Square Burger: Great Addition to Franklin Park

Philly has some nice parks but none is more kid-friendly than Franklin Square. It has a merry-go-round and mini golf, and guys walk around making balloon animals for the kids. What it was lacking, until very recently, was good food. It is fairly close to Chinatown, so you could pick up food there and walk over, but there was nothing right in the park. Stephen Starr has opened a shack in the middle of the park called Square Burger. No, the burgers aren’t square, but they are pretty damn good.

Along with the tasty burgers the place has one of the few good specialty dogs in the city. Philly, for all of its great food, has no gourmet dog shops like one of my favorite spots in NYC,  Crif Dogs. Their Philly Dog is a good kosher beef dog wrapped in kosher salami with hot peppers, pickles, tomatoes and mustard. It satisfied a hot dog search in Philly that had gone hitherto unfulfilled. Square Burger’s fries are fresh cut and made to order. A bit on the salty side but very good nonetheless.

The drinks and desserts were pretty good as well. Sarah had a tasty lemonade and a sundae, while I had the Cake Shake, a butterscotch shake with Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpets mixed in. Very decadent and lowbrow – I loved it!

The only couple of complaints that I have are that it took quite a while to get our order and the size to price ratio. They were very busy and clearly still working out the kinks in the food prep. Also, the burgers are somewhat on the small side. At near $4 apiece, I wasn’t expecting a huge gastropub burger, but I would normally like a bit more that what I got. For this review I got both the burger and the dog so it worked out that I could finish both. But for most people who just want a burger these might leave you a little hungry.

Otherwise, if you are in Franklin Square, check out Square Burger. It’s good to have a high-quality fast food joint around while enjoying a day in the park.

Advertisements

Book Review: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

For Americans, Chinese food is ubiquitous.  We debate about authenticity and taste in Chinatown and in our favorite corner takeout joints.   I may prefer the subtle charms of hand-drawn noodles or the joyous free-for-all that is dim sum to a folded white box of General Tso’s Chicken– but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have General Tso’s for lunch yesterday.  We see Chinese restaurants everywhere, without giving them a second thought– the almost-identical menus, the red and gold signs, the isolated Chinese families who are sometimes the only immigrants in town.

Jennifer 8. Lee, a Chinese-American New Yorker and beat reporter for the New York Times, tackles the question of Chinese food in America in all its glory in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. It’s an exuberant book, enthusiastic and well-researched, and Lee’s passion for her material is evident on every page.

The scope of Lee’s research is astonishing.  She visits Chinese restaurants all over the world in search of the best one (sorry, no spoilers here).  She travels to China to visit General Tso’s home village, where the inhabitants are surprised to hear that his fame in the West revolves around a chicken dish they’ve never tasted.  She visits San Francisco and Japan in her efforts to track down the origins of the fortune cookie.  And she delves deep into the world of “snakeheads,” the smugglers who charge would-be immigrants their life’s savings for dangerous passage into the US and Europe, and compassionately relates the story of Michael, a Fujianese man who survived a shipwreck on his journey to New York.

What she finds is astonishing.  This isn’t food porn (though there are plenty of tasty descriptions), nor is it fluff (though it is a quick and enjoyable read).  It’s more like the Freakonomics of Chinese food.  Lee applies her crisp writing and sense of humor to the intersections of social justice, the immigrant experience, business, gastronomy, and my favorite topic, political economy.

For example:

Why are American Chinese restaurants’ menus all so similar, even though they’re not centralized?  McDonald’s strives for the kind of uniformity that the China Gardens and Golden Pandas of small towns across American seem to have achieved effortlessly.  Lee argues that Chinese restauranteurs have, in effect, been early adopters of crowdsourcing techniques.

Why are Chinese dishes in America so different from Chinese dishes in China?  (And why do people in China find them so unpalatable?)  Lee traces the history of Chinese cooking in America, from 19th-century mining camps to chop suey palaces, and shows the evolution of the cuisine as it gained popularity and adapted to American tastes.

Why are the delivery people from Chinese restaurants so routinely mugged, beaten and murdered?  What does this say about the position of Chinese immigrants in the US?

Why is Chinese food so popular among American Jews?  Lee explores a kashrut scandal that took place in a Washington, DC-area kosher Chinese duck restaurant and the effect it had on the community.

And the question that ties all of these questions together: What does it mean to be an American child of Chinese parents?  It’s the fortune cookie that brings this question to the fore for Lee:

Fortune cookies weren’t Chinese.

