Category: Phillycentric

Update: Far be it from me to tell you to stop reading my blog and go elsewhere, but it’s worth noting that Shell.Fish.Sue has finally gotten a website up since I wrote this, and it doesn’t seem quite right that this comes up in a search so far in advance of their official online presence. And wouldn’t you know, they’ve already added a few new things to their menu. So try this for the most up-to-date info:

First things first: look, I don’t know why the name of the place is stylized that way, either. To be honest, we mostly call it “selfish shoe” around here, and that usually not on purpose.

Anyway, Lansdale has this newish seafood place. It’s been open maybe a month, maybe a little less. It’s one of those really casual hybrid places, with a takeout counter and plastic cutlery and a cooler full of self-serve sodas, but you can also eat there, which I have now done a couple of times.

This is not necessarily destination dining. I mean, suburban types who are well-accustomed to driving everywhere they go shouldn’t think twice about driving a little ways to get there, but it’s largely a neighborhood spot—which is incredibly welcome in Lansdale, where Main Street is still populated mostly by pizza places and diners.

The food is, frankly, a lot better than I expected it to be. I say that only because very early on, when I hadn’t so much as seen a menu but every dish I had heard anyone else mention was fried, I had my doubts. I mean, not that I would ever take issue with a chip shop; it just wasn’t what I imagined when the sign first went up. And yeah, it turned out that the bulk of the opening menu is deep-fried or crusted. So I was surprised at what a light touch their chef has with it.

The first time I went, I tried the fish and chips. For sticklers, this is tempura-battered fish with french fries, not “fish and chips” in any proper British sense. (This place hardly owns that particular semantic issue, though.)  The portion is smallish, as it should be, given that it’s priced at all of $10. I tried it with cod, and it was fresh and a little creamy with a very crisp, non-greasy coating. The only problem with it, if you could call it that, is that there are so many more interesting things on the menu.

This shrimp po’ boy was among the more compelling options. (“Po’ boy,” of course, is another one of those regionalisms people can quibble about,but I’m not here to speak to that. It was a good sandwich. And yes, I took this with my cellphone, so I apologize for the photo quality.) Jarred got another sandwich earlier, an Italian affair with breaded cod, which he was very happy with, but this po’ boy was more my speed. That is to say, it incorporated lots of pickled things and some heat, which is the direction I tend to want to go in when fried seafood’s involved. Smoked tomatoes, interestingly enough, were on both sandwiches but took on entirely different character from one appearance to another.

Below, I’ve got the current menu, because I can tell from google searches that locals are anxious to see it. The facebook page has a version up, but this is more complete; it’s the full menu currently available in the restaurant. Even so, you might want to take the menu as a suggestion. They’re still adding to it, there are usually about 4 or 5 specials available on the board, and they won’t always have everything on the menu. (But really, you should be suspicious of any seafood place that’s never out of anything. And note that the lobster mac and cheese and the bread pudding are only available during Friday and Saturday during dinner hours, though the menu only says “Friday and Saturday” with no hours specified in the first case, and is totally mute in the second.)

I think uncertainty and surprises are a nice part of the small neighborhood dining experience. But if you’ve got dietary restrictions or are just particular about knowing exactly what’s going to be on your plate, you might want to ask a lot of questions, because the menu doesn’t accurately reflect every single detail. Jarred tried to order a tuna salad at lunch, for instance, and they didn’t have tuna that day. He considered the mac and cheese, which is how we learned that that’s not around at lunch. Some off-menu skate was then recommended, and when he asked how it was prepared, the guy responded, “Oh, however. We could fry it or crust it…” and when he opted for a lemon-basil crust, no other variables were discussed. The on-menu crusted fishes come “with two sides,” which I took to mean you could choose between the few on the menu (fries, potato salad, slaw), but the actual plating turned out to be more thoughtful than that: Jarred’s skate showed up with slaw, a smear of mushy peas, and a scoop of the potato salad that had been seared (!) as if it were a potato pancake.

And here’s the thing: it was all seriously good. (The skate, which sometimes seems to confound people, was perfectly cooked.) None of the surprises have concerned us, but others reading this might like to know. The place is new, and there are a lot of little details that make the place interesting but also weren’t likely to be fully ironed out in a mere matter of weeks (oh, by the way, they have 6 different salts for your fries). The slaw, by the by, is pretty unique: I’d describe it as tasting more pickled than simply dressed. By the evening hours, it’s garlicky and a little hot and can almost take on a bit of kimchi-style funk. In other words, it’s awesome.

