North America Dispatch #7: Philadelphia: Southeast Asian, Shrimp, and the Young Crab Men
Note: Those with limited reading time should scroll down to the “Northern Philadelphia” part, where things started getting amazing.
Glatt kosher Maccabeam Restaurant has an unfinished quality to it that’s hard to pin down. You can get the vibe just from looking at the exterior:
I immediately suspected the menu to be land-mined with misses as well as hits, and I stumbled right into one of the former, even after having been warned.
I’d asked the waitress if they really make latkes (potato pancakes), which aren’t usually restaurant food. She answered “yes” in the halting hesitant rhythm that waitresses use to send coded messages. She was telling me to avoid the latkes at all costs. But I never met a latke I couldn’t eat, so I ordered one anyway, along with a falafel sandwich. Assuming I wasn’t hip enough to pick up her signal, she concluded I was a rube and tried the oldest trick in the book.
“That’s ALL? Just a latke and falafel sandwich?” she asked, in wide-eyed disbelief. I grinned, stared her in the eye, and replied “Yeah, just THAT.” I’d seen through the ploy, in spite of my latke gullibility. Perplexed, she retreated to the kitchen.
My order arrived, and … let’s not discuss the latke (suffice to say I spit out my sole bite). My bad. But let’s talk a LOT about the falafel, which was the best Israeli falafel I’ve ever had. This rule of thumb is so exception-prone that some would deem it useless, but I’ll state it nonetheless: Israeli falafel tends to be golden, made from chickpeas, whereas Arabic and North African falafel tends to be greenish and made from fava beans (and herbs). This was chickpea falafal, it was gloriously loose (it burst into microchunks at the mere proximity of molars), and it was optimally crusty in the right places and richly moist in others. This was killer falafel, though the rest of the sandwich—pita, tahini, and salad—was merely functional.
God bless seven-megapixel cameras; the takeout menu is readable in this shot.
Philadelphia is blooming with chow. There’s a fairly musty Chinatown, but also a vibrant and burgeoning Vietnamese/Chinese area on Washington Avenue, anchored by the Wing Phat Plaza shopping center (1122–1138 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).
Inside the plaza is Pho 75 (1122 Washington Avenue; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 215-271-5866), a very good-looking place for Vietnamese meat soup. It passed the all-essential smell test: If you don’t smell a deep, soulful, herbal aroma upon cracking open the front door, a pho place is no good. Pronunciation tip: Pronounce “pho” like “funk” without the “nk.” And raise your voice, as if asking a question.
Wait; I just noticed that this is a branch of the famous Pho 75 of northern Virginia, which makes my favorite rendition! I should have tried it; if it’s as good as the Arlington location, this place is worth a trek from NYC, which has no great pho. Even better, maybe the chain will keep spreading northward. All join hands in prayer.
There’s also a swell-looking Vietnamese noodle shop and other good stuff inside. And Hung Vuong (1122 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-336-2803), a large Asian supermarket, has a barbecued-meat counter selling very tasty (and reasonably priced) ready-to-eat ribs and other meats.
Further down Washington Avenue is an interesting, brand-new place, BaoBaoHao Chinese Seafood (1100 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-463-2981).
Here’s the menu:
You’ll notice that the menu lists enough Southeast Asian fare to make one suspect that, in spite of the name, this isn’t a Chinese place at all. But it’s very likely the other way around. The vast majority of Southeast Asian restaurants, both here as well as in Southeast Asia, are Chinese owned. Resourceful Chinese chefs learn how to produce local dishes there, just as they conjure up fried chicken wings and egg rolls here in America. My theory is that these guys are Chinese from Malaysia with Vietnamese sympathies.
I caught the grand opening of Saigon Tofu (215-339-0388), which makes their own very good tofu and pretty good Vietnamese bakery items. They also have steam tables with prepared Vietnamese tofu dishes. To my knowledge, there’s nothing like this in New York.
I was so sorry not to have time to actually try a meal at wonderful-looking Café de Laos (1117 South 11th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-467-1546).
Terrific-looking place, no? Their takeout menu particularly intrigued me:
Laotian is a very rare cuisine in this part of the country—I know of no Laotian in the New York tristate area. New York is missing far more things than most people realize. One travels to fill such gaps!
And if Café de Laos rang my chowhound bells, Taqueria la Veracruzana (908 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-465-1440) conked me over the head.
Driving by, I was sure it was great, and having gone in, grabbed a menu, and scanned plates, I’d bet my chowmobile these are among the best tacos in Philly. I also got a good vibe from the fish store/restaurant next door, Anastasi Seafood Ristorante (Ninth and Washington, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-462-0550). The place is less than no-frills, but the store has a fresh smell, and a fresh-smelling fish store with scattered tables inside for eating is an opportunity one must never pass up.
I passed it up, though (this sort of rigorous chowconnaissance work requires much sacrifice and trusting of instinct re places that “look good”), because I needed to head to north Philadelphia to scout expensive shrimp bars.
In the poor, largely African-American northern reaches of Philly, there are bars with inexpensive drinks, inexpensive bar snacks, and extravagantly priced shrimp. We’re talking $15 to $20 for a half-dozen shrimp. I’ve never understood this phenomenon. As a jazz trombonist, I’ve hung out and performed in black bars all over the country, but I’ve never spotted extravagant shrimp elsewhere. Only in north Philadelphia.
