Dispatch from Philly: A City Guide

I’ve certainly covered Philadelphia, PA for you in the past. I’ve brought you detailed descriptions of marvelous pate at Parc, bacon chocolate chip cookies at Cookie Confidential (more on this place later), and great pizza in nearby Jersey ‘burbs. What I’ve failed to provide is a true getaway guide to the City of Brotherly Love, which was initially the intention of this blog, before my own whims and lifestyle turned it into a trip around the world with me and reviews therein. Philadelphia is a mere three hour trip from the Southern Tier of NY, and five and a half from NNY, completely reasonable for a long weekend family jaunt.

Big Hungry Jill long ago devised her trademark Philly Driving Tour, which she employs when friends and family visit her the first time. With me, Big Hungry Laura and Big Hungry Shannon all visiting simultaneously a few weeks ago, she dusted off the tour but added an intriguing twist: we embarked on the excursion after a stop at famed treats purveyor Franklin Fountain. This ice cream emporium is fairly new, but fashioned after federalist-era soda fountains. The ice creams and sauces are made in-house, by mustachioed gents dressed as if they walked in from a bygone era. I procured a traditional hot fudge sundae, crowned with the richest, most fudgy-tasting hot fudge ever. The ice cream itself was replete with real vanilla flavor without being so very laden with butterfat content as to be heavy on the palate, and the whipped cream up on top was bonafide. This sundae was resplendent, and while the boys behind the counter initially forgot our order, their banter and eagerness to please made up for the lapse.

Perhaps had this boy’s facial hair been more resplendent, he wouldn’t have forgotten our order?
Creamy, cold goodness in hand, we all loaded back into Jill’s Fit (the Fit is GO!) to proceed with the tour. Incidentally, if Franklin Fountain makes it to your Philly hit list, precede your visit with a stop at Shane Confectionery, just a few doors down on historic Market St in Old City, which was the original main drag of Philly back when men wore hosiery and women thought violating their rib cages with corsets would lead to good health. Anyway, Shane is just as old-timey as FF, a charming escape from the hustle and bustle of a major city into a world of chocolates, sucking candies and fudge, plus, when you buy something at Shane, your receipt gets you 10 percent off at FF! A bargain old Benny Franklin himself would have loved.

Of course, an integral part of the driving tour is Old City Philadelphia, which encompasses the most historic square mile in America. You won’t want to miss Independence Hall, the building where Declaration of Independence and Constitution were adopted, nor the Liberty Bell, if you’re a first timer. There will be lines, and this will be a time suck, but as an American, you need to see this history, feel it. I will not recommend the Mutter Museum, a storehouse of the medically strange implements suffered by our ancestors, which we toured this time around. But if you’ve been to Philly before, and done the de rigueur, touristy stuff, make your way to South St., my favorite city oddity. This was the original border of the metropolis on the South side. Here, you can gawk at the bohemian make-up of the street’s inhabitants, indulge in some uniquely adult shopping, grab a cheesesteak from one of the top Philly steak purveyors, Jim’s Steaks, or veer off even more southward towards the Italian Market. At said market, brave the lines and hit Di Bruno Bros., the holy shrine of cheese and meat. One of the cute boys there, Zeke, really knows his prosciutto, will let you taste the olive oil, and will give you amazing recommendations on where else to eat in the city. Don’t leave this place without some fine olives, a slice of pate, and a wedge of delicious cheese. Zeke will tell you which ones to pick.

Laura likes hanging meat

Neither of these boys is Zeke. You’ll have to seek him on your own. I’m teaching you independence, here, people. Like our forefathers taught.

Back on South Street, don’t miss a cocktail at an initially scary-looking Tattooed Mom. This joint is hilariously retro, whith a kitsch-filled interior, but the cocktails are serious, and seriously good. If you happen to be hungry, order the perogies with any of a bunch of toppings, or the cheesed-up, macked-out tater tots, but make sure to try a drink. Jill and I went for the Mexico City Lunchbox, with tequila, rhubarb liqueur, lime and Tabasco sauce, served with a Tecate beer alongside. In fact, I think we may have gone for more than one. You know how I like it: spicy, sweet, tequila, ole!