But one thing that is really important to know is this: They take credit cards, but because it is “primarily set up as a takeout place,” per the woman who rang us up last time, their credit card slips don’t give you an opportunity to tip them. While tipping in cash is always a nice idea, here you’ll really, really want to have at least enough cash for a tip. Unless you want to have someone wait on you and then awkwardly realize after the fact that there’s no way to tip them. Which totally happened to us, in case that wasn’t obvious.

Oh well. Next time. After the break: the menu.

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a clarification + some of the things I’ve been staring at this week

In the grand tradition of other people for some reason caring what you’re putting in your mouth enough to comment on it, I’ve already been getting some of this stuff: “Wait, you’re not eating cheese? Why are you vegan? WHAT ABOUT PROTEIN?”

…it’s a couple of weeks, people. So I don’t think it really needs to be addressed. But, just to be clear, I’m not turning my nose up at animal products out of any sort of conviction about anything. Sometimes you need to interrupt your food habits, though, and any rigidly restrictive diet will definitely help with that. (Eating out a lot is a more fun option, but I don’t have the money to be That Kind of Food Person.)

That said, I already know what my first meal is going to be when I stop this, and it’s eggs and scrapple fried in bacon grease, so hopefully anyone concerned for my well-being can relax now.

It could be argued that almost anything would be more interesting than this. Here are some candidates:

If I were more creative when it comes to swine puns, I’d totally enter this contest to get into the opening party for Pork Slope. There’s one day left for you to do that, though, if you’re gifted in that arena.

I particularly liked Adam Erace’s review of The Industry, but then I think I’ve also favorited at least 3 different tweets just because they included photos of the lamb neck gravy, so I might be easily bought in this regard.

Also from Meal Ticket, this Mushroom Wiz Wit burger pocket whatsit has found a place on the list of meaty things I’d like to ingest, but then, I am awfully hungry.

Does anyone actually like these WHAT DOES HE HAVE IN HIS FRIDGE features? Spoiler alert: Danny Bowien has some mustard at home. And an almost-empty jar of pasta sauce?! Chefs! They’re just like us!

I’ve had this tab cluttering up my browser for over a week now. It’s not about food, but it is one aspect of the broader American culture of “It’s not us, it’s you” that I’m kind of fixated on in general. Fact: 9 times out of 10, when someone tells you there’s something wrong with you, they’re either trying to absolve themselves of some responsibility, or they’re trying to sell you something. That’s just hard math.

This was a good gotcha moment from Eater (and as it turns out, it was also the only way anyone, including Newsweek, has brought Newsweek to my attention in about 8 years). And also: seriously? Is Newsweek hiring middle schoolers now? And if so, will they hire me, I sort of dress like I’m 12 and tweet about boners a lot??

I cannot believe I signed up for a SkillShare class. But, in my defense, I do like to keep tabs on Eddie Huang and—far more importantly—it was free. I think it might still be free, if you’re dying to know what Eddie Huang has to teach about branding, but not really dying enough to pay $10.

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blue belly bbq + a preliminary weigh-in

Well, not literally. I’m not trying to lose weight here, and I never weigh myself anyway. (Even if I did, it’s doubtful I’d be champing at the bit to go internet-public with a number.) As I embark on day one of my vegan experiment, though, I thought I might as well try for an overview of where I’m at going in.

First things first: I chose Blue Belly BBQ as the venue for my farewell-for-now to meat, and it only seems fitting to lead off this post about veganism with a mini-review of a tableful of dead animal. Jarred and I chose two sandwiches (pulled pork and korean beef) and one platter (pork belly), then shared everything. The korean beef sandwich was my favorite thing—a surprising result considering my deep-seated amorous feelings toward pulled pork, and the fact that Gene Giuffi tops his with pickled fennel and motherfucking pork rinds. Still, while the pork was very good and the meat/bun interplay was exemplary, overall it was just a touch overshadowed by the more engaging korean beef, with its kimchi and awesome vinegary drippings that I had to keep licking off of my wrists as I ate.

I’m not going to insult you by describing smoked pork belly, but of course it was great, because it was smoked pork belly and Giuffi knows how to cook pig. The sides weren’t necessarily huge standouts for me, but all were enjoyed. The braised greens were pleasant, but begged for a squirt of the slightly-spicy vinegar sauce on the table. (They provided both hot and sweet sauces, the hot version of which really stole my heart, a mustard sauce, and the vinegar-based one, in addition to sriracha and ketchup.) I also doused most of the (very good) fries that came with my sandwich in the vinegar sauce, because duh. The bacon onion corn cakes were probably my favorite of the sides, while the baked beans were good but very unexpected. Our cup might’ve contained roughly equal parts meat and beans, but completely absent was the molasses-forward sweetness or overt smokiness you might expect from barbecue-joint baked beans. These were white beans with a significant (and very welcome) green onion presence and occasional carrots, and the dish read to me more like a familiar bean soup, minus the soup. I liked them, but upon reflection, this is one place where I’d have been happy with a more expected approach. I might be tempted to mix in some sweet sauce if (when) I get them again.