What could be a shaggy dog story has an ending that’s both unsatisfying and triumphant. My quest was complete before I really started. I spotted, seconds after entering the nabe, Sid Booker’s Stinger La Pointe and fell immediately in love.
I can’t entirely grasp the extent of Sid Booker’s empire, but “The Colonel of Shrimp” certainly has a lot more going on than the small bulletproof takeout window at the corner of his vast pink edifice at 4600 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-329-4455.
This window was the only portion open at midday, but it sure expelled some mean shrimp. Let me back up, though, to the moment of my arrival at Sid Booker’s Stinger La Pointe, whereupon I pulled over, whipped out my camera, and started photographing the exterior through my car window. A rough-looking fellow in a van that was randomly driving by pulled up right next to me and, scowling in mistrust and malevolence, asked me who I was suing. I replied sunnily that I wasn’t suing anyone, and explained that I was, in fact, a food writer out to find the best shrimp in Philadelphia—and that I suspected I may have just hit pay dirt with Mr. Booker, the Colonel of Shrimp. Scowl turned to puzzlement, and then resolved into a glimmer of respect. “Man, those are the BEST MOTHERF*ING SHRIMP IN TOWN!” he hollered, driving off.
The Indian yoga masters write about “devas,” spirit guides who roam the earth directing human beings through rough times. I was sure I’d just encountered a chowhound deva—with neon wheel rims and a really, really loud stereo, no less.
Coughing in the dust he’d kicked up, but emboldened by his guidance, I stepped up to the window and ordered. The waitress asked me which of a half-dozen seasonings I wanted on my fried shrimp (cocktail sauce, hot sauce, salt-n-pepper, and a bunch of other things listed too fast to catch). I said “Salt and pepper.”
“That’s it? Just salt and pepper?” she asked, strangely parroting the glatt kosher waitress at Maccabeam Restaurant earlier in the day. I asked her to also add hot sauce.
“Well,” I stammered, uneasily, “what else is good?”
“You could have cocktail sauce,” she suggested.
“OK, yeah. Cocktail sauce, too, please.”
“Do you LIKE cocktail sauce?” she asked, having telepathically surmised my aversion to cocktail sauce.
“Sure I do!” I lied.
The bulletproof window slid shut and she went to work, eventually handing me out a boat of fried shrimp and a boat of french fries.
They weren’t, as I’d feared, gloppy with multiple sauces. It was almost as if fries and shrimp had been tossed in a wok with hot sauce (I don’t think she’d applied cocktail sauce). The thinnest film was dried on, crunch was retained, counterpointed with a few happily soggy spots. I discovered that adding ample salt and pepper to Trappy’s Red Devil creates an entirely different result from any of those seasonings on their own. The shrimp were excellent, but the french fries were screamingly good. I think you can get a sense of them from this photo (I’m not a very good photographer, so if this evokes any emotional reaction in you, it’s purely the result of my own overflowing feelings for my subject. With that in mind, please view the french fries and know that you are seeing and feeling what I saw and felt):
Since Sid Booker’s Stinger La Pointe is a bar (and, I’m certain, much, much more), I feel that I fulfilled my extravagant shrimp mission, even though the bar was closed at this time. And these suckers WERE expensive, at $18.50 per dozen. But I still don’t understand why North Philly has developed this culture of expensive shrimp bars. I’ll have to keep hammering away at the puzzle.
Then I hit gold. I found young kids working in a tarp-covered roadside shack, in the poorest part of North Philly, cooking crabs with incredible skill. They worked amid buckets of squirming crabs and buckets of spicy cooked crabs (the spice blend was nothing you’ve ever had before—I think the kids just went to the grocery and bought random spice bottles and shook indiscriminantly, but it’s pure genius). These are by far the best crabs I’ve ever had. Hear the story of their discovery in this podcast: MP3 file. Please understand that you’re hearing a recording made in a car strewn with severed bits of crab, as if a Tasmanian devil had whipped through the area. My clothes were stained and greasy from head to foot, my hands were completely caked with spices, my lips were swollen with chile—the whole scene must have looked straight out of Silence of the Lambs.
As I say in the podcast, they are near the intersection of Taney and Burkes. As with all previous investigations I’ve done in Philadelphia, it’s as if I dreamed it. Because there is no intersection of Taney and Burkes I can find on any map. Some things must remain a bit mysterious. But at least I have photos:
These young kids were cooking and serving the crabs with unearthly skill and panache.
Alas, my only photo of the staging buckets of crabs turned out blurry. Yet the vibe is still palpable, so I’m leaving this shot in:
Cool mural on the side of the building gets you in the mood for seafood:
My bag of crab … seconds before I devoured it like a crazed animal:UPDATE:
SUCCESS! The spelling is “Berks,” not “Burkes,” so the locale has been found and mapped!
Unfortunately, I did not spot the Florida Boy’s Street Barbecue truck, which I’d last come upon years ago after countless hours of tracking. My notes from that encounter are sketchy, and Eartha, my GPS navigation concierge, couldn’t make sense out of them (and I had no maps). If you’d like to search for this truck yourself, here are some raw clues. I’m quoting from my scribbled notes:
Delfield and 18th (on Delfield). Or near Woode’s Poing (whatever that is). Or try 16th and Hunting Park Ave.