Welcome to the third wave of Philadelphia dining, an era in which locals are more likely to chat you up about their favorite chorizo tacos, wild-yeasted ales, or tasting menu than anything cheesesteak. Yes, the famous sandwich is still around (eat one if you must) but is slowly losing traction to its distant cousin, the roast pork. This is the Philly sandwich to try, be it a traditional rendition at John’s or DiNic’s in Reading Terminal Market or a new-school take, like the one topped with lacto-fermented broccoli rabe at High Street on Market.
Speaking of Old City’s High Street, its chef/partner, Eli Kulp, represents a group of Philadelphia chefs that has had a massive impact on the dining scene in the last few years: the ex–New Yorkers. Like Kulp, Peter Serpico of Serpico, Eli Collins of Pub and Kitchen, Greg Vernick of Vernick Food & Drink and other talented former 212-ers have shifted their careers here from some of NYC’s finest kitchens and restaurant groups. Even in East Passyunk and Fishtown, white-hot neighborhoods that are dethroning Center City as Philly’s dining nucleus, inflated rents are bargains compared to those in the Big Apple.
The recent influx of out-of-town chefs complements Philly’s homegrown talent. This has always been a scene that has fostered and supported its own, and the last several years have seen young chefs rising through the kitchens of Stephen Starr, Marc Vetri, and Georges Perrier and going on to debut compelling, idiosyncratic, solo projects. Like Pierre Calmels, who left the storied (now closed) Le Bec-Fin to open tiny Bibou in Bella Vista, and his LBF successor, Nicholas Elmi, who won Top Chef after opening Laurel on East Passyunk. (To give you an idea of the depth of talent in the 215, Elmi is the second Philly chef to win Top Chef.) And then there’s Michael Solomonov, a former Vetri capo who went on to found Zahav, the restaurant that ignited America’s passion for Israeli cuisine, and win a James Beard Award. Solo (as he’s affectionately known here) is in conscientious empire-building mode with longtime business partner, Steve Cook, and mentoring a new generation of young chefs. You can still catch him working the bread station at Zahav most nights, between annual research trips to Israel and surfing breaks at the Jersey Shore.
The Israeli, Iraqi, Turkish, and Yemenite recipes on the menu at Zahav are just a handful of the cuisines represented in this multiethnic town. Philadelphia has a long history as a city of immigrants, from Western Europeans in the early 20th century to the Vietnamese, Mexicans, and Africans of today. Chinatown reigns as the city’s hub of hand-pulled noodles, breakneck dim sum, and siphon coffee before it was cool, while Middle Eastern, Ethiopian, and Senegalese hideaways occupy tree-lined storefronts and old banks in West Philly. Vietnamese pho halls and bakeries congregate along Washington Avenue in South Philly, also home to the city’s vibrant Mexican population. In the Italian Market, many of the old businesses have given way to industrious taquerias. You can follow the trail of fresh-pressed tortilla crumbs from Bella Vista down into East Passyunk, a hood where it’s not uncommon to hear Spanish, Vietnamese, and five different dialects of Italian just walking down the street.