Step into Cuba Libre at the Tropicana in Atlantic City. Just past the red, white, and blue 1951 Buick Super Convertible parked in the entrance, you see (and smell) something new: the wood-burning grill set up in front of a counter. It’s changing the way chef Guillermo Pernot and crew cook, and even how they make cocktails. Also this week, I tip you to a stylish bistro in Ambler, a homey, neighborhood-perfect BYOB on South Street West, and a blue cocktail (colored with flowers) at a brewpub in Spring Garden. And critic Craig LaBan checks in with a Philly food primer of meal ideas for newly arrived collegians. If it’s food news you crave, click here and follow me here and also here. Email me tips, suggestions, etc. here. If someone forwarded you this free newsletter and you like what you’re reading, sign up here and you’ll get it every week. Be sure to check your spam filter if you don’t receive the confirmation email.
— Michael Klein
Cuba Libre comes out on fire at the Trop
Does watching chefs cook your meal on an eight-foot stainless-steel grill qualify as dinner theater? Sure does, at the Cuba Libre at the Tropicana in Atlantic City, where chef Guillermo Pernot has just debuted a nifty apparatus that faces a new 12-seat chef’s counter just as you walk in. Inspired by Latin a la parrilla cookery, it’s poultry in motion as you sit and watch Kevin Crouch and crew turn steel wheels to raise and lower the grates. This beast burns oak and ash, as well as charcoals made from hardwood and coconut. Seemingly everything goes — chicken, steak, seafood, even the grilled jalapeños for the Paloma Ahumada cocktail, made with Pelotón de la Muerte mezcal, elderflower liqueur, grapefruit juice, and club soda. The prep for the half-chicken was inspired by Peking duck: a 24-hour brine, followed by a second 24-hour marinade, a smoky ride over the coals, and the topping of an Asian-inspired sauce. Pernot says the other three Cuba Libres (Old City, D.C., and Orlando) may get similar grills.
What we’re drinking
Psychedelic Spritz at Bar Hygge
Beer lovers flock to the nine adventurous beers on tap from brewer/partner Tom Baker (Earth, Bread + Brewery) at this comfortable Spring Garden bar-restaurant at 1720 Fairmount Ave. (Say the name like “Bar HOO-guh.”) Meanwhile, bar manager Nicole Testa decided to add something distinctive to the cocktail list. She came up with the Psychedelic Spritz, combining Bluecoat gin, prosecco, fresh lemon juice, rosemary-cucumber-infused simple syrup, and (for that black-light effect) butterfly pea flower.
Where we’re eating: Dettera, Miles Table
Dettera (129 E. Butler Ave., 215-643-0111) is one of the high-style highlights of Ambler’s restaurant row, with a sharp date-night atmosphere (including a charming, under-cover outdoor patio), smart bartenders, and creative, downtown-style American cooking. It’s hard to beat the pastas, including luscious agnolotti filled with bacon, pork, and beef, splashed with toasted butter and sage, and garnished with sliced Grana Padano. One true testament to chef Jeffrey Powers’ kitchen is this vegan veggie plate, for which he perfectly chars sliced zucchini and serves it with cubes of Castle Valley Mill polenta, smoked cherry tomatoes, and fava beans, with a puddle of yellow tomato sofrito.
Every neighborhood needs a drop-in BYOB like caterer Michael Lynch’s sunny little Miles Table (1620 South St., 267-318-7337), which has fed the South Street West boom for four years, dispensing from 8 a.m. through dinnertime. Menu hits major groups: all-day breakfast, soups, salads, sandwiches, and a changing roster of entrees. Lynch elevates his avocado BLT, for example, with chipotle aioli, its zing perking up the sliced avocado.
This week’s openings and closings
Ants Pants Cafe | South Philadelphia
The South Street West brunch mainstay has opened a Queen Village branch, just off Fourth and South Streets at 526 S. Fourth St.
Guppy’s | South Philadelphia
The Conshohocken bar has opened a Bella Vista branch at Eighth and Fitzwater Streets. There really is a Guppy, by the way: Barman Robin Gupta.
Habit Burger Grill | King of Prussia
Charbroiled burgers are the star at this California-based fast-casual chain, opening Wednesday, Aug. 30, at the King of Prussia Town Center.
Herman’s Coffee | South Philadelphia
Philly Beer Scene publisher Mat Falco is in a different kind of brew; he has converted a Pennsport auto-repair shop (1313-17 S. Third St.) into a coffee shop that does its own roasting.
Pub at the Porch | University City
The outdoor venue at 30th Street Station opens as an after-work drink destination on Wednesday, Aug. 30, with its official grand opening on Thursday, Aug. 31. Bridgewater’s Pub, inside the train station, is operating from 3 to 8 p.m. Wednesday to Friday.
Fitler Dining Room | Center City
The Fitler Square bistro, at 22nd and Spruce Streets, is papered up after four years. Owners Dan Clark and Ed Hackett promise something new in late September.
Junto | Chadds Ford
MacGregor Mann’s critically acclaimed Brandywine Valley BYOB is now open only for presold events but not for a la carte dining. Mann’s catering arm handles the food at the Brandywine River Museum.
Your dining questions, answered
Reader: It’s back-to-school time for universities. What places do you recommend new college students visit to best get to know the dining scene of their new city?
Craig LaBan: These undergrads have no idea how lucky they are. They’re not just arriving to one of America’s best eating cities, they’ve arrived in one that specializes in serving serious flavors at stellar values. They can get a satisfying first taste of some of our star chefs at student-friendly prices with entry-level concepts like Michael Solomonov’s Dizengoff and Federal Donuts (book Zahav well-ahead for the parents), Pizzeria Vetri, and the international vegan creativity of V Street before stepping up to its sophisticated sibling Vedge. But there are also great neighborhoods beyond University City and Temple that these new Philadelphians should know. For a budget-friendly taste of lively East Passyunk Avenue, try the British meat pies at Stargazy, or the authentic Malaysian skewers at Sate Kampar. Explore the old-school flavors of the historic Italian Market at Villa di Roma and the original Di Bruno Bros., where you can sample cheese and olives. But also, don’t miss the neighborhood’s growing community of taquerias – Mole Poblano’s mole tamales and El Compadre’s barbacoa are among my favorites. And then there’s Fishtown, where every indie music lover should catch a show upstairs at Johnny Brenda’s (stellar local beer for those of age), or head up to La Colombe’s Frankford Avenue grand café to feel the caffeinated hipster pulse of this burgeoning neighborhood and savor anything on Philly’s best baguettes. For late-night options and adventure eats, our excellent Chinatown delivers both. I’ve got dozens of favorites there in my guide, but the Shanghai dumpling temple of Dim Sum Garden is the neighborhood’s new-generation signature hit. And, of course, every newcomer needs to try Philly’s famous cheesesteaks and roast pork sandwiches. They’ll undoubtedly try the famous names, no matter what I say. College kids. But eventually, take my advice and grab an Uber to deep South Philly, and let John’s Roast Pork hook them up with the best of both. Philly Eats 101 is in session!
Email Craig here. His Tuesday chats will resume Sept. 5.