Craig LaBan picks his 47 restaurant, food, and drink faves from Fishtown and Kensington

One in a series spotlighting the city's great food neighborhoods.

When you go out for a meal in Fishtown or Kensington, chances are good you'll be eating or drinking something that was made just blocks away. More than any of Philadelphia's other great dining districts, these resurgent neighborhoods rising north from around Frankford and Girard Avenues have channeled the city's old industrial DNA to become an epicenter of artisan-crafted foods.

From chewy hand-rolled bagels boiled in local IPA and charcuterie made at the whole-animal butcher shop, to the crusty breads, the deftly roasted single-origin coffees, the funky-flavored ice creams, the urban farm-grown produce, not to mention the beers and booze being poured at its many gastropubs, the hyper-local pedigree of ingredients here is proof that neighboring Fishtown and Kensington are becoming makers of their own culinary destinies.

Craft spirits, in particular, have become a force in short order, as the opening of five distilleries within just the last year and a half - and a sixth big one opening soon - has created a veritable Distiller's Row. And there's a growing population of thirsty millennials to lap it all up.

The price-consciousness of that youthful demographic has informed the casual style and affordability of the most popular destinations, many of them bars and cafes, but also a strong roster of Mexican and Southeast Asian restaurants ranging from traditional to creative hipster fusions.

But if all the active construction sites are any indication, a growing roster of more ambitious restaurants is about to bloom with soon-to-open wine bars and several notable chefs about to plant their flags. Fishtown and Kensington, no doubt, will grow a fine dining scene their own way.

In the meanwhile, there's already so much to love. So put on your knit cap, hop on the Market-Frankford El, and dive into this curated list of tasty highlights.

Photos by David Maialetti / Staff Photographer

 

Gastropubs
Finer Dining
Distilleries & Brewing
Pizza & Bagels
Coffee
Vietnamese & Indian
Mexican
Sandwiches
Takeout Food & Beer

 

 

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Gastropubs

Johnny Brenda's
1201 N. Frankford Ave., johnnybrendas.com

Just as Paul Kimport and William Reed launched Northern Liberties with Standard Tap, their revamp of this former boxer's bar at Frankford and Girard was the spark for Fishtown's revival. With stellar local beers, a music club that's a prime showcase for indie rock, and casual but handcrafted sandwiches and seasonal plates, it's remained a vital and genuine community hub. Chef Adam Diltz's more ambitious moves, from stuffed squash blossom to chicken roulade, are worthwhile.

Martha
2113 E. York St., marthakensington.com

Few places better illustrate the fast-evolving state of Kensington than Martha, a onetime auto chop shop turned moody bar where a fireplace, vinyl record collection, lacto-fermented pickles, banh mi, and backyard bocce have become a magnet for the scruffy cool kid crowd. But more than anything, Martha has become a prime stage for all things local, from beers to local wines (Va La) and nearly 60 local spirits, including some made literally a block away. The small but tasty nibble menu is no exception. Try the "sammy" with Kensington Quarters ham and bacon-braised cabbage.

Lloyd Whiskey Bar
529 E. Girard Ave., lloydwhiskeybar.com

This funky neighborhood bar at Fishtown's eastern edge has evolved into one of the best cocktail havens in town, with one of the most fairly priced whiskey lists. The kitchen, likewise, has become increasingly ambitious, with house-charcuterie and creative uses of fatty favorites (fried duck skins, pork belly sliders) to complement the booze, plus whimsical brunches themed to the bar's eclectic music playlist.

Kraftwork
541 E. Girard Ave., kraftworkbar.com

Few of Fishtown's pubs are as handsome as this corner bar fitted with hop-leaf-carved saw blades, tiger-maple tables, and a tool motif ode to industrial days past. Along with one of the area's best draft-beer lists, there's a seasonally minded menu from chef Brian Lofink, who, aside from an excellent burger and beer-can chicken salad, also turns out notable salads (with chorizo) and a high-low eats master snack of cheesesteak spring rolls with decadently creamy foie gras sauce.

Memphis Taproom
2331 E. Cumberland St., memphistaproom.com

This handsome corner bar was the first gastropub flag planted in lower Kensington, and it remains a go-to for rare brews (Kosmic Mother Funk), a warm-weather beer garden, and a menu that bops between creative fried things (chicken fried cauliflower? yes!) and vegan creativity, including lentil "meatballs" and a surprising smoked coconut-tofu club sandwich that's an object of Philly vegan lust.

