Although you can find great Philadelphia restaurants in all corners of the city, nothing matches the quality and breadth of choice of eating places currently available in South Philadelphia. The area is a mosaic of intriguing, evolving and living neighborhoods, with a culinary diversity to match. South Philly retains a significant Italian and Irish presence, joined in recent years by an influx of first generation Mexican, Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants. At the same time, an increasing number of young families and well-to-do retirees have migrated from the surrounding suburbs, particularly along the spine of East Passyunk Avenue which has become among the city’s busiest commercial corridors.
Broadly defined as anywhere below South Street and between the two rivers, South Philadelphia is home to more than 160,000 people. The words “South Philly” summon images of overstuffed cheesesteaks and Rocky Balboa running through tightly knit blocks of row homes. These places survive, as does the famed Italian Market, where cheese mongers hold forth at the original DiBruno Brothers grocery and Esposito’s Porchetta sells whole roasted hogs to anyone who can carry them out of the store. This is the heart of old Italian South Philly, and still boasts a fair share of high quality red sauce restaurants like Dante and Luigi’s (established in 1899).
There are terrific modern Italian options as well – a personal favorite is August, a ten table BYOB the size of a modest living room where classic Italian flavors are elevated without the kind of forced, overly ambitious cooking that can trip up modern chefs. There’s also tremendous takeout available from sandwich shops and barbeque joints like Nick’s Charcoal Pit deep in South Philly.
While we’re on the subject of sandwiches, a brief interlude regarding the cheesesteak. Pat’s and Geno’s get all the attention, but superior cheesesteaks (as well as other first rate hoagies) are not hard to find if you go a bit further south – John’s Roast Pork is a locals favorite. Tony Luke’s stays open much later and still serves up a great steak, as well as all varietals of big, South Philly hoagies. The roast pork with broccoli rabe and provolone is a favorite of many, including Food Network personality Rachael Ray.
East of Broad Street, clusters of Vietnamese and Mexican restaurants line the expansive Washington Avenue corridor. I particularly like Pho 75 for sumptuous bowls of the traditional North Vietnamese rice noodle soup and Taqueria la Veracruzana for Pop Warner football-sized burritos. Nearby Washington along 9th Street, the Italian Market gives way to a long strip of Mexican shops and small restaurants, the best of which is Blue Corn.
Further east and north a bit is the former Jewish immigrant neighborhood of Queen Village, which now boasts the city’s most charming, architecturally interesting row homes. The old culinary traditions live on by way of Famous Fourth Street Delicatessen and its “zaftig” pastrami sandwiches. A couple blocks away is Little Fish, a true gem and among the city’s best seafood restaurants.
Let us also address brunch. Come 11 a.m. on most weekend mornings, throngs of South Philadelphia’s 20 and 30-somethings emerge from their bedrooms to soak up what remains of last night’s booze with eggs, pancakes and hair-of-the-dog Bloody Marys. Wait times can run over an hour for seating at venerable Sabrina’s Café in Bella Vista (still the place to go to for generously sized, made to order omelets). A more refined menu – not to mention outstanding cocktails – is offered at The Good King Tavern. And there’s always the original Federal Donuts takeaway joint south of Washington on the east side of town for inventive donuts and sublime boxed fried chicken.