What to Know Before You Go: Credit cards accepted, reservations suggested, outside seating available.
Buy a Bottle At: 1935 Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia.
Before my most recent visit, I hadn’t been to Las Cazuelas in several years. The last time I was there, however, I left very impressed: Here was a Mexican restaurant that took its cooking seriously, and the combination of flavors and the execution of the dishes were both excellent. Indeed, I remembered it as a restaurant worthy of the drive to the wilds of Northern Liberties. But something seems to have happened in the intervening years, and my experience this time, while certainly not bad, was not nearly as impressive as it had been. The space itself is adorable, and the live music was nice and unobtrusive. But the food was, sadly, a bit inconsistent. The antojito ranchero, which consisted of an assortment of appetizers, was lovely. Standouts included the sopes and the tacos dorados. But the entrees were less than stellar. The tres huastecos, or three beef medallions, were fairly bland, and the trio of sauces accompanying them-chipotle, pasilla, and tomatillo-were thin and devoid of much flavor. Mole poblano was better, and the sauce possessed a depth of flavor that was missing in the other dishes. There’s certainly nothing wrong with Las Cazuelas, but that’s no reason to run back.
426 W. Girard Ave., Philadelphia, 215.351.9144.
What to Know Before You Go: Credit cards accepted.
Buy a Bottle At: 1913 Chestnut St., Philadelphia.
Porcini is the quintessential Philadelphia Italian BYOB: The space is intimate, the service is friendly, and the food is tasty. These may seem like pedestrian attributes, but there’s something comforting about a solid Italian meal once in a while, and the one I had at Porcini was just that. The assortment of four bruschetta was excellent. It included the standard tomato and basil as well as more offbeat creations like Tuscan bean, roasted eggplant and pesto. The flavors were delicious, and the seasoning was pitch-perfect. The caesar salad was an excellent version of the standard: creamy, garlicky, and crisp. And the bucatini fra diavolo-essentially spaghetti with the center hollowed out lengthwise-was pleasantly spicy but not overpowering. The accompanying shrimp were cooked exactly as they should have been, which was quite an accomplishment considering all the overcooked seafood I’ve had lately. The only downside is the parking situation-finding a spot in this neighborhood can be difficult, though there are generally one or two open ones over on Market Street. Or simply take a cab-the experience you’ll have at Porcini will be worth the money you spend getting there.
2048 Sansom St., Philadelphia, 215.751.1175.
What to Know Before You Go: Cash and check only, outside seating available.
Buy a Bottle At: 724 South St., Philadelphia.
One of the most enduring images from the old sitcom “The Cosby Show” is Bill Cosby standing in the kitchen and constructing one of his famous oversized hoagies. The question, every time he made one of these sandwiches, was how full he could stuff the roll before it overflowed. Too bad he didn’t simply follow the model set forth by the PLT at Fitzwater CafÃ©. The prosciutto, lettuce and tomato sandwich, while plenty big, is not overstuffed at all. In fact, it perfectly balances meat, condiment, and bread, gets a jolt of flavor from the pesto that’s brushed onto it, and, at $8.50 for this much prosciutto, is a very good deal indeed. The escarole soup, too, is delicious. I ordered a cup of it and got a hefty, bowl-sized portion. I think if I had ordered a larger size, I could have bathed in it. Fitzwater CafÃ© is known as a breakfast and lunch spot, but it’s also open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday, when it serves top-quality Italian standards like black linguine with mixed seafood. Finish it off with a slice of homemade chocolate chip cheesecake, and get someone else to drive home: Food coma is not far behind.
728 S. 7th St., Philadelphia, 215.629.0428.
El Azteca II
What to Know Before You Go: Credit cards accepted, outside seating.
Buy a Bottle At: 1218 Chestnut St., Philadelphia.
Because of what I do for a living, I eat at six or seven restaurants every week. The vast majority of them are perfectly fine, and it’s not often that I come across one that truly stands out from the crowd. El Azteca II, however, does: The food is so terrifyingly bad, so comically inedible, that I actually found myself shaking my head in wonder with every bite I managed to choke down. I began with the bean dip, which was actually a crock of molten white cheese glop with a feces-colored swirl of bean puree floating within. (In literature, they call this foreshadowing.) The first few bites were actually edible, but after a few minutes, the contents of the crock began to congeal, and eventually it achieved the subtle texture of a racquetball. The beef burrito wasn’t much better, though I did have a Proust-style flashback when I took my first bite of it. Suddenly, I was eight years old, and I was in the “chuck wagon” at my summer camp enjoying their famous sloppy joe’s. Yes, this meat tasted exactly the same. In fact, I think it might have been from the same vintage (1985). Perhaps if I had been drunk, or born without taste buds, or possessed of an iron-lined colon, I might have enjoyed the meal a bit more. There was a bright side, though: It was the most memorable meal I’ve had in a very long time.
714 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, 215.733.0895.
Alison At Blue Bell
What to Know Before You Go: Cash and Check only, reservations recommended, outside seating available.
Buy a Bottle At: 631 Skippack Pike, Blue Bell.
What we all suspected back in the 1990′s, when chef Alison Barshak was the executive chef at Striped Bass, is borne out at her restaurant in Blue Bell to spectacular effect: Anything she touches in a kitchen will turn to culinary gold. Her food, from the conception to the execution, is impeccable. Ginger fried squid with wasabi drizzle and mango slaw will impair my ability to enjoy fried calamari for the foreseeable future. The squid itself was as tender as any I’ve had in a very long time, each piece was fried to crispy perfection, and the juxtaposition of the slightly spicy wasabi and the slightly sweet mango slaw was brilliant. Steamed clams with garlic, artichoke aioli and truffled fried grits was just as delicious. Barshak had somehow gotten her hands on what must have been the smallest, sweetest, most tender clams on the market, and while the character of them was readily apparent, the accompanying broth and aioli raised them to dizzying heights of depth and complexity without overpowering them. Sea scallops with homemade gnocchi, corn, prosciutto, leeks and foie gras sauce almost got me in trouble. My wife and I were in the middle of a conversation when I took my first bite, and from then on, I couldn’t concentrate on a word she said. How could anyone be expected to with a dish like this in front of them? It was a seafood revelation: the aroma of the foie gras sauce, the sweet little kernels of corn and the perfect texture of the scallops. The mango upside down cake with butterscotch-vanilla ice cream and the chocolate bread pudding with Bourbon-nut caramel sauce were, astoundingly, just as great as the rest of the food. Indeed, dining like this is usually reserved for grossly expensive, painfully overwrought temples of gastronomy. The fact that Alison at Blue Bell is both laid back and casually elegant makes it all the better.
721 Skippack Pike, Blue Bell, 215.641.2660; www.alisonatbluebell.com
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