My only other quibble was with the plating (traying?), and I won’t say I actually care about that, since it doesn’t impact the food at all. The massive trays managed to make the pork belly platter look scant, despite it being a fine amount of food. Little cups lined up beside two pieces of pork belly and a couple of pickle chips just leaves an awful lot of negative space. In contrast to the really bountiful, picnicky feel at a place like Hill Country, everything here seemed a little too dainty and composed for the background of a paper-lined tray. Even so, they managed to fit all three giant trays on our table comfortably, and it worked just fine to convey food to my dopey, meatphoric grin, so… just an observation. The takeaway is that I’ll find myself back here a hundred more times.

In contrast, my breakfast this morning consisted of “miso” soup over wilted napa cabbage and scallions and a scoop of black rice. I put miso in quotes, because due to logistical concerns, I chose to get started with my shopping at Whole Foods. They don’t carry miso paste, so I got a box of some sort of miso soup mix as a get-me-over until I can get to a decent Asian market, and oh my god. If this actually contains any miso at all, I will be shocked. It looks like there’s sand in it and (charitably, I guess, given the apparent sand content) tastes like nothing.

That said, while I wouldn’t say it’s the most filling breakfast, a more flavorful version of this would make for a pretty appealing option for me, vegan or not. I can only eat eggs so many days per week, I don’t often like sweet things for breakfast, and I’m also not particularly creative first thing in the morning. My favorite breakfasts are usually just leftovers from dinner (OK, often with an egg on top). So, miso soup. Sure.

The crazy macrobiotic directive to chew your food until it’s entirely liquid is so lost on me, though. “Just close your throat!” Alicia chirps helpfully—but look, lady, that completely flies in the face of how I’ve chosen to live my life thus far. (Also, that might have been a bit of a paraphrase, but it is the gist of her masticatory advice.)

From a physical standpoint, I already eat a ton of greens and a limited amount of meat, and I jog a little and do yoga, so it’s not like I’m going from a steady diet of fast food to this stoic new lifestyle. So we’ll see if a relatively brief experiment can lead to any measurable changes either way. But yesterday, my skin did decide to freak out and get oddly flaky, almost as if my body sensed that I needed some obvious yardstick and that Alicia Silverstone had promised my newly-vegan self newly-lovely skin.

Finally, in an intriguing turn of events, Jarred has been absolutely lapping up The Vegetarian Myth (which I still have not read, for those in the stands keeping score) and keeps pointing me to articles about how veganism leads directly to death. That may not sound intriguing, but consider that, unlike me, Jarred is a bona fide health enthusiast and life-long sufferer of animal-consumption-related guilt. He has actually flirted with a macrobiotic diet in the past, and has definitely gone vegetarian and vegan in turns over the years. So I thought that, if nothing else, he’d be on board for this for a few weeks. As it turns out, he is not! And I think I have Lierre Keith to thank for it.

He’s already trying to get me to eat pizza. Thanks, Lierre!

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wherein i try to embrace
the suburbs, kinda

An oppressively steamy weekend in a locus of suburban blight about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia doesn’t sound crazy-awesome, because it’s not.

But in this case, it was a little nicer than it sounds. I think (I hope!) things might be looking up for Lansdale, PA. The town has long had some things going for it (a number of good BBQ spots; far more diversity than many surrounding areas), but it’s never been in danger of drawing the kind of people that like to get out of the city to spend the day tossing around words like “charming” or “adorable.” Its Main Street is not exactly thriving just yet—a number of businesses have shuttered in recent years, and where replacements have come in, several have not lasted long—but there’s been a steady trickle of interesting new businesses popping up, too. The best of the new spots seem to be doing quite well.

My favorite diner is there, and we’re well-known to the staff, as Jarred is apparently the only person they’ve seen finish entire orders of their gargantuan pancakes. (It’s a rare instance of huge food that is also good food.) It’s been around for a few years, but the chef was able to buy the place from the original owner towards the end of last year, making an already good place even better. A few doors down is Virago bakery, which specializes in vegan and gluten-free desserts. (There are some hits and some misses there, but no shortage of interesting choices.)

