In case you haven’t noticed, Philadelphia is a bustling cosmopolitan state capital that should not be overlooked. The local food scene is one of the most exciting ways to get to know this American treasure. With creative chefs remixing different recipes from different times and locations in the world, the city is an actual melting pot of flavor. With W Philadelphia planned for a January 2020 opening, we went local by asking food photojournalist Neal Santos to give us a taste of the town.
“The Philly food scene is less of a scene and more of a tight-knit community of creative chefs, restauranteurs, bakers, brewers, makers, mixologists that genuinely love and support each other,” says Santos. “It’s an infectious dose of brotherly love that helps keep progressing our food and the people who help prepare it forward. There’s never been a more exciting time to be a part of this diverse and dynamic community.”
Santos visited four of his favorite spots in Philadelphia to meet up with a handful of incredible chefs and try out their favorite dishes. He was treated to eye-popping dishes that mixed culinary ideas from Malaysia to Hawaii, Mexico, Italy, the Philippines and beyond.
“This group of women are all badasses in their own right,” says Santos, “each bringing an element of their culture and upbringing to their craft. Philadelphia sets the stage for a diverse tapestry of flavors, and these chefs, cooks, and bakers, make their mark in this city with ease.”
Kiki Aranita at Poi Dog
How would you describe Poi Dog?
Poi Dog is a casual, Hawaiianish restaurant in the Rittenhouse neighborhood of Philadelphia that serves lunch and dinner 6 days a week and also throws parties with its food truck. The restaurant menu draws upon all the different cuisines that inform Hawaii’s local food. Poi Dog also hosts collaboration luaus with our chef friends and cooking classes for anyone who wants to break down fish for poke or make dumplings with us.
Tell us about the dish you made. Why is it your favorite?
I made andagi (Okinawan donuts). They are super popular in Hawaii and are my favorite because they take me immediately back to a childhood of carnivals and bon dances on Oahu. I’d also get them outside the Japanese superstore in my grandparents’ neighborhood in oil-soaked paper bags. Our andagi are quite representative of Poi Dog’s menu: familiar and nostalgic in different ways to different people, just a tiny bit refined, everything made from scratch and fresh to order.
Ange Branca at Saté Kampar
How would you describe Saté Kampar?
Saté Kampar is a Malaysian restaurant featuring satay, marinated meat grilled in the traditional way over imported coconut shell charcoal on specialized satay grills designed to our specifications to create the most authentic flavor. Other menu items are dishes commensurate with a satay meal. For example, we are also known for our Rendang Daging, braised beef in Malaysian spices and coconut cream that braises for a minimum of six hours. The environment is evocative of an old Malaysian Kopitiam or food stall. Food is prepared in an open kitchen so diners can watch the grilling while enjoying the aroma of spiced, marinated meat, and experience the hustle-and-bustle of a food street on a busy night.
Tell us about the dish you made.
The dishes I presented were Nasi Lemak Bungkus and Sate Kajang Ayam (chicken satay). I’ll go into more detail about Nasi Lemak below, but Sate Kajang is a Malaysian classic. We do two styles of satay: Sate Kajang and Sate Melaka. Kajang is a town near Kuala Lumpur known for its satay; the style is more traditional Malay, therefore we use halal meat, and the peanut sauce is comparatively on the sweeter side. Melaka is a town in southern peninsular Malaysia, the hub of the spice trade in the 1400s, and the style has cross-cultural influences from Chinese traders — it is more salty-sour and features pork with a pineapple peanut sauce.
Why is it your favorite?
If there is a national dish of Malaysia, it’s Nasi Lemak (bungkus simply means “wrapped,” as we present the dish in the traditional way, wrapped as a single serving in a fresh banana leaf).
With origins stemming back to the days of the old spice trade, Nasi Lemak is an extremely simple dish, yet it represents the commingling of the three main ethnic groups that comprise the Malaysian populace: Indigenous Malay coconut rice with sun-dried anchovies, peanuts contributed by the Chinese settlers, and spicy sambal made of dried chilies from the Indian traders, filled out with hard-boiled egg and cooling cucumber slices. These simple ingredients combine to create a satisfying, hearty yet somehow delicate dish that Malaysians will eat any time of day and for all occasions. It combines well with satay and all of our sharable plates.
Jen Satinsky at Wreckerly’s Ice Cream
How would you describe Weckerly’s?
Weckerly’s Ice Cream is a chef-driven ice cream company working with local farmers to find the best seasonal ingredients. In all of the things in pastry that I did as a chef, ice cream was always my favorite. I love to eat ice cream more than any other dessert and it’s an exciting medium. Good, local cream is a beautiful thing in and of itself, the fact that it also provides a wonderful canvas for just about any ingredient is a huge bonus. I like surprising people with what you can do with it. There is no food that is more fun to watch people eat. So many joys are expressed over a scoop of ice cream from nostalgia to surprise and discovery. It’s also kind of messy, and that just adds to the fun.
Tell us about the scoop you showed off. Why is it your favorite?
The scoop pictured is called Best Zest. It is beet ice cream swirled with orange ice cream, with a sesame Florentine. It is my current favorite because of its earthy flavor and vibrant color.
at Flow State CoffeeBar
How would you describe Flow State?
Flow State CoffeeBar is European-inspired cafe, coworking space, and gelateria that serves handcrafted food and drink in a creative and comfortable atmosphere.
Tell us about the treat you made.
This is our brioche con gelato with mango togarashi and buko pandan sorbetti. The brioche bun is a cross between a Mexican concha and a Filipino ensaymada. The mango togarashi sorbetto is made with ichimi chilies (a type of chili from Japan). The buko pandan sorbetto is made with coconut milk that is infused with pandan leaves (buko means coconut in Tagalog). The two flavors of sorbetti together taste reminiscent of a creamsicle.
Why is it your favorite?
This is my favorite dish because it captures all of my culinary experiences, influences, and loves in one dish. I lived in Italy for a time in college and that is when I became an Italophile (and even later, a gelataia). My experience is that Italians eat gelato at any part of the day (breakfast, snack, dessert, etc.) and don’t view it in the same way as we Americans consider ice cream as only a dessert or a special treat. Brioche con gelato is actually a classic Sicilian breakfast. My inspiration for the flavors of sorbetti that I served come from my time working for Morimoto (Japanese chilies) and my Filipino heritage (mango, coconut, pandan). The brioche bun stems from my love of eating sweet, yeasted treats from Mexican, Chinese, and Filipino bakeries.