Thursday, April 16, 2009

Eating Philly

Last week I went to Allentown, Pennsylvania. I found it to be a hearty, blue collar American city. The kind of place most people are proud to be brought up in but long to be elsewhere (funny how that works). Unfortunately, I didn’t really find any great food in Allentown. In fact, a trip to the Starlight Diner did give me some indigestion but the ambiance was a cultural experience, to be sure. A sniff of research, however, told me that Philadelphia, a mere hour away, held a few gems. So after finishing work on Thursday afternoon, I thought checking out the Philadelphia scene was the right call. I settled on an award winning restaurant by celebrated chef Douglas Rodriguez: Alma de Cuba. If you haven’t heard of this guy, he has quietly taken the food community by storm. His bio reads like a food deity; he’s done it all. He’s been creating original cuisine since boyhood, worked in prestigious Miami establishments, attended Johnson and Wales and opened numerous successful restaurants from New York to South Florida. He’s been recognized by The James Beard Foundation and made numerous television appearances. Even knowing this going in, I wondered what he could do with Cuban food to take it to the a higher level. I mean as much as I enjoy Cuban cuisine, most of my experiences involve beans, rice, and a well spiced meat –usually fish, pork or chicken. Cuban food, by nature, is for the people and not haute. I had no idea what I was in for. This was not from su cocina de abuela Cubano (translated –your Cuban grandma’s kitchen).

Their website describes this cuisine not just as Cuban but as influenced by the whole of the Caribbean. ‘Alma de Cuba’ means ‘Soul of Cuba’ but really the soul of the regional is represented. For a ceviche order I was presented with was a dazzling Tuna, salmon and black bass marinated in lime juice with a touch of soy and jalapeno with roasted sweet potato slices. The soy set this dish apart (not Caribbean at all) because it married so well with the island flavors.

Then a smoked Marlin in a malanga taco with pickled jalapeños followed. I mean, just look at this:

Malanga is a Caribbean root vegetable that was sliced and shaped to be a taco shell. It made for a starchy sweet shell that housed a succulently smoked marlin. For my entrée, the bartender (I eat at the bar even at fine restaurants) suggested a pork dish. Now I have a rule about pork. I don’t like to order things in restaurants that I can make at home. Most chicken and pork dishes fall into that category (with exceptions). Plus, I’d had Cuban pork before and I found it a bit bland. Still, since I’d asked for a recommendation, she stuck to her guns and said this was one of the best dishes on the menu and her personal favorite. Well, all right then. With that endorsement, game on!

I ordered the Lechon Asado (roasted pork) and was prepared to be disappointed. While I believed my lovely bartender, Poppy, the previous 2 courses were so amazing that this couldn’t be a hat trick of culinary perfection. Wrong. OK I’m not sure how they did this but I have never had such a crispy, tasty crust on pork while preserving just the right juiciness to the inner meat. I’m thinking there was a torch involved, seriously. The Yucca puree and slightest drizzle of black bean broth really let the pork be the star. It was a far cry from the heaping mound of beans and rice I’m used to. A pickled cabbage slaw stayed quite true to the Caribbean theme.

I loved this place –really loved it. I will not only go as far as to say this is the best take on Caribbean I have ever witnessed, but I squarely put this in the running for top dog restaurant n my book. I have unequivocally placed the Providence Rhode Island, Al Forno, as my personal #1 but this place is right there. A couple of good meals here and it might just overtake and move into that slot.

I also need to quickly mention another stop on this trip. Heading to the airport, I realized I was quite a bit early and near the Italian markets in Philadelphia. As a foodie, I thought it heresy to not visit the birthplace of the Philly Cheesesteak. Pat and Harry Olivieri are credited with inventing the steak sandwich back in 1933 and according to Philly natives, no other city on earth can reproduce the perfection of this sandwich. I’m never a fan of the claim that I can’t make something like the original but nevertheless , they do make one hell of a sandwich and it has certainly endured the test of time. A trip to Pat’s King of Steaks will transport you back to those days just after the depression where I imagine a great sandwich like this was quite a treat. Across the street is a baseball field, many little mom and pop establishments are working to make a living in this old neighborhood.

The Olivieri brothers were both hardworking kids from the neighborhood who opened a little stand at the Italian Market. Their steak sandwich with onions was a hit from the very beginning. So much so that they opened the little stand at the intersection where Wharton, Passyunk and 9th St meet. They were an immediate sensation and are to this day. Cheese didn’t come along until 1940 and Provolone was the original. Cheese Whiz was invented in 1951 and soon found its way to the steak sandwich at Pat’s. It is now the standard but other cheeses are also available if you have the audacity to look the guy in the eye and order it.

On the day I was there, it was 11 AM on a Friday and already folks were lining up. There were as many tourists as there were locals. I imagine they tire of us out of town visitors but they seem to share the outdoor picnic tables all the same. I ordered my sandwich “Steak wit cheese”. While that sounds simple, it is code. ‘Steak’ refers to the sandwich, ‘wit’ means ‘with onions’ and ‘cheese’ means ‘with cheese whiz’. That is the most standard order but there is a sign over the order window in the event you don’t know the lingo.

The sandwich itself was wonderful; fresh and juicy with melty hot cheese. While rich and tasty, I was surprised at how non greasy this was. They use a method with the onions that pulls most of the excess grease away leaving just well cooked shaved beef as the base for this sandwich. They’ve made it the same way for almost 80 years. I feel another notch has been carved into my foodie belt by eating here. Soon I will need a new belt.

Whew, my week was yet to be over as I got pulled out of the airport in Philly for a quick Friday night case in Washington DC but I got home just a few hours before Easter and had a wonderful time with the family. The culinary week was as good as any I’d had in a while but I am glad to be back to baseline. It’s off again this week on another adventure.

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