It was like learning I was adopted while being told there was no Santa Claus. How could that be? I had always believed in the crispy, curved, vanilla-flavored wafers with the slips inside.

It was through reading The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan when I was in middle school that I first became aware of the mass deception. In one tale, two Chinese women find jobs in a San Francisco fortune cookie factory, where one is utterly perplexed when she learns that the cookies and their cryptic messages are considered Chinese.

I asked my mom if she had known all along that fortune cookies weren’t Chinese. She shrugged. She said when she first got to the United States from Taiwan, she’d assumed they were from Hong Kong or mainland China. China is a large and fractured place. She had never been to mainland China. Neither had I.

Lee’s quest to understand the origins of the fortune cookie becomes a quest to understand her own origins, and she handles it with intelligence, compassion and grace.  It’s a story relevant to every American (hyphenated or otherwise), every immigrant, everyone who’s ever sought a new life.  Whatever nonsense the Republicans and Democrats are spouting about barrier walls and guest-worker programs, it’s stories like the ones Lee brings to life that are the true lifeblood of this immigrant country.

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.

Sketch Burger: Holy Kobe!

I have been to the top of the mountain… and they serve hamburgers.

OK, that mild rise on Girard isn’t really even a hill, but the hamburgers really are amazing.  I’m talking about the newly opened Sketch Burger and Shake Joint, at 413 E. Girard in Fishtown [where: 19125].  Dear readers, we have a serious contender for Best Burger in Philly.

The menu is simple: burgers and shakes, and one token salad.  Pick your protein, sauce and toppings, and choose from four shake flavors (vegan or milk).  Options are beef, turkey, ‘smashed onion,’ vegan burger, chicken, and American Kobe beef, as well as the day’s special, a seitan burger highly recommended by the server.  Joe and I, being hedonists, went straight for the American Kobe burger ($9.75).  He got harissa aioli, I chose Thai peanut sauce on the side.  I went for grilled onions and avocado.  The burger arrived, and it was massive.  Really, I cannot believe they crammed that much meat into one burger.  Most kobe burgers tend to be on the small side– $9.75 may be expensive for a burger, but for kobe it’s really an excellent deal.  It arrived medium rare, thank God– overcooking meat of that quality is a sin.  We got our burgers to go, so the bun was slightly soggy, but it really held up well given the juiciness of the burger.  The grilled onions sat below the patty, and above it were slippery sliced avocado, a slice of juicy ripe tomato and some high-quality salad greens.  This is a difficult burger to eat.  It’s crammed full of fresh ingredients that want to come bursting right out of the bun.  The effort, however, is worth it, as is the 20-minute wait while your burger is cooked to order.  The end result is incredibly rich, flavorful, juicy, and did I mention rich?  It was a bit of a shock to my system since I’ve been eating lightly recently, but very much worth it.

We also shared a vanilla milkshake, which was flavorful and thick but not too thick.  (As Joe put it: “Thick, but I won’t have a brain embolism trying to suck it through a straw.”)  Everything is made fresh here, so no chalky chemical taste either.  I try to take it easy on the lactose, so I’m really looking forward to trying a vegan shake.

The shop itself is cute; there are blackboards everywhere and rolls of butcher paper on the tables, and customers are encouraged to doodle with chalk (hence the “Sketch” name).  It’s also open until 11 pm, which is wonderful for those of us who live in the neighborhood.  And vegans, vegetarians and the lactose-intolerant can all find joy in this menu.

I found only two downsides to our delicious, gut-busting meal.  One was the cheese selection: American (ew, plastic), horseradish cheddar, pepper jack, vegan and bleu.  One straightforward cheese option, an aged cheddar or maybe a sharp provolone, would be welcome.  The other was the standard side order of Cheesy Poofs– ours were stale.  Sketch would be better off dropping the little orange orbs and developing the ultimate French fry.  They’ve mastered the ultimate hamburger, so why not?

