This Little Piggy Went to Market
Philadelphia is a serious food city, with its greatest strength in populist fare. In 2004 Saveur magazine named Philly the most underrated food city in the U.S. Many of Philadelphia’s local specialties are represented at the market. The Reading Terminal Market is run by the Philadelphia Convention Center, and no national chains are allowed. In addition, in order to keep it a true working market rather than a tourist attraction, no more than 40% of the stands can sell prepared foods.
On day one, a Tuesday, I arrived at 12:30 at the Market East commuter rail station, which is actually in the Reading Terminal, formerly home to the Reading Railroad of Monopoly fame. The commuter rail is my preferred way to travel from New York. For $33.50 round trip you take NJ Transit to Trenton, then switch to the SEPTA line. It takes about an hour longer than Amtrak, but it’s less than 1/3 the cost. I rushed up to the market and got right down to business.
My first bite (actually slurp) was the snapper (turtle) soup with sherry at Pearl’s Oyster House. Turtle soup is a specialty of Philadelphia’s legendary Bookbinder’s, which according to all reports has seen better days, but the soup’s popularity in Philadelphia goes back to colonial times. I’m afraid the snapper soup at Pearl’s was hardly fit for the founding fathers. It was overly salty, overly tart, and unappealing overall. I probably should have ordered the oyster stew instead.
Next I moved on to Delilah’s Southern Cuisine for macaroni and cheese. Normally one would order the mac & cheese as a side with one of the meat courses, but I had a lot of eatin’ to do, so I was pinpointing specific items. This one made my list because Oprah declared it her favorite macaroni and cheese. Though I never watch Oprah, she surely has eaten plenty of macaroni and cheese in her lifetime, so I figured I’d give it a try. I must say $4.95 was rather pricey for an 8-ounce serving of mac & cheese, but I bit the bullet for the readers of Word of Mouth. It was damn good. My only complaint is that the macaroni was too soft and mushy. But the cheese, which surely had some egg for company, was moist, fluffy, tangy, peppery and delicious. I’ve never cared for creamy, gummy cheese sauces. Oprah, how about starting a blog club?
After Delilah’s I moved on to Dinic’s for the main course. Dinic’s is famous for its hot roast beef and roast pork sandwiches. Like the cheese steak, the Italian roast pork sandwich with greens is a South Philly specialty. I had roast pork on my agenda, but then I saw a sign announcing that Dinic’s brisket sandwich had been voted best sandwich in Philly by the readers of the City Paper. I’m a brisket man, so I couldn’t resist. I was glad I had succumbed, as it was a stellar sandwich. The brisket was hearty and savory, with the flavors of tomato, garlic and onion. Here my minor complaint is that the meat was too lean, so the larger pieces tended to be a little on the dry side. The mushy parts with the tomato broth and onions mixed in were more satisfying.
That pretty much did me in for solid food, but I did stop by Termini Brothers’ bakery stand and pick up some biscotti that looked interesting – orange-hazelnut and chocolate-cherry. I tried them with my coffee the following morning and they were pretty bad, with a medicinal aftertaste, much better on paper than on the palate.
After I left the market I had one more food stop to make. A short walk away, on South 13th Street, is Capogiro’s Gelato. They make fantastic, though overpriced, gelati and sorbetti. A small cup of gelato, with two flavors, set me back $4.55. After a taste I nixed the Mexican chocolate–the spices are much more appropriate to hot chocolate than gelato. I ended up with toasted almond and Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. The Bourbon refers to the French Bourbons, not the Kentucky ones. This vanilla bean, considered the world’s finest and now mainly grown in Madagascar, originated on Reunion, the French Indian Ocean island formerly known as l’Isle Bourbon.
I left Capogiro’s and headed to my hotel, The Hyatt at Penn’s Landing. I had landed the room for $66 through Priceline, and even got a river view. An invaluable resource for Priceline bidding is Biddingfortravel.com, a Priceline users’ message board. After I had settled in I set out for one of my favorite pastimes, a stroll around the charming, genteel Society Hill neighborhood. Then I made it over to Cuba Libre, on South 2nd, for drinks. In recent years the Old City area of Philadelphia has experienced quite a revival, and now South 2nd Street abounds with trendy bars and eateries.
