Reader: I’m looking for something new and different in Chinatown. Any recent favorites?
Craig LaBan: I’m a huge Chinatown fan — in part because I’m lucky to work nearby, but mostly because it remains one of Philadelphia’s most dynamic food neighborhoods and seems to produce at least two or three new restaurants each month, quite often with a different regional specialty previously unseen in the neighborhood.
Long-simmering trends featuring Sichuan spice, Shanghai-style soup dumplings, and Lan Zhou-style hand-drawn noodles remain strong. But more recently, Taiwanese influences — especially in the aromatic popcorn-style fried chicken and beef noodle soup — have begun to appear in force, especially at places like Bubblefish (909 Arch St.), which also does a nice job with sushi and Japanese street foods like takoyaki and the sushi burger.
Hot pots remain a thing for fun communal dining, and I loved the aromatic broths and high-quality meats at the new branch of China’s popular Little Sheep chain (1017 Arch St.).
One of the newest arrivals to the neighborhood is the area’s first destination for Hakka-style cooking, at the Hakka Beef House (927 Race St.), where that tradition’s emphasis on soft textures is fully on display in a spectacular bowl of beef noodle soup. The noodles themselves are unique, thick as udon, but irregular and delicately chewy. But so are the amazingly tender morsels of braised beef and a bone broth that draws deep umami from an eight-hour boil and the unusual addition of a roasted onion paste thickened with sesame.
Just up the street, Ocean Harmony (937 Race St.) is serving authentic Cantonese seafood dishes in the former Rising Tide, with an intensely herbal soup of head-on shrimp served inside the hollow of a bamboo log and lobsters stir-fried Hong Kong-style with crumbled, soy-tinged pork.
The Chinatown Square food hall (1016 Race St.) is also worth a visit. The upstairs dining room of Dae Bak offers a calming second-floor view over the hubbub while you spoon through your sizzling stone bowl of bibimbap, soondubu stew, and jeyuk spicy pork. My favorite things to nosh on in the mall, however, are the Cambodian skewers at the Khmer Grill food stand, where lemongrass-marinated Cambodian sausages and other sundry meats (try the crunchy chicken gizzards!) are grilled to order over charcoal flames.
With all those savory flavors, try dessert. Chinatown is big on innovations, too. I assume you’ve heard of the Thai rolled ice cream craze (unless you’ve been living under a pint of Bassetts, for which I honestly couldn’t blame you.) Well, that is so last year. Now those rolls are being served inside a taco-shaped waffle cone at I-CE-NY (also in Chinatown Square), which essentially mashes up two of the world’s hottest trends and certifies that “what’s new in Chinatown?” is more global than ever.