Fette Sau
1208 Frankford Ave., fettesauphilly.com

This partnership between Brooklyn's Joe Carroll and Stephen Starr pairs one of Philly's great American whiskey collections with its best barbecue. I especially love the slow-smoked brisket, short rib and pork belly, a coffee-rubbed array of sliced-by-the-pound meats eaten at communal tables in a space that feels like a rambling southern shack.

Frankford Hall
1210 Frankford Ave., frankfordhall.com

This big beer garden courtyard stylishly carved from the ruins of a vacant lot was the Stephen Starr creation that opened Fishtown's gates to the ping-pong-slapping bro masses. But locals rarely go. Given the uninspired German fare, big crowds, and so-so beer service, I see why.

Fishtown Tavern
1301 Frankford Ave.; on Facebook

This low-key spot feels like it stopped halfway between its transformation from old-man bar to hipster haunt. But the lobster grilled cheese, meatball sandwich, friendly bartenders, and good beer tell me this is a sleeper gem.

 

 

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Finer Dining

Helm
1305 N. Fifth St., helmphilly.com

Dust off your best bottles and head to . . . Kensington? Yes. Philly's "it" BYOB has illuminated the fringe of this emerging neighborhood as talented young co-owners Kevin D'Egidio and Mike Griffiths made the most of their debut, and were named co-chefs of the year for 2015. They've transformed a simple (noisy) 34-seat space into a blackboard-menu showcase for ultra-seasonal cooking driven by North Philly's urban farms, from house burrata to lamb with tiny local turnips and Brussels sprouts tortellini.

Kensington Quarters
1310 Frankford Ave., kensingtonquarters.com

Fishtown puts its best hooves forward with a unique hybrid concept pairing a whole-animal sustainable-meat butcher shop with a restaurant kitchen, meat-cutting classroom, and bar in a stylishly converted industrial space. The upscale menu from chef Damon Menapace bolsters grass-fed meats and charcuterie with a spontaneous locavore approach. Recent meals have shown some more moderately priced overtures that should have stronger appeal to the neighborhood, including one of Philly's best burgers and a stellar fried chicken Tuesday deal.

Modo Mio
161 W. Girard Ave., modomiorestaurants.com

Peter McAndrews' raucous Italian BYO is known for tasting-menu values. But the $37-per-person weekly event known as Sugo Sunday is one of my favorites, a homespun abbondanza of Italian American classics that hardly spares a crowd-favorite dish, from antipasto platters and crusty house-made bread to the platters of huge meatballs and sausage stewed in red gravy, ricotta-laced lasagna, gnocchi, and piles of garlicky chicken beneath juice-soaked roasted pork.

The Pickled Heron
2218 Frankford Ave., thepickledheron.com

The classically inspired French cooking at this polished townhouse BYOB from chefs Daniela D'Ambrosio and Todd Braley has always seemed a bit expensive and old-school for Frankford Avenue's bargain-minded crowd. A recent meal of crepinette and snails, house charcuterie (available as a CSA), and duck egg crème brûlée was solid, if not spectacular, but the deserted room and listless service made me wonder how it survives.

 

 

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Distilleries and Breweries

Philadelphia Brewing Co.
2440 Frankford Ave., philadelphiabrewing.com

When Yards arrived in 2001 to revive the historic Weisbrod & Hess Oriental Brewery Building, it was a key to the neighborhood's revival. It continues to thrive as the Philadelphia Brewing Co., which produces Walt Wit, Kenzinger, and Rowhouse Red, and is also a fun destination for Saturday tours.

Saint Benjamin Brewing Co.
1710 N. Fifth St.; stbenjaminbrewing.com

Part of the Philly’s rising new guard of brewers, Saint Benjamin presents beers that have slowly become a fixture on local taps, with intriguing takes on kölsch (tinted with coffee), stout (with peat smoke) and saison (infused with lavender). Plans to open a spacious tap room with communal tables and a full kitchen this year should make the brewery a destination, too.

