Sunday, July 5, 2015

Craig LaBan

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I joined the Inquirer as its restaurant critic in 1998, after a stint covering the food beat for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. Having eaten about 500 restaurant meals a year here ever since, I never cease to be amazed by the diversity and sophistication of Philadelphia's kitchens. To travel from its many authentic ethnic neighborhoods to the gastronomic temples of Walnut Street to its beery gastropubs, cozy BYOBs and multitude of greasy-but-great steak joints, is to know this town delivers satisfaction at every level of the food chain. Including online dish.

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Book: The Philadelphia Inquirer Restaurant Guide is available through our online store.

4 Bells: According to Craig, the best restaurants in the Philadelphia area.

Few diners - and for that matter, few critics - really know what goes on in the kitchen. And whether it's fair or not, both the glory and blame for dinner ultimately go to the chef. Fine dining is a performance business where the cooks must bring it every night with pans a-blazin' - not a side of excuses. And the reviews will fall where they may, inevitably coloring our impressions of the talents behind the stoves.
A rising column of smoke caught the corner of my eye just as I was zooming past. And then, as the low-slung white building of Henri's Hotts receded in my vision on the Black Horse Pike, the aroma hit me like a barbecue ghost — an intoxicating whiff of slow-roasting meat. My synapses fired, the steering wheel turned, and my car veered with appropriately screeching tires onto the Route 54 off-ramp to reverse our course from west to east. My kids howled in protest, and my wife went ominously silent at the sudden detour, eager as we all were to finally return to Philly from our time away at the Jersey Shore. But some things in life are worth straying off-course and off-schedule for. Some things merit making room for an early snack. And great barbecue — which has frustratingly proven to be one of the rarest finds in this part of the country — tops the list. Within a few moments, literally the second our teeth sank into the pink "halo" that kissed the meat of those baby back ribs with smoke, they would understand this, too.

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