American Sardine Bar
The hip and quirky all-sandwich spot suggests gentrification is blowin’ in the wind in Point Breeze.
A rain is coming soon to Point Breeze, but not before a burst of sunshine hits the giant rusty sardine can dangling above the corner bar at 18th and Federal. It is a curious sign, like some cast-off urban relic of yesteryear munchies (because really, who eats canned sardines anymore?) that got super-sized in the time machine by artist Leo Razzi and strung above this tavern’s threshold like some universal code: Hipster Place Here.
As if on cue, a dude with a surfboard strapped to his roof pulls up to the American Sardine Bar. Cans of Porkslap pale ale snap open beside me. Jane’s Addiction alt-rocks over the stereo. A gorgeous patty melt filled with celebrity-butcher ground beef arrives, a golden mountain of onion rings glowing holy at its side. And, lo and behold, as we sit at the long bar, snug between the wide-open corner windows, an actual breeze from Point Breeze comes whistling through American Sardine Bar with an optimistic kiss of spring.
Neighborhood rebirth and gastropub-generated gentrification. That is the script that bar owner/developer John Longacre and his chef, Scott Schroeder, hope to reenact here, after taking over the former Wander Inn. They’ve succeeded resoundingly several blocks south on Mifflin Street at the South Philadelphia Tap Room, which anchors a pocket of streets they’ve dubbed “Newbold,” to some neighborhood controversy, but nonetheless transformed into a hub for craft beer and late-night wild boar tacos, high-end coffee (at nearby Ultimo) and assorted ethnic delights, not far away at Circles. The more northern reaches of Point Breeze proved to be a tougher challenge — the politics of gentrification is a touchy affair — causing a delay of nearly a year. But as the sound of construction fills the air around Washington Avenue, and fresh $250,000-plus rowhouses sprout like bright stalks of fresh asparagus where blight once stood, it’s hard not to believe that Longacre has once again planted himself and a bar at the nexus of the next hot ’hood. His team has spruced up the derelict old Wander Inn just enough while preserving the good bones of its checkerboard terrazzo floor, and opening those big windows wide. (The tired bar top — both sticky and gritty — could still use some love.)
It will take some pioneering spirits to fill these 90 seats, but Schroeder believes Philly’s adventure youth quotient is high enough: “I have no idea why hipsters like going into bad neighborhoods and obscure locations, but I’m glad they come,” he says. “I know I feel safe here. Plus, I’m more of a danger to myself.”
Anyone who’s followed Schroeder’s gonzo alter-ego spewing irreverent banter on Twitter (@foodsyoucaneat) knows he speaks the truth. But American Sardine Bar is reassurance that the ¡Pasión! and Brasserie Perrier alum still has kitchen skills, obvious even within the limits of an all-sandwich menu.
And that begins with the sardine sandwich, a tiny beer-inducing whimsy no doubt instigated by the bar’s name, but still seriously good to eat, with a silvery fillet of good plump Spanish fish laid between two baguette rounds with spicy mustard mayo, the crunch of shaved lettuce and red onion, and a hard-boiled egg. (Hey, sardines are back!)
Sloppy indulgence, though, is the true signature of Schroeder’s culinary oeuvre. And he delivers, with beer-braised pork butt piled over rolls flowing with house-blended Boursin goat cheese; and the apple-smoked chicken sandwich topped with spicy pickles and doused in barbecue sauce tanged with chipotle and coffee. The “Pittsburgh” option — a fistful of fries and creamy coleslaw — is available to dishevel any sandwich.
More important, he serves up one of the most compelling burger variations I’ve had in a while, a retro patty melt with butter-crisped marbled rye, house-made Thousand Island, grilled onions, Swiss, and a wonderfully savory patty from the Food Network’s “it” butcher, Pat LaFrieda, which gets deglazed with a “zip sauce” of Maggi beurre blanc. Add a side of those glorious Yuengling-battered onions, whose sweet ribbons cling to the Saturnian rings of perfect crust, and that’s pretty much enough to count me as a regular.
A house-made falafel sandwich is the menu’s only true dud, with musty spicing and flatbread grilled too crisp. But there are numerous other flavors to easily divert my attention. The influence of the Mexican kitchen staff, used to advantage in South Philadelphia Tap Room’s head-cheese tacos, makes itself known here, too, with a special potato soup sparked by fried salsa roja. It is most memorable with the epically huge shrimp torta, a tower of delicately poached shrimp with lettuce, crumbled queso and chipotle mayo on a toasty roll, one side smeared with guacamole, the other with refried beans.
Unlike at many gastropubs, there are fresh vegetable offerings on the changing blackboard menu, either broccoli or asparagus vividly charred on the grill and splashed with teriyaki, red pepper romesco, or sweet ricotta cheese. There was a refreshingchilled beet borscht, as well as a hearty garbanzo stew enlivened by an unlikely potpourri of fresh herbs — rosemary, sage, dill, and lavender — grown in the bar’s rear garden plot. A kitchen garden in Point Breeze? Now we’re cooking.
That soup appeared during Schroeder’s one-week vegan phase. His seitan cheesesteak is the backlash dish, a two-fisted roll of zesty wheat gluten and peppers slathered in so much garlic mayo and molten American cheese that our server delivered it with a reassuring proviso: “This is not a healthy sandwich. It just happens to be vegetarian.”
Like her colleagues, she was personable and informed, especially about the beer list. It’s not as extensive as some beer-geek haunts (and the special house “Point Breeze Summer Lager Ale” is forgettable). But there are plenty of great craft choices, from Weyerbacher to Founders, plus a list of trendy canned selections that included a pleasant surprise wheat from Belgium, a Blanche de Bruxelles that tasted like banana creamsicle and oranges.
If that sounds vaguely like dessert, I must have been craving something sweet —because the Sardine Bar offers no dessert. Then again, there’s always the fried pb&j, dunked in French toast batter and crushed Frosted Flakes. Crisped to a deep brown with a molten peanut butter-jelly core, this elaborated stoner snack is as close to a trademark move as Schroeder gets — and was deeply satisfying as the rainstorm finally broke and soaked the streets outside. It worked for a while to help jump-start Deuce in now-popping Northern Liberties. It worked again at SPTR in the now-thriving so-called Newbold.
Northern Point Breeze and its sardine-can beacon should be lucky enough to follow suit.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682, or firstname.lastname@example.org.