Rowhouse Spirits
2430 Frankford Ave., rowhousespirits.us

Dean Browne's micro-distillery in a former garage focuses on quirky, unique creations like Bear Trap (herbal liqueur), Poitín, and the coffee-spiced Le Coeur Noir.

New Liberty Distiller
1431 N. Cadwallader St., millstonespirits.com

A beautifully restored stable building is now home to distiller Rob Cassell (creator of Bluecoat gin), who's revived the Kinsey blended whiskey label and begun crafting his own aged spirits (like the forthcoming Dutch) from Pennsylvania-sourced grain.

La Colombe Fishtown
1335 Frankford Ave., lacolombe.com

What else would Philly's coffee giant produce at its massive Fishtown cafe-bakery? High-tech coffee-infused rum, of course. And it's good.

Federal Distilling
1700 N. Hancock St. (at Cecil B. Moore Ave.), statesidevodka.com

Visit the industrial-chic tasting room for a taste of Stateside Urbancraft Vodka, a corn spirit passed through Federal's still and enriched with minerals to be "as close to water as possible."

Red Brick Craft Distiller
2628 Martha St., redbrickcraftdistillery.com

One of the newest distilleries is really just two guys in the ground-floor storage room of a former Kensington widget factory open for weekend tasting hours. But the still-unreleased spirits aging here - a single-malt whiskey and a birch-infused mead liquor (From the Woods) - are impressive.

Philadelphia Distilling
33 E. Allen St.; philadelphiadistilling.com

The state's craft spirit pioneer is moving from the Northeast to the former Ajax Metalworks Co. in a big way, tripling production size for Bluecoat Gin, Vieux Carré, and other spirits, with regular tours and a 66-seat restaurant slated to open by late spring in the Fillmore complex.

 

 

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Pizza and Bagels

Pizzeria Beddia
115 E. Girard Ave., pizzeriabeddia.wordpress.com

"Best pizza in America" may well be a mythical prize, but Joe Beddia (who won that kudo last year from Bon Appétit magazine) deserves the highest praise for his iconoclastic shrine to American-style pizza craft, where he makes every pie himself four nights a week and fans endure early lines to reserve one of the 40 daily doughs. There's no phone, and no seats. But after recently snagging one night's last order - the "10:30 pie" - the crispy crust had such a profoundly roasty, slow-fermented savor, I ate it from the outside in, and could still taste it hours after it was gone.

Philly Style Bagels
1451 E. Columbia Ave., on Facebook 

Bagel lovers of Philly have rejoiced since this longtime pop-up finally landed a brick-and-mortar store on Palmer Park. The hand-rolled bagels, which ferment for 38 hours before a boil in Yards IPA, bake to a tawny, chewy crisp that is hands-down my vote for top bagel in town.

 

 

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Coffee

La Colombe Fishtown
1335 Frankford Ave., www.lacolombe.com

La Colombe's stunning Fishtown flagship cafe is more than a high-style coffee hall. Set in the soaring brick bones of an old warehouse, it's a bold experiment in the possibilities for coffee-driven hybrid concepts - in this case, a bakery and rum distillery - and a vibrant magnet for the neighborhood. The company's embrace of lighter, single-origin roasts and Singleton pour-overs is on full-display. But sandwiches made on the city's best baguette - try the stellar ham sandwich or "French drip" - are also worth the visit.

ReAnimator Coffee
Roastery-cafe: 310 Master St.
Fishtown location: 1523 E. Susquehanna Ave.
reanimatorcoffee.com

A tall-ceilinged former elevator factory (and onetime urban pot farm) has been transformed into an airy roastery for one of Philly's rising coffee stars. ReAnimator now roasts five days a week in view of the cafe seats, with top-notch Ethiopian beans (floral, fruity), citrusy, tealike Guatamalans, and other single-origin coffees roasted to a lighter, tarter West Coast-style hue. Soon to come in the other half of the cafe space: an as-yet-unnamed bakery.

Franny Lou's Porch
2400 Coral St., frannylousporch.org

Coffee comes with a side of peace-loving social activism at Blew Kind's community-forward corner cafe, where direct trade beans from Green Street and Square One are brewed into lattes named after revolutionaries to suit the bohemian vibe. Panini-grilled sandwiches like the "Anti-racist," "Anti-frack," and "Pro-Community" feature fresh local produce and local breads. Don't miss the molasses-ginger cookies.