If interesting cocktails are high on your list of Philadelphia must-dos, wander over to the Rittenhouse Square area and be at Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company promptly at 4. They will not make you take out a loan, but they will mix you up some of the most complicated alcoholic concoctions in the history of well, America.

This place is in the basement and very cave-like, so if sweetness and light and everything nice is more in your comfort zone, or you’re toting kids around the city, route instead to Cookie Confidential, back towards South St. This mecca of sweet and salty goodness has somehow escaped the bright, shining lights of Food Network’s and Travel Channel’s cameras, but is just as important to your itinerary as the Franklin Fountain. You may remember that I Benjamin Buttoned an entire five years after one bite of CC’s bacon chocolate chip cookie on our last visit. This time, I sampled a lovely, creamy, vanilla cake-in-a-jar, some killer, spicy bacon sriracha peanut brittle, and some shortbready lemon sriracha cookies that literally saved me during the following day’s Phillies traffic.

If you chose the Rittenhouse route and somehow missed South Street and the Italian Market altogether, fear not, because there’s a Di Bruno Bros. right across the street from Franklin Mortgage & Investment, and it’s even bigger than its closet-like, older Italian Market sibling location. This location boasts the addition of ready-to-eat foods in a vast case in the center of the store, which makes me glad I don’t live in city center Philly, because I’d probably never cook again. Also in Rittenhouse is the good shopping. I like the massive Anthropologie and Kiehl’s, while the ladies at the Lagos jewelry store told us Harrison Ford (!!) had been in earlier that day perusing their wares. I only buy my really expensive jewelry at Indiana Jones-approved retailers.

After all this drinking and sweets-noshing (not to mention sight-seeing!), you may be wondering when I’ll mention the real food. Well again, you wouldn’t be amiss in having booked a table at Parc for a foray into French bistro fare, but if you’re looking for a more relaxing and relaxed repast, stay at South St and roll on down to Percy Street Barbecue after your Mexico City Lunchbox. This new (to me) country joint, smack in the middle of the big city, is all unadorned wood and buckets of canned beer. It’s meat wrapped in butcher paper and a light-filled, honky-tonk atmosphere. This is a place that encourages a good time and a dinner where you let it all hang out and give your friends nicknames like Big Hungry Vodka Puss (Laura).

My fourth adult beverage of the day inspired some artful photography

If you know what’s good for you, you’ll start this feast with some turkey tails. No, they’re not really tails, or at least, I don’t think they are. Instead, they are supremely smoky, fatty in a good way, saucy nuggets of turkey meat and sweet sauce. The “bark” or crust on them is terrific, there are luscious juxtapositions of crunchy skin and soft meat, and they are divinely snacky – the best football food EVER. Absolutely delicious.

Also, you’ll want to order a bucket of beer for the table. They only serve canned beer here, but the list is long – way more than a 100 unique microbrews to be found – even the beer-shy at your table will be able to find something they’ll like. But beware, the bucket stand your fun waitress will bring may be a wee bit tipsy, and once you’ve joined in relative drunkenness, someone at your table might accidentally kick it over in a fit of laughter, sending a cadre of concerned wait staff rushing at you like wolves to the slaughter. You’ve been warned.

So listen, if you don’t live in Philly, but you’re visiting, that automatically means you’re on vacation. And if you’re a good Big Hungry devotee, you know we don’t trouble ourselves with things like diets or wellness or moderation whilst on holiday, correct? That’s what I thought. So, go ahead and order the Lockhart. This ensures you’ll try just about everything on the menu. No, you won’t be able to eat it all, but believe me, it’s all good the next day. We added on the pimento cheese to this smorgasbord, because I’ve been on a particular pimento cheese kick lately. It was OK. Founding Farmers, in DC, doesn’t need to worry about losing its crown, and neither does my friend Robin’s mother-in-lw, who also makes a good rendition. It was chunkier than others, and spicy, but didn’t have the depth of flavor I really like in a good pimento cheese spread.