Designed by Kevin Hale, Cuba Libre is a beautiful place, a bit of Old Havana in Old City. I’ve eaten brunch there several times, and the food was excellent, especially the Tortilla Especial (Fluffy three egg omelet filled with thin slices of serrano ham, chorizo, slow roasted pork leg and Swiss cheese. Served open faced on pressed bread) and the Duck Frita Salad (Duck legs braised until tender with guarapo and aromatic spices, shredded and crisped with mojo de ajo. Served warm on farm greens, arugula, hearts of palm, banana chips and an orange-saffron vinaigrette). The bar makes fantastic mojitos with fresh guarapo (sugar cane juice). They also carry over 50 different rums, one of the bar’s major attractions. Aged rum is the Caribbean Cognac. I treated myself to an Appleton Estate Extra, from Jamaica, post-mojito.
Later that evening, in keeping with the Philly specialties theme, I went out for a cheese steak. Now let me tell you, I think I had only tried a cheese steak once before, about 20 years ago, also in Philly. Cheese steak places have been popping up in New York, but I haven’t felt compelled to try them. My first cheese steak hadn’t done anything for me, and I never sought them out on subsequent visits to Philadelphia. Still, I figured it was time to give the cheese steak another chance. There is a cheese steak place at the Reading Terminal, Rick’s, but I had heard that one of the best places in the city for the real deal is Jim’s Steaks, on South Street.
Rick at the market is the Grandson of Pat Oliveri. Pat was the inventor of the cheese steak (1930), and Pat’s in South Philly has had a long-standing rivalry with nearby Geno’s, a relative newcomer (1966). Though the cheese steak was born in South Philly, Jim’s, on South Street (which despite the name is in Center City), is considered to be in the same class as the other two. As a matter of fact, Geno happens to be Jim’s son. While the cheese steak is ubiquitous in Philly, two family dynasties truly dominate. Jim opened his first shop in West Philly, in 1939.
I wasn’t about to schlep to South Philly for a food I was pretty sure I wasn’t crazy about, and Jim’s on South Street is a short walk from the Hyatt, so Jim got the Word of Mouth cheese steak business by default. Though one can get a cheese steak with provolone, the traditional version is made with Cheez Whiz. I wanted to go traditional, but I had a real block against ordering, and paying for, anything with Cheez Whiz. Still, these are the sacrifices food bloggers must make, so I ordered a steak wit (with onions), with Whiz. I brought it to a table upstairs and dug in. Considering my limited experience, I have no way of judging whether this was a great cheese steak, but I’ll be happy to wait another twenty years before I try my third.
I arrived at the market the next morning just before ten in order to take the Philly food history and market tour. The first thing I did was stop by Fisher’s Pretzels for one of their fantastic soft pretzels. This was a Wednesday morning, and the Amish vendors only come to the market on Wednesdays through Saturdays. I was saving my appetite for lunch, so I avoided one of their breakfast rollups–eggs, cheese and bacon or sausage baked into pretzel dough. I have had them in the past, and they’re as good as they sound.
The tour was given by Helen Hwang, a food stringer for the City Paper, who was pinch hitting for the writer who usually gives the tour. The mix of Philly food lore and market history was quite interesting. Among other things, I learned about Philadelphia’s ice cream history. Breyer’s started in Philly in 1866, but Bassett’s beat them to it by five years. The stand at the market is Bassett’s only retail outlet. They make a pure vanilla bean vanilla, which was Bassett’s innovation to avoid the spoilage issues associated with eggs and extracts. I also learned that Philadelphia cream cheese was never made in Philadelphia.
After the tour I stopped by the Rib Stand, an Amish establishment, for some really delicious potato wedges. It was hard to tell whether they were roasted or fried. When I asked, the woman said fried. They were coated with a very tasty spice mixture.
Then it was back to Dinic’s, this time for the roast pork. I ordered it with greens, which turned out to be sauteed spinach with flecks of crushed red pepper (apparently Tony Luke’s, in South Philly, uses broccoli rabe, which sounds fantastic). This was another world-class sandwich. In fact, I’d easily place Dinic’s on my short list of great sandwich spots. When it came time to pay, Joanne, the counter woman, asked if I had cheese on my sandwich. “I never eat cheese with my pork,” I told her. “It’s not kosher.”
Much to my disappointment, I was now full, and I couldn’t bring myself to try anything else at the market. Before I took the train back to New York, however, I went to Capogiro’s again, this time for sorbetto. There’s always room for sorbetto. I nixed the pineapple-mint, which didn’t quite work for me, and went with the pear and the carambola (star fruit)-lime. Capogiro makes great gelati, but I think the sorbetti tend to outshine them. The flavors are amazingly intense and vibrant.
I think I’ll be back in Philly, and the market, sooner than later. There are a bunch of sandwiches at Dinic's I still have to try, and I haven't even started with the ethnic eateries.