I GREW UP IN CHICAGO, so I’m used to deep dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches, and Chicago-style hot dogs. When I moved to Philadelphia, I was a hard critic. Luckily, the City of Brotherly Love never disappointed.
I worked full-time in the restaurant business and insisted that chefs, managers, coworkers, and locals tell me their favorite spots to eat. Because I always operate on a strict budget, these finds became regular hangouts only if they were cheap. Most of the goods here are available for under $10 a pop.
Brunch: Café Estelle
4th and Spring Garden, Northern Liberties
Some of my favorite mornings have been spent sitting at Café Estelle’s 4-seat counter, watching waitresses in their vintage aprons juice oranges and listening to Chef Marshall Green’s laugh echo throughout the restaurant.
Café Estelle is located in the lobby of a fashionable high-rise condo building, but the prices are modest. All of the recipes are influenced by the chef’s Grandma Estelle, and everything is homemade with local ingredients.
I always order the stuffed French toast special that’s only available on weekends and changes week to week. I also recommend starting with another weekends-only special before ordering your main meal: a homemade sticky bun with cream cheese frosting. And though I rarely touch scrapple with a ten foot pole, Marshall’s just has something special. Go for it.
Sandwich: Chickie’s Italian Deli
1014 Federal, South Philly
I wanted to find a good sandwich fast when I moved to Philly. Bob, the manager at the restaurant I was slinging pancakes at, recommended Chickie’s Italian Deli.
For $7 I got a foot-long genoa salami, coteghino, mortadella, and provolone sandwich on the freshest (soft on the inside, crunchy and seedy on the outside) sesame-seed hoagie bread with all the fixings.
You have to battle the crowds and throw a few elbows in this old-school section of the city, but luckily everyone at Chickie’s is really friendly. The owners even gave me a few hoagie rolls to take home with me. Talk about a deal.
Burger: Grace Tavern
2229 Greys Ferry Ave., Greys Ferry
There are plenty of gastropubs in Philly that serve their versions of the “best burger in town.” Living in the northeast of the city, I have tons of options for burgers nearby, but I’d rather drive 20 minutes for the Grace Burger at Grace Tavern.
Their iteration is cooked to a perfect mid-rare and topped with only the basics: lettuce, vine ripe tomato, red onion, and melted Swiss.
The bartender (who also doubles as the waiter) pushes heavy for the microbrews and only recommends the Grace Burger. Do him and yourself a favor and order it, then wash it down with a Troegs Hopback Amber draft.
Food truck: Guapos Tacos
Usually parked at Love Park, 17th and JFK, Center City
I’ve traveled all over the country to find the best food trucks, and found some real winners in Portland and LA. But I’m getting tired of all the other cities hogging cred, so I feel like it’s my mission to spread the word about Philly chef and restaurateur Jose Garces’ Guapos Tacos truck.
Usually parked at my favorite afternoon hangout, Love Park in Center City, this food truck makes Mexican street food like carnitas tacos (topped with black beans and pineapple habanero salsa), chipotle short rib tacos (radish, onion, cilantro, queso fresco), homemade guacamole, and tamales.
I’m happy to see “waste” recycled for artistic purposes: Guapos’ brightly colored truck is made from over 45,000 different beer bottle caps. Plus, I never have to use my subway fare for lunch because everything’s under $8.
Asian: Han Dynasty
2nd and Chestnut, Olde City
I’d just moved to Philadelphia, and it was one of my first snowy winter nights. I needed hot, Asian comfort food. What I found was my new addiction: Dan Dan Noodles, 6 on the spicy scale, from Han Dynasty. This dish is technically an appetizer, but one bowl for $8 is more than enough for a meal for me.
The noodles have just the correct amount of sauciness (sesame paste, soy sauce, chili oil, sugar, and minced pork) and spiciness (rated a 6 out of 10) for my taste. After one bite, I asked to speak to the chef. He was happy to talk about the dish and accept my praises, but the best recommendation was watching the kitchen staff slurp down their noodles in the corner of the dining room at closing time.
Mexican: Plaza Garibaldi
935 Washington Ave., South Philly
On New Year’s Eve, my sister and I wanted to get away from all the activity and expensive to-dos. We drove over to Plaza Garibaldi for a quiet dinner — though quiet in South Philly that night meant battling for spots and ending up parking on the sidewalk somewhere.
Surrounded by loads of other Mexican places, Plaza Garibaldi has the most delicious combo platters out of everywhere I’ve tried. My favorite is the Alambre: bistek, pollo, y tocino with sautéed onions and cactus, bell peppers, melted cheese, pico de gallo, rice, beans, and guacamole for $11. They even serve beer (Philly’s bizarre liquor license laws can be a drag), so I always have a Dos XX with dinner.
Food destination: Reading Terminal Market
12th and Arch, Center City
The first time I visited the Reading Terminal Market, I was pulled in every direction at once. This downtown indoor farmers market has been around since the late 1800s, and for good reason — everyone I take there loves it.
After browsing booths selling French crepes, fresh meats, poultry, and seafood, get in line at DiNic’s for a suckling roast sandwich topped with broccoli rabe and sharp provolone. All those flavors combined, especially the sharp provolone, rock my world.