 

 

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Vietnamese and Indian

Stock
308 E. Girard Ave., stock-philly.squarespace.com

Chef Tyler Akin and Nicole Reigle's sleek soup counter has continued to evolve in a good way since expanding beyond its early focus on earnest, MSG-free pho. A broader sweep of fresh Southeast Asian flavors, from electric Lao khao poon to Burmese noodles and addictive Cambodian prahok katee pork dip, papaya salads, and banh mi, make it a neighborhood essential.

Thang Long
2536 Kensington Ave., thanglongphilly.com

My favorite pho in Philly requires a trip to this lesser-known Vietnamese enclave on Kensington Avenue, where the Tran family owns a live-bird butcher shop right next to their pleasantly appointed restaurant in the shadow of the Frankford-Market El. The fresh chicken pho gà in lemongrass broth is excellent. But it's the beef pho that really hits a sweet spot, with its genuine homespun touch, enriched with marrow bones and a tingle of slow-charred ginger and ginseng. Also, don't miss the Hanoi-style pork.

Cafe Pho Ga Thanh Thanh
2539 Kensington Ave., on Facebook

Chuong Le and his chef-wife, Woa Nguyen, were among the pioneers on this East Kensington strip. Though the menu is limited, their single-minded mastery of chicken pho gà earns them a "must-visit" designation. Made from freshly killed birds, the flavor is layered with ginger, herbs, and spice. Regulars get half-chickens and strip them clean, but first-timers should start with a fully composed bowl with noodles and chicken. A tiny dip of salt, pepper, lime, habanero slivers, and lemon leaves elevates a slice of chicken to something magical.

Street Side Cafe
165 W. Girard Ave., streetsideshop.com

This quirky new cafe, which appears to have been lightly transformed from someone's living room, turns out tasty Vietnamese classics with a handmade touch, including "G'ma's" pork-chive dumplings, crispy garlic shrimp net rolls, banh mi, and "seriously no MSG" natural-tasting beef pho.

Ekta
250 E. Girard Ave., ektaindianrestaurant.com

This standby remains one of Philly's better bets for Indian delivery that retains an authentically spiced edge. The rich Southern-style lamb Chettinad and surprisingly plump Goan shrimp are among the hits.

Tandoor India
1832 N. Front St., tandoorfishtown.com

A good alternative to Ekta farther north in the neighborhood, with a spacious dining room and surprising beer garden near the Berks El stop, this new branch of the West Philly restaurant is especially strong with fresh cooked-to-order tandoori meats.

 

 

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Mexican

Que Chula es Puebla
1356 N. Second St., chulaespuebla.com

My favorite taqueria north of Girard Avenue makes soulful mole, outstanding guacamole and frijoles, actually great nachos, crispy tostadas piled high with chicken tinga, and a cheese-stuffed chile relleno I crave. My favorite dish? What may well be the world's best flan.

Taco Riendo
1301 N. Fifth St., 215-235-2294

The flavors at this North Fifth Street standby are not quite as complex as at Que Chula es Puebla, but I depend on Riendo for a reliable pozole fix, and for simply satisfying taco specials like the Aztec layered with cactus, cheese, and carne asada.

Heffe tacos
1431 Frankford Ave., 215-423-2309

Peter McAndrews means business with his slogan, "Tacos that don't suck!" for this creative revamp of the taco takeout corner concept. The usual combos get amped with McAndrews' cheffy twists - beef cheek and plum mostarda, fried octopus with chimichurri, and a zesty "Almost Pastor" worthy of the pork master of Paesano's.

Loco Pez
2401 E. Norris St., locopez.com

The hipster gastropub meets L.A.-taco truck flavors at this lively local favorite, where classic authenticity (like the soulful caldo de res stew), takes a backseat to fun gringo takes on nachos ("K&A-style" with waffle fries), seitan tacos, crispy-shelled "Gabacho tacos," good margaritas, and an especially good burger.

 

 

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Sandwiches

Sketch
413 E. Girard Ave., sketch-burger.com

One of my all-time Fishtown favorites is like a malt shop throwback with a funky revamp, where the walls are covered with artsy customer doodles and chef-owner Phyllis Farquhar gives everything a homemade touch, from her classic smashed onion burger to the outstanding chili, fresh-cut fries, rich shakes, and a surprising trove of buttery, house-baked cookies.

