highlight was Country’s. My client’s directions involved the phrase ‘you can’t miss it, with all the barbecue smoke.’ He wasn’t kidding. The parking lot is full of fragrant black smoke from the barbecue pits– and it’s a wonderful sign of things to come. I went with some fellow translation project managers and shared achingly tender pork barbecue sandwiches and the best fried chicken I have ever eaten. (They also had fried pickles, which I hear are amazing if you like pickles– but I hate pickles with a furious passions, so I passed.)

7. Serious Eats

I first checked out this site after hearing that Alton Brown reads it religiously. It’s great– filled with food news, good recipes, and essays by serious chowhounds who share a passion for real food. They like to give away prizes, which is pretty awesome– I keep trying to win those Peter Luger steaks, believe me.

8. Lagavulin

This is Joe’s influence– he’s turned me on to the joys of good scotch. I’ve been a beer nerd for many years now, and one of the things I enjoy about scotch is that it uses the same sort of palate, with malty, smoky flavors. Lagavulin, though, is the scotch that turned me into a scotch snob. It’s a single malt aged in sherry casks, and its dark, complex, smoky flavors just make other scotch seem kind of pointless.

9. Paizano’s Pizza

Baker City, Oregon

I’ve never been to Oregon, but I’ve been reading KeenEye’s blog for months now. In the time I’ve been reading, she’s renovated a building, opened a gourmet pizzeria and started to thrive. Her posts about the joys and pitfalls of running a restaurant are witty and sharp, and the food looks amazing.

10. Peking Duck

Yes, I realize that I’m years late to the party on this one. Until recently, I’d had Peking duck only once, on a college trip to London. I loved it but it never occurred to me to seek it out in the US. Thanks to Philly’s Chinatown, though, I’m a convert. We get ours at Wong Wong on the corner of Race and 9th. One whole duck feeds two people. You get tender duck with crispy, outrageously flavorful skin; fluffy little rice pancakes; fresh scallions; and plummy, tangy hoisin sauce. Make a little taco out of that and abandon yourself to the decadent glory of duck fat. Oh yeah.

Your turn: what’s your favorite food discovery of 2007?

I’ll be headed home to Pittsburgh this weekend and will probably be internet-less, so until then– merry Christmas, Eid Mubarak, happy Kwanzaa, blessed Yule, and if you don’t celebrate any of those, have fun on your day off. And thank you all for an amazing year!

Sarah

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Tiffin in Philadelphia

Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodles: Comfort in a Bowl

When we woke up on Saturday morning, rain was pouring down and flooding the streets, there was a chill in the air, and Joe was complaining that he was coming down with a cold. There was only one thing to be done: Chinese noodle soup.

This is another treat I was introduced to in New York, at the now-defunct Mee Noodle on First Avenue. Like Vietnamese pho or Jewish matzo ball soup, it’s one of those comforting soups with curative properties. And damn, is it tasty. My friend Lynn, who’s Taiwanese, had raved about this place, but we hadn’t been there yet. Clearly it was time. Read the rest of this entry »

Brunch at Cuba Libre

Joe and I are brunch eaters. I’ve come to believe that brunch is the best of all possible meals. First of all, it’s the meal of leisure: you don’t eat brunch on work days, you eat it on the weekends, after sleeping in. You eat brunch with your sweetie after a relaxing morning, or with a group of friends. You take out-of-town guests to brunch. It’s fun. Second, there’s the meal itself: It’s breakfast! It’s lunch! Technically it’s both, but really it’s about being able to decide which meal you want after sleeping late enough that you really ought to be eating lunch. And unlike breakfast and lunch, brunch comes with delicious cocktails. And coffee. The dishes, too, tend to be more creative at brunch: restaurants try to outdo one another with unusual meals that draw crowds.

Brunch, in other words, is awesome. Any restaurant that can do it justice (and so many do not) is one I will frequent.

We’d heard good things about the Tropical Brunch at Cuba Libre in Old City, but it wasn’t until last week that we finally made it over there. I’m almost reluctant to write about it, because we didn’t have to wait for a table, and if I tell you how good it is you might all start going and then I’ll have to wait in line. But- sigh- I’m a food blogger, and that’s my job, so I’ll let you in on my secret: Cuba Libre’s brunch is amazing. It’s been a week and I’m still salivating at the memory.

The restaurant’s main dining room is built to resemble the patio of a Cuban villa, with tile floors and an upper level with traditional architecture and plants hanging down. In warm weather, the outer doors open onto sidewalk seating. The black-clad waitstaff darts back and forth from their sections to a small coffee bar built into a nook underneath the stairs.

Drinks are all themed, and would be a little gimmicky if they weren’t so good. Joe had a Cafe Cuba Libre, a large cup of Cuban coffee flavored with coconut milk. It was rich and sweet enough not to need sugar (which Joe normally adds). I had a pomegranate champagne mojito, which was strong, sweet and served with lots of properly muddled mint. Yum. The serving was generous enough that I had a hard time finishing mine.

Joe ordered the Torrejas, described thusly: “hazelnut and almond encrusted French toast stuffed with Frangelico-Mascarpone cheese, aromatic honey drizzle.” It’s a huge dish, beautifully presented covered in crushed nuts, honey and powdered sugar. The inner Mascarpone filling is incredibly rich. The pleasant surprise here was that it was not, as you might expect, overwhelmingly sweet. In fact, the filling and bread were very subtle, and most of the sweetness came from the drizzle and powdered sugar on the outside.

I ordered the Duck Frita Salad, and I swear to you, a week later I can still taste every bite. I’m not normally a big salad person, but this just floored me. Here’s the official description: “Warm braised duck leg meat shredded and crisped, garlic mojo, mixed greens, hearts of palm, banana chips and a poached egg, orange-saffron vinaigrette.” Yeah, I know, and it tastes even better. The duck meat was rich and crispy, with a complex flavor that contained hints of garlic, mint, anise, and possibly cumin, and the serving was generous. The greens were fresh and crispy, mostly spinach with some romaine, evenly tossed with the subtle vinaigrette. I prefer spinach in my salads and was pleasantly surprised. The poached egg added even more richness, and the hearts of palm and banana chips liberally sprinkled throughout gave the salad a wonderful crispy texture. Did I mention this dish is gluten-free? It is, like many of the dishes on the menu.

Service was mixed- we sometimes had trouble getting our server’s attention, but that was mostly because she was busily attending to the next table over, which was filled with people who hadn’t read the menu and then got surprised when their food was served exactly the way they’d ordered it and demanded changes. (I really hated customers like that when I was waiting tables.)

The brunch at Cuba Libre isn’t cheap enough for us to do it regularly– entrees average around $12– but it’s really worth the splurge. I’m looking forward to having that salad again as soon as possible.

[where: 10 S 2nd St, Philadelphia, PA 19106]

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Cuba Libre in Philadelphia