First of all, anyone who would spell ‘food’ with a ‘ph’ for the title of this piece deserves the worst kind of torture—consigned to be in Center City Philadelphia, near the delights of Reading Terminal Market, but allowed only to eat half-cooked convention center bratwurst.
I was there from Thursday through Sunday as a guest of Wizards of the Coast (a division of Hasbro). I had the opportunity for some good eats—none of which was a cheesesteak. The only planned meal was Saturday night at Iron Chef José Garces’ Amada; Philly resident and friend Jon Becker made reservations for the only time I knew I’d be free, which was late on Saturday.
Having lived in Belgium for six years and having an appreciation for the great food culture they have, I was excited when Becker suggested we hit Monk’s (although admittedly, it was after a failed attempt to get into Village Whiskey).
After ordering a bottle of Westmalle Double (the Triple is just too strong to enjoy with food), my three friends and I split an order of Veal Cheeks. Becker, the ever-loving curmudgeon, asked which cheek they were from—the face or the backside. We left him wondering. The dish, however, didn’t leave us wanting. Slow braised in Abbaye de Val Dieu with olives, garlic, and herbs and laid on top of an extra creamy polenta, it was the perfect appetizer once we added some of the oaten bread they serve.
I followed with a decent burger, the Trappist style as they call it, which comes topped with goat cheese and raw onion (and I have a tough time resisting goat cheese). It was a reasonably good burger, and a nice match for the beer.
My first experience with Reading Terminal Market was The Dutch Eating Place, a serpentine stretch of counter space (and To Go register) in the “Dutch corner” of the market, where you’re greeted from stepping in off the street by a blast of cinnamon and pastry dough. Even though it was late-ish for breakfast, pushing 10am, and the market wasn’t quite buzzing yet, The Dutch Eating Place was packed. The four of us had to split into two twos in order to get a seat, but the rich, homey apple-cinnamon French Toast was well worth it.
My lunch Friday was brought to me by one of the folks who took great care of me at the event, young Matt Danner. When Matt inquired about getting my lunch, I asked what he had had. He started raving about the roast pork sandwich from Dinic’s and I was in.
The sandwich was rich roast pork with provolone (which I believe is my favorite sandwich cheese) on a crusty roll with broccoli rabe and hot peppers. The sandwich was large enough that it was a struggle to finish, but it was so good that I wasn’t going to leave any. A most decadent sandwich.
I think I’ve mentioned before that Tampa doesn’t have any great delis, so when I’m in a northeast city, I make sure I hit one. Hershel’s was the ticket. I got the Hershel’s Special, which includes the choice of corned beef or pastrami with Russian dressing and cole slaw (on marbled rye). I chose the pastrami (although I had to explain pastrami to one of my friends from Italy, since he had never heard of it). The pastrami was so good that I regretted getting the special—the sandwich was nice, but the other stuff detracted from the wonderful meat. If I had it to do over again, it would be pastrami, cheese, bread, and mustard.
The best stop of the trip was Amada. Tapas is always an interesting way to eat and socialize at the same time. I found Amada a little noisy—although I noted that folks in northeastern cities seem to be a little more comfortable with ambient noise than the rest of us. It was also so dark that I needed to borrow a flashlight to read the menu.
Those minor annoyances aside, it was a fine meal. We sampled about two thirds of what they had to offer. Before departing, I ended up buying (for a mere $8!) a jar of the Truffled Lavender Honey that went with the Aged Manchego, although I felt as though the honey went better with the bleu cheese. The Garrotxa was also extremely tasty, especially with its accompaniment of “garlic dulce de leche.”
You can’t go to a place like that without having the Jamón Ibérico, and it didn’t disappoint. The only dish that did disappoint was the Gambas Al Ajillo (garlic shrimp) because the shrimp itself was overly salty. The garlic and oil was otherwise good enough to ask for extra bread and sop it up. Also of particular note were the Albódigas, Lamb Meatballs with Shave Manchego. The class act of the evening, and the only dish we ordered a second round of, was Costillas de Ternera, Beef Shortrib Flatbread. Braised short ribs, just enough horseradish, just enough parm, and just enough bacon made it worth stretching the belt a little over.
The Continental hosted about 60 of us on Sunday night—and pulled it off as well as anyone who has had 60 nerds in their joint at one time. From the comfortable professionalism of the staff (especially Molly, who was responsible for our little corner) to the food to the drinks, The Continental fired on all cylinders. We’ve had some memorably bad 60-person meals, but I’m happy to report this one will be memorable for all the right reasons. The food, an amalgam of styles, was spot on from start to finish.
Philadelphia is way more than cheesesteaks. Staying within about 20 square blocks of Center City, there are enough discoveries to keep you busy for weeks.