Yes, any foodie trip to Philadelphia should involve sampling cheesesteaks to decide whether Cheeze Whiz or provolone reigns supreme, weighing the merits of competing pit beef shops, and going to the place where they make the cream cheese.
But you would be doing yourself a disservice by restricting yourself to the stereotypes. Here are our five favorite “non-traditional” dishes to try in Philly.
Red Caviar Soup Dumplings (Tom’s Dim Sum)
With two locations in Center City, Tom’s Dim Sum is well-regarded by locals for its well-executed expansive menu of yum cha delights such as shrimp shumai, sesame balls, and chicken feet in red wine sauce. The most recent addition to this lineup is a show-stopping twist on the standard soup dumpling via the inclusion of red pearl caviar with the pork and cabbage filling. Upon steaming, the scarlet pearls liquefy, filling the dough pouch with a fragrant broth whose brininess well matches the headier porcine flesh. Slurpable caviar? Why not?
Tea Leaf Salad (Rangoon)
While you’re drinking your caviar, why not eat your tea? Rangoon, one of only a handful of Burmese restaurants in the Mid-Atlantic, serves the best and brightest culinary staples of Myanmar, including a knockout rendition of laphet toke. Considered by many to be the national dish, this salad of fermented tea leaves, shredded white cabbage, diced tomatoes, dried shrimp, garlic, peanuts, fried onions, lime, and sesame seeds is a symphony of crunchy and supple textures and complementary acidic, earthy, and citrus notes. Portions are modest; order at least one per interested party at your table.
Chicken Liver Mousse (Abe Fisher)
Most everything served at Chef Yehuda Sichel’s acclaimed restaurant is damn fantastic, but I swooned specifically for the chicken liver mousse. In keeping with his promise to offer patrons elevated versions of Jewish soul food, Sichel transforms this sometimes pedestrian deli classic into a sophisticated spread devoid of the off-putting metallic undertones that often plague other renditions and replete with satisfying contrasting tastes of chicken fat and vegetable tang. Chopped hard-boiled eggs as well as crackling chicken skins further heighten the savory factor, and sides of pastrami jam and sliced rye render this appetizer Not-Your-Bubbe’s chopped liver.
Mt. Vesuvius Sundae (Franklin Fountain)
Benjamin Franklin is credited with about a gazillion inventions. Ice cream is not one of them. Nevertheless, the best (end stop) ice cream shop in Philadelphia bears his name as an homage to this founding father who surely would have appreciated the selection of frozen concoctions for their insane deliciousness and ingenious design. The Mt. Vesuvius sundae is my favorite, and, well, the official description is better than anything I could come up with: “A mountain of CHOCOLATE or VANILLA ice cream erupting in CHOCOLATE BROWNIE boulders, cascading with HOT FUDGE and blanketed in MALT POWDER. A dollop of WHIPPED CREAM indicates her smoking signal. A true display of Pompeii-an circumstance.” Warning: be prepared to wait in line for this amazing natural disaster of a dessert on warm evenings and on weekends.
Crab Fries (Chickie’s & Pete’s)
Crab fries are the most famous Philadelphia food that non-Phildelphians have never heard of. Although nearby Baltimore is better known for its bevy of crustacean-inflected dishes (crab pizza, anyone?), for over four decades Chickie’s & Pete’s have helped residents curb their simultaneous cravings for fried potatoes, seafood spice, and cheese with their “crab fries.” Crinkle-cut fries made from Russet potatoes are liberally coated with Old Bay seasoning and accompanied by a mandatory side of melted white American cheese sauce. Chickie & Pete’s has 19 outposts and counting, but the fries feel most festive when enjoyed at the original Robins location.