Never fear, though, because you know what is absolute Heaven at Percy Street? The burnt ends beans, French fries, brisket, and sauerkraut. Tuck IN, dudes. The beans were the best thing to hit our table all night, and sincerely, the best I’ve ever had. They were firm, not mushy; sweet, not cloying; beefy, but balanced. They were addictive, and I not only kept going back for more, but ate the rest the next morning before breakfast. Burnt ends are the end bits of the beef brisket, usually dark brown once that huge hunk of meat comes out of the smoker. The ends are left highly caramelized and concentrated, intensely beefy and spiced from the dry rub and all that smoke. Transferred into these masterful beans, those chunks of meat leant many levels of flavor not present in beans flavored with mere bacon or salt pork. It feels like blasphemy to type that, but there it is. I’m not typically a fan of baked beans, but the next time we smoke a brisket, I’m trying this technique.

Despite the fact that the French fries were well seasoned and delicately crisp, chef told us they were a commercial product, so I won’t spend much time waxing poetic about them. Why would a place making all of this food from scratch not make their own fries? I don’t get it. But the sauerkraut made up for that glitch. It was spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, a much less sour version than I’ve tasted before, with more of an emphasis towards a comforting blanket of stewed cabbage. Yum.

Many meats came with the Lockhart: brisket, ribs, pulled pork, chicken and pork belly. While pulled pork is my typical go-to, and BBQ pork belly made me salivate from afar weeks in advance, I have to give the win to the brisket at Percy Street. It was transcendingly tender, with a gorgeous smoke ring, perfectly crowned by a tangy, light, tomatoey sauce with a whisper of heat. It pulled apart without falling apart, and was beefy and smoky while still playing nicely with the sauce. In a word, wonderful.

The pork belly wasn’t bad. It was fatty, smoky, and chewy, providing a nice pair to the sauerkraut and hot mess sauce. But it was no brisket. Similarly, the sausage was good, also sufficiently smoky, the casing was crisp and the filling was toothsome without being too dense. But I’m telling you, the brisket took the cake. After eating a lot of it, and the beans, and then some sauerkraut and sampling some of the German potato salad which also was good, I hit the food wall, fell over, and curled into the fetal position. OK, not really. Actually, right about then, Laura kicked over some beers and swore loudly enough that we think she may have unduly and negatively influenced a minor, and I did quite a bit of raucous laughing. What can I say? I like to have a good time.

The chicken and pickles are conspiring against us, and now our pants don't fit. Thanks alot, jerks!
 There are so many good places these days in Philly to eat. Later on this week, I’m going to tell you about the near-religious experience we had the following night at Zahav in Society Hill, which is run by the same kind folks shilling buckets of beer at Percy Street. And again, I’m not taking anything away from Parc, nor any one of a number of cheesesteak joints dotting the city. But we awarded Percy Street Barbecue an eight on the BHS scale, and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a fun night out on the town near the place the video for Motownphilly was filmed.

A couple of notes before I bid you adieu this week, my hungries. Sunday is my birthday. I am turning an appalling number and am a teensy bit scared that my advanced age will take away all the vim and vigor I bring you on a weekly basis here. Ok, not really, but Melinda is throwing me some huge bash, and I’m really excited. I can’t wait to tell you all about it. Also, my friend Gwen writes a blog as well, and has taken on a unique culinary challenge with her hubby, whom I call Airown. Read all about it at Confessions of a Gila Monster. It could be a fun activity for you and your mate. I may be back in a couple days (a bonus post since I missed last week) with my Zahav review, so stay tuned. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Percy Street Barbecue on Urbanspoon


  1. It's always so interesting to read about the streets you traverse daily through a visitor's eyes.

    Jim's Steaks, DiBruno, Franklin Fountain...these are a few of my favorite things!

  2. I knew you would like this one, Steph! We had so much fun traipsing around your fair city (well, except at the medical oddities museum)! Have you been to Cookie Confidential yet?