Dinner on Girard: Ekta and Sketch Burger Joint Opening Today

Good news for Fishtowners!  Chef Raju Bhattarai, formerly the executive chef at Tiffin, has opened his own restaurant, Ekta, at 250 E. Girard [where: 19125].  I stopped by the small storefront space yesterday, and Chef Bhattarai and his staff were busy putting on the finishing touches.  They greeted me warmly and handed me a menu.  Most of the choices are indistinguishable from Tiffin’s menu, no surprise there, but the prices are much more affordable.  One intriguing difference is in the bread section.  In addition to the usual suspects like garlic naan, roti, and the heavenly fruit-and-nut-stuffed Peshawari naan, Ekta offers basil naan, mint naan and rosemary naan.  Hours are also a bit longer than Tiffin’s: Ekta is open until 10 pm Monday-Saturday and 9 pm Sunday, good news for those of us who work the twilight shift.  City Paper reports that a second-floor dining room is in the works as well.  Opening day is today, so drop by if you get a chance– and send me a report!

The other restaurant opening today on Girard is Sketch Burger Joint, a brightly painted pink-and-yellow space run by the owners of Canvas Coffee Co.  The menu advertises itself as vegan-friendly, and wagyu burgers, high-end condiments and vegan milk shakes are on offer (check out the menu over at Foobooz).  Oh, this is a good thing.

Of course, you can’t talk about Girard without mentioning its unquestioned king, Johnny Brenda’s.   We had dinner at Brenda’s the day we moved to Fishtown, and haven’t stopped dropping by.  The new venue space on the second and third floors is a great place to see bands like Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, but what I’m really happy about is the expanded dining room, where the seating is much more comfortable, and you can hear your dinner partner talk.  Brenda’s menu is updated regularly, and the innovation hasn’t stopped yet– my latest favorite is the crab cake salad, three perfect, slightly spicy crabcakes with a creamy dressing and a pile of dark, flavorful salad greens.   I’ll really be happy when the Greek-inspired lamb sliders Brenda’s offered at the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival finally make it onto the menu.  I’ve been craving those for months.

Memphis Taproom: Fishtown Foodways Grow Up

Fishtowners rejoice- you have a new hangout.  The new Memphis Taproom [where: 19125] opened this week at the corner of Memphis and Cumberland, and Joe and I went to check it out last night.

It’s a simple spot– a bar, a small dining room, wooden floors and lighted glass blocks for decoration.  The menu, too, is simple: hot appetizers, salads, sandwiches and platters, with an excellent selection of local beers on tap and reasonably priced bottles.  The food is straightforward– burgers, fried chicken, sandwiches– but it’s clear that chef Jesse Kimball, formerly of Center City’s Matyson, knows what he’s doing.  There are little creative twists on each dish that make this bar food into something special.  Jacket potatoes come with real, aged cheddar, not the canned stuff; steak frites are tinged with garlic and served with a light arugula salad and excellent fries.  Fish and chips can be ordered with fish, or with miso-marinated battered tofu.  The hot appetizers are substantial enough to satisfy late-night drinkers, and the meal portions are filling without the giant-plate excess offered at so many Philly restaurants.  Joe’s pulled-pork sandwich was a toasted roll filled with smoky, tender pork, spicy barbecue sauce and an inventive smoked coleslaw.

Memphis Taproom has only been open for four days, so some of the kinks are still being worked out: not all of the beers we ordered were actually available yet, and desserts, brunch and the late-night menu aren’t up and running yet.  Still, there’s no question that this will be a regular hangout for Fishtown locals and neo-Fishtown hipsters alike– they were represented in just about equal numbers when we visited.  It’s a balance that many local businesses find difficult to strike, and Memphis Taproom is succeeding so far: enticing hipsters with retro decor, lots of vegetarian and vegan options, and a sophisticated beer menu, while also making longtime locals feel welcome with reasonable prices, tasty interpretations of local classics like pirogies and Polish sausage (a dish that’s close to my Pittsburgh heart) and an unpretentious atmosphere.  (No cheesesteaks on the menu, though.)

The Taproom’s website says that Kimball is “currently studying the foodways of America’s inner cities,” and he’s certainly picked a good place to do that.  I for one am looking forward to walking down the street and sampling his interpretations of Philly cuisine on a regular basis.  Especially those steak frites.

Philly Bargain: The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College

This past Saturday Sarah and I went to the Restaurant School for dinner. She had a tough week and needed to be treated. We had often thought about checking this place out, with its $21 three-course prix fixe for the European Courtyard French Menu. For those who don’t know, the Restaurant School is a culinary institute between 42nd and 43rd on Walnut St. in West Philly [where: 19104]. In addition to the school itself, it has two restaurants, a bakery and a market with sandwiches. The restaurants and the stores are run by the students under supervision from instructors. There are some rough edges, but overall we had a good time and a good meal. Read the rest of this entry »