Dan's Fresh Meats
2000 Frankford Ave. 215-423-2813

Daniel J. Tocci Jr. has worked his family's classic meat shop and deli since 1949 and still builds a hoagie the right way – slicing Italian meats and cheeses directly onto the roll, with a fresh olive oil drizzle to finish. Simple and fresh, it satisfies in the most elemental Philly way.

Joe's Steaks
1 W. Girard Ave., joessteaks.com

The retro soda shop look is new, but this Joe's is a branch of one of Philly's best and oldest steak shops, the former Chink's, which still operates under the new name in Torresdale. Expect the same high-quality ribeye sliced in house on an old-school soft roll. Small size is best. The burgers are great, too.

Soup Kitchen
2146 E. Susquehanna Ave., soupkitchencafe.com

This charming cafe specializes in soups (obviously, like the delicious chicken-lemon-rice and tangy tomato), but also zesty shakshuka poached egg and tomato stew for brunch and updated comfort sandwiches, like the meat loaf baguette with bacon, cheddar, and thyme mayo that add up to a perfect casual lunch date.

Johnny's Hots
1234 N. Delaware Ave., 215-423-2280

This Delaware Avenue sandwich takeout window is a blue-collar favorite for great cheesesteaks and hot sausage sandwiches, but especially for the surf-and-turf hot dog combo, which comes with a fish cake and tangy pepper hash, an odd Philly sandwich relic that's still a worthy splurge here.

 

 

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Produce, Take-out Food, Sweets, Beer

Greensgrow Farms
2501 E. Cumberland St., greensgrow.org

This urban farming pioneer, which converted a litter-strewn Kensington lot into a lettuce farm in 1997, has evolved into a dynamic hub of city-grown produce and beehives, with a farm market, nursery, and CSA that has surpassed $1 million in annual sales.

Good Spoon Soupery
1400 N. Front St., goodspoonfoods.com

This regular soup stand presence at local farm markets has its commissary (and charming eat-in cafe) below the El. Don't miss the turkey white bean chili and Senagelese chicken peanut stew.

Andy's Chicken
2001 Memphis St., 215-291-0700

This takeout corner makes some of Philly's best KFC (Korean fried chicken, that is), in part because the sauces are house-made (try the honey garlic and sweet chili flavors) and the birds are fried to order. Only catch: "to order" requires planning ahead. Also, try the kimchi fried rice.

Liberty Choice Market
1939-47 N. Front St., libertychoicephiladelphia.wordpress.com

What appears to be a generic market actually has one of Philly's better Middle Eastern kitchens in back, serving West Bank-style falafel sandwiches stuffed with fritters and fresh salads, exotically spiced chicken kebabs, addictive pita chips, and hummus. A pleasant corner picnic table garden beneath the El is a plus.

Little Baby's Ice Cream
2311 Frankford Ave., littlebabysicecream.com

One of the most creative members of Philly's new wave of ice cream artisans has its "World HQ" at the back of a storefront space shared with Pizza Brain. The Earl Grey-Sriracha and pizza-flavored ice creams aren't for everyone. But the butterscotch Scotch, Goldenberg's Peanut Chews chocolate molasses, and speculoos scoops merit the stop.

Bottle Bar East
1308 Frankford Ave., bottlebareast.com

Every cool neighborhood needs a good bottle shop. This one has 700 takeout beers in the fridge, plus the bonus of a full-service pub in back, where the $11 pint-and-a-sandwich lunch deal is good for day drinking. The andouille sliders and stuffed grilled cheeses are better than you'd expect.

Whipped Bakeshop
636 Belgrade St., whippedbakeshop.com

Set into the ground floor of a sleek modern townhouse, this ambitious cake studio turns out elaborate custom work on cakes, cookies, and cupcakes.

Ramona Susan's Bake Shop
1255 Marlborough St., ramonasusansbakeshop.com

This still relatively new corner sweet bakery launched by two friends (and former Flying Monkey colleagues) has limited hours but deliciously homey cupcakes, cookies, and buttercake.  

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Video soundtrack features "Pretty Pimpin" by Kurt Vile from the album b'lieve i'm goin down

Photos by David Maialetti, Staff Photographer