This spring, Lansdale even got its own brewery, right downtown and within easy walking distance of the town’s train station. Round Guys brewery has plans to begin serving food and operating as a brewpub, but thanks to the notoriously slow and finicky PA licensing boards, they can’t even sell pints yet. Even so, they’re there producing beer to distribute to a couple of bars, and to sample and sell in growlers to anyone curious enough to stumble in.

Please note that I didn’t take a picture of the actual beer. In an obvious display of my commitment—both to food blogging and to the domestic sciences—I had no clean glasses that weren’t pink.  So yeah, I’m by no means a beer aficionado. As with wine and whiskey, I drink plenty of it, I try new ones as often as possible, I can point to styles I particularly like, but I’m just not a hobbyist when it comes to beverages. In fact, say more than a few words to me about a drink or ask me any in-depth questions and, I can’t help it, my inner frat boy comes out and I really, really want to tell you to stop being such a puss and just drink it already. Even so, I think these guys are doing some pretty interesting things, and they’re clearly only doing what they love (from their own FAQ):

What they really seem to love are sour beers, which is a genre I went in particularly unfamiliar with, but I ended up walking out with one nonetheless. We also tried the Alpha Blackback IPA (which I loved), the Mini-Bob (which is a very drinkable session ale, but I didn’t find it compelling in any way), and the Berliner-Weisster, which despite being described on the menu as “like a lemonade on a hot summer day,” still surprised me by tasting… like lemonade. Quite tart, though you can also order it with raspberry syrup, which makes it a Himbeer. Or so they tell me. (I liked it just as it was.)

Soon, it looks like there will be a take-out seafood restaurant opening, with the unnecessarily difficult name “Shellfish Sue.” But for now, the youngest addition to Main Street is Tabora Farm, a satellite store location of a farm in Chalfont that’s been a hugely popular vendor at the Lansdale farmers’ market since it began. The cafe and store, which just opened a week or two ago, sells bulk spices and teas in addition to their own baked goods, ice cream, and (soon, hopefully: wonder if the PLCB might be involved here again?) wine. (I never realized how much weird wine people are making around here until I heard about Cardinal Hollow, a couple minutes down the road in North Wales, where they make wine from peaches and jalapenos. Note to self: buy jalapeno wine.)

The market in Lansdale is currently in its third year, but only recently did they finally answer my prayers and get someone in to sell tamales. I don’t know what my deal is, but any time I see a gathering of people or tables of any sort, I immediately start nosing around for tamales. These were good. I was a little too distracted by the fact of their existence to ask a lot of questions or, you know, read their sign, but whatever. Tamales! The Food Trust clearly knows what they’re doing.

Like everyone else in the world, I love a farmers’ market. Not for any particularly poetic reason, or because I live to hunt down new things to challenge myself with, but just because the market experience fits so seamlessly into a lazy weekend. In a grocery store produce section, I’m lost without a list. I’ve thought of what meals I’ll be making, and I’m shopping to make them happen. At a farmers’ market, I just sort of find myself holding a giant bunch of beets, and then I guess I know what I’ll be eating. Pasta with beet greens, garlic, and pecorino romano that night; beet salad the next day. Whatever. Perfect.

So, to close this out, my “recipe” for beet salad:

Roast or boil beets (for now, boil them; it’s a little hot for a fast oven) until tender.

A few minutes before they’re done, slice an onion, drop it into a large bowl, and douse it with vinegar. Enough that you can also toss your beets in it, and don’t bother with a soft or subtle vinegar here. In fact, this is the time to take a second look at that jug of white vinegar you keep around for cleaning. Salt, pepper, dried dill, toss. No one’s stopping you from using fresh dill; we’ve just given up by now trying to grow dill for ourselves. We only keep growing it so the swallowtail caterpillars don’t starve.

Peel and slice the beets while they’re still hot, and toss them in the bowl with everything else. Stick the bowl in the fridge for a little bit.

That’s it. I don’t use oil in this case, because beets are already pretty lush, and the oil just dampens the acid. These are just shortcut pickled beets, really, but they’re what I usually turn to. In this case, tossed onto some lightly-dressed lettuce from the backyard. Beets are never going to be quick nor neat, but they are easy, and a big bunch ends up providing a few meals. Which leaves you to your weekend, be it somewhere idyllic or just, you know, in Lansdale.

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guess that’s why they call it
the Queen City

There are no nice things about your computer giving out on you. No matter that we still have Jarred’s, or that I always have a little one in my pocket anymore, or that somewhere, someone’s children are dying of starvation or exposure as we speak. Actually, no, that did it, I feel like a dick now.

Especially since I’ve already ordered a replacement. Although, to be fair (and I do want to make sure we’re being fair), I’m beginning to suspect that UPS may have just launched my new laptop into space from Sylmar, CA. It’s either that or they don’t use planes. They do use planes, right? How did my computer leave Sylmar, CA so many days ago and not arrive at any other place yet?

