One of the cardinal sins of living in a city like Philadelphia is routine. We find ourselves studying at the same cafes, shopping at the same markets, ending too many of our nights at the same bars [insert Cav’s owned institution here]. And, yes, the same is true for where we find our meals — eating at the same restaurants in Center City, Rittenhouse and Old City sometimes simply because there’s a comfort and convenience in the familiar. While this may ring just a bit too true for those who find themselves stagnating in this department, take comfort in the fact that the city’s food scene most certainly is not. The upcoming “Flavors on the Avenue” event at East Passyunk is the perfect nudge to experience some of these innovations.
Over the last decade, new establishments have been revitalizing neighborhoods like Brewerytown and Fishtown, singing a siren song that has goaded riders into staying on the Market Frankford Line a few stops longer than they may have in the past. Executive Director Adam Leiter and the Passyunk Business Improvement District are now making a compelling argument that perhaps transferring at City Hall and heading south may be the best route to a memorable culinary experience.
“Flavors on the Avenue” is an outdoor event, taking place April 28, featuring many of the staples that we have come to expect from the Philadelphia street festival: local musicians, vendors and artists showcasing their talents in booths along the stretch of Passyunk Avenue that cuts east through established South Philadelphia neighborhoods. What makes this event unique, however, is that its organizers are intent on showing that this main circulatory and cultural vein is pulsing with exciting eating opportunities that all too often get overlooked. With most offerings priced from $3 to $6, sampling a number of these establishments is not only possible, it’s encouraged.
Admittedly, my expectations of this neighborhood’s food offerings were biased from my Italian upbringing. I was raised as much on my Mommom’s homemade pasta and gravy as I was on her stories about living above her father’s barbershop and visiting the Italian market on Christian Street. And when I hopped off the Snyder stop, turned onto Passyunk and was greeted with the sight of Brian Senft’s lavish “Celebrating Abruzzo” mural, my cravings for authentic Italian fare were only bolstered. I was not disappointed at Tre Scalini, the first stop of my tour of eats featured in the upcoming festival. Much like the title of Senft’s iconic work, the restaurant is focused on executing honest renditions of the region’s cuisine. Small plates of simple penne in a tomato basil sauce and a well-flavored bite of tripe (a food item better left unexplained and for non-squeamish eaters only) certainly will please those looking to satisfy their cravings for nostalgia.
But don’t be misled — the East Passyunk corridor is not limited to the Abruzzo region, Italy as a whole or even the continent in which it resides. Familiar American staples can be found here. For example, a delicious slider from Redcrest Fried Chicken uses a toasted potato roll, chipotle mayo and pickled onions to elevate an already-stellar bite of breaded chicken breast to levels that rival its more-renowned Federal donuts counterpart (vegetarians have no fear — a chickpea creation is also promised for the festival).
From down the block, Noir’s crispy-on-the-outside-gooey-on-the-inside fried rice balls were as warm as the bar’s aesthetic. Both were worth returning for. Walking into another outpost of the health food chain Fuel should not be prioritized, but the combination of its standard smoothie options and playlist (Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone” greeted us as we sampled) could at least work to revive a weekend morning festival-goer.
While these safe options are comforting for many, a proper street festival would not be complete without some opportunities for exploring uncharted territory (culinary and otherwise), and this is where “Flavors on the Avenue” really shines. Fond, a quaint “new American” establishment, pared down its typical restaurant weekend offerings for the festival. Wild boar pate cubes dipped in seasonal mustard are delectable previews of what can sometimes be found on the menu in a banh mi (I’ll be on the lookout), and a bite of chicken liver mousse with pickled red onions on sourdough toast was a smooth and rich complement to a South African red wine.
Down the block, Chhaya offered the highlight of the trip: a creation that packaged chicken, waffles bits, fresh watermelon, lime crema and Nashville hot sauce into a single bite. Served in a delightful waffle cone vessel, this ingenious creation was everything summer festival street food should be, while doubling as an emphatic announcement that this already excellent coffee shop will be so much more when it rolls out its Nashville-inspired menu starting in September.
While foodies claim that flavors alone can transport one to a different time and place, this transcendent quality was felt most while dining at the Palace of Indian. An unassuming traditional Indian restaurant when viewed from the street, the fantastical space tucked behind it was anything but. Designed by Isaiah Zagar (perhaps most famous for his Magic Gardens creation on South Street), the “Mona Lisa” courtyard was emblematic of the neighborhood as a whole: there is much, much more to East Passyunk than what meets the eye. Missing the festival on April 28 may just mean you’d be missing finding your new favorite spot in the city.