Anyway, computer troubles are dull, and I’d rather talk about Allentown.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know this myself until a couple of years ago, but the Lehigh Valley is sort of great. It’s beautiful, and it’s also got good things to eat and the @IronPigs and a good radio station (that last one is a thing I haven’t said in a very long time).

I guess Allentown isn’t what most people would consider A Destination, but most people don’t know shit, and Allentown has a great indoor farmers’ market. And if that doesn’t do it for you, it’s right at the Allentown Fairgrounds, where you can take in a show by someone like Blake Shelton, or just about any musician who enjoyed any amount of fame in the 90s.

But the farmers’ market is pretty complete, so if you ever eat, there’s a good chance you’ll find something in there that’s more interesting than Collective Soul. It’s the sort of place that has a ton of produce vendors (in the broadest possible sense of the word produce), but also a wine shop, an unseemly number of baked goods, a place that sells just potato chips, a place that sells just vacuums (oh, I don’t know), and also a few restaurants and a few more places with prepared foods to take out (Allentown has a great park system, for the picnic-inclined). The Pennsylvania Dutch specialties you’d expect are there in full force; the Vietnamese place you smell before you even walk in is a little less expected. And, if you’re the kind of prick who props yourself up by snickering at strangers, you will also be interested to know that you are almost guaranteed to find yourself waiting in line at the fishmonger behind a girl in ill-fitting jeans that have been sliced across the front and back to almost make super short cut-offs, except the side seams have been spared so the pantlegs are still attached. And also she’ll probably have a technicolor tramp stamp that reads “Vixey.” I mean, if you’re into that sort of thing.

We stock up on the best bacon when we visit, and smoked pig ears for the dog. I like to snack on an empanada while browsing, and always have to stop at one bakery whose name I still don’t know, despite knowing their chocolate and coconut cream pies very intimately. When we were there this weekend, we also tried a Moravian apple sugar cake from the Amish bakery. Which, we found out, is basically some sort of coffee cake topped with apples and gobs and gobs of sticky bun-style topping.

So yeah, I’m dead now, but happily I also got to have dinner in Allentown before that happened.

Now, I can only be who I am, so I’ve been quite happy just to pay Yocco’s a visit when I’ve found myself in Allentown in the past. This time, one of my companions actually did some research beforehand and emailed along some links to places we might want to try. And who would’ve otherwise known that Allentown is a goddamn hotbed of Syrian and Lebanese food?

The answer to that turns out to be “anyone who’s watched the Cooking Channel recently,” because as I found out only once we were there, the restaurant we chose was just featured on it a couple of weeks before. They were visited by The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia, which is a show that, according to all available sources, exists. I don’t know anything about that, but while pictures alone tell me that his schtick may be intolerable, I have nothing to say against his taste in restaurants.

I fell in love with this place almost immediately. Speaking generally, Middle Eastern food ranks really high up there on my list—maybe even tops it—but I haven’t eaten it in quantities as significant as I’d like since I left San Francisco. It was an absolute staple there, but I wouldn’t say it’s one of Philadelphia’s great strengths. In many respects reminiscent of some of the places I haunted in SF, Damascus is a small place with all the atmosphere of a hospital cafeteria that just happens to have some camel-shaped knick-knacks scattered about, drinks limited to odd bottles or cans or whatever booze you brought for yourself, and some of the nicest, warmest people that will ever sell you food.

I don’t think everyone at our table was quite as enamored of Damascus as I was, but a) see above observation on what most people know, and b) hey, it’s 2012! I’ll be damned if I’m going to care about anything other than myself and what I think! And more importantly, I tried everything on the table, so I can say for sure that I could find nothing not to like here.

While we were eating, a couple came in that were clearly regulars. They greeted everyone who was working, asked about the TV show taping, and regretted that they had missed the show when it originally aired. From here, they launched into a conversation several minutes long about whether or not anyone there had taped it, and if so, could this patron trouble them for a copy? It’s nice to know that there are still people in this world who, if they miss a show at its first airing, think the next logical step is to request a VHS copy directly from the subject of said program. And I don’t even mean that sarcastically.

And no, I don’t actually have a clue where the nickname “Queen City” came from. Furthermore, I don’t think anyone knows, or has ever known, and I really doubt that anyone could ever concoct an explanation that would make the nickname sound apt. Allentown has a lot of things to recommend it, but if we’re being honest, the less-common nickname “the Cement City” sounds a little more like it. But that’s ok, Allentown! Regality is overrated.

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