Chef Chris Kearse celebrated the fifth anniversary of Will BYOB by rounding up his family, going to Lowe’s, and undertaking a two-week renovation. Reopening is Wednesday night. This week, I delve into a milk-tea drink served at a Taiwanese chicken shop in Chinatown — rather, the bottles it’s served in. I also find lip-puckering hot chicken in Montgomery County, fresh-made tortillas in West Chester, and refined Thai seafood in a little eatery with folding chairs in Palmyra. Craig LaBan offers his picks of Thai restaurants in and around the city. 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 that confirmation email.
New look at age 5 for East Passyunk’s Will BYOB
Five years in at his French-ish Will BYOB (1911 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-7683), chef/owner Chris Kearse decided to take two weeks off. Not a vacation. A renovation. The look is warmer and richer — it’s remarkable what wainscoting, wall sconces, new paint, marble tables, and padded chairs will do. There’s one important new feature out of sight: sound-proofing tiles tucked into the ceiling. Reopening is Wednesday, Aug. 16. For a swell backgrounder on the well-traveled Kearse — known around town as a chef’s chef — read Drew Lazor’s profile from 2012 here and watch this short video by Oliver Gallini here.
What we’re drinking
Milk teas at Chi-Ken
Thickly breaded, Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken is the calling card at Chi-Ken, a walk-up cafe at 938 Race St. in Chinatown. Everyone, though, seems to wash it down with a muscle milk tea or lady milk tea. Sold in plastic bottles shaped like human torsos, they’re spin-offs of a Japanese energy drink that supposedly has, ahem, “enhancement” properties. Either way, it’s tasty enough and the empty bottles make great gifts when refilled.
Where we’re eating: Southern Belle 2.0, Tlaxkalli, Kaffir Thai
Take a bite. The crunch ends in a slow, creamy, cayenne-fueled burn that buzzes your lips and rises into your palate. It’s hot chicken, the Nashville specialty. Bud & Marilyn’s in Center City serves it on slider-size potato rolls, and the $4 nibble on the happy-hour menu is great with a beer. South, in Spring Garden, tucks hot chicken into slider rolls only on the bar menu. Whetstone Tavern in Queen Village offers chicken on full-size potato rolls, while at Bait & Switch in Port Richmond, they’re served on brioche rolls. Now for those who hanker for their hot chicken on sliced bread — a home-spun approach that served Kevin Sbraga well at the late, great Fat Ham — head to Springfield Township, Montgomery County. Chef/owner Tim Thomas works the stove at Southern Belle 2.0 (700 Bethlehem Pike, Erdenheim, 215-233-2316), a country-kitschy offshoot of his Southern bistro in downtown Jenkintown. His hot chicken — a boneless, skinless breast whose fire is tempered only slightly by bread-and-butter pickles — is a mess as you wield a knife and fork to hack at the chicken, spear a pickle, and mop up with the white bread. But hey. Thomas only sells it at this location, which has a bar. And plenty of napkins.
Say it “tillax-cali” (the word for “tortilla” in the Aztec language Nahuatl), and you’re in at Tlaxkalli (348 W. Gay St., West Chester, 484-266-0590), a bare-bones corner taqueria on the outskirts of town where organic masa is pressed into tortillas that yield sublime tacos. The order of three set me back just $9. There are just a few seats, as most do takeout and delivery. One drawback: few legal, on-street parking spots. That’s the ticket — perhaps literally.
Critic Craig LaBan will get to his Philly picks for Thai food in a few scrolls of your screen. At the new Kaffir Thai (16 E. Broad St., Palmyra, 856-735-5029), chef Ya Jai Charatsil executes the staple curries and stir-fries while shining brightly with seafood, particularly salmon. Attractive but spare dining room boasts an aquarium. Take note: It seats about six people at three tables on folding chairs.
This week’s openings and closings
Angelina’s | Bella Vista
The Iovino family of Girasole fame open a homey, wallet-friendly Italian BYOB at 743 S. Eighth St. in Bella Vista on Thursday, Aug. 17.
Blackbird Pizzeria | Northern Liberties
The city’s preeminent vegan pizzeria soft-opens its Northern Liberties branch at 614 N. Second St. (the former Same Same and Koo Zee Doo) from 5-10 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 16. Full hours (11 a.m.-10 p.m.) start Thursday, Aug. 17.
Eulogy | Old City
The Belgian tavern on Chestnut Street near Second is closed for good, as owner Mike Naessens says he’s tired of his staff’s shenanigans.
Jules Thin-Crust Pizza | Cherry Hill
The Ellisburg Shopping Center outpost of this local, organic pizza chain will pack up at the end of August. Just never caught on, its owner says.
Otis & Pickles Speakeasy | South Philadelphia
The corner bar at Third and Porter Streets has given up after five months. Owner Charlie Caluzzo has bigger plans involving his long-running bar The Institute.
Pennsylvania 6 | Washington Square West
The stylish bistro on 12th Street near Sansom is reconfiguring and adapting a new identity. It’s expected to open at the end of the year.
Rock Bottom | King of Prussia
The longtime brewpub at King of Prussia Mall is expected to close in mid-September. Use up those gift cards now.
Sam Jacobson, the London-born chef-owner of Stargazy, the British pie-and-mash specialist at 1838 E. Passyunk Ave. in South Philly, has two reasons to celebrate Sunday, Aug. 20: It’s Stargazy’s second anniversary and his 40th birthday. He’ll put out what he calls a proper Sunday carvery: prime rib, whole belly pork with crackling, and roast chicken. Served with all the trimmings in a giant Yorkshire pudding bowl, it’s $20. Plus, free beer. Starts at 11 a.m.
Around dinnertime Thursday, Aug. 17, keep your eyes open for 5,200 people dressed head to toe in white while shlepping chairs, tables, and picnic baskets. It’s another Diner en Blanc, which has been sold out for weeks.
Your dining questions, answered
Reader: I would like to take my son to a Thai restaurant, but where in Philly should we go?
Craig LaBan: Aaaah, the old “where can I get good Thai food in Philly” question? I keep hoping that if I answer this one enough times with my usual lament, a great Thai restaurant will show up in Philly. But alas, we still don’t have a single truly great one like you can find in Queens (Ayada) or Brooklyn (Pok-Pok). And one of my old reliable recommendations, the Circles group of restaurants, imploded earlier this year when the owner-chef left town. For now, your best bet is to head to the new location of Chabaa Thai in Manayunk, which is a lovely space, with well-executed and fresh food, albeit at spice levels calibrated to the tender palates of a mainstream audience. I recently highlighted Chabaa’s elegant lamb chops with massaman curry in the “Good Taste” feature in Thursday’s Food section. I had a good first experience with JJ Thai Cuisine at 2028 Chestnut St. and have been meaning to return to try some of the more ambitious entrees. There’s also old reliable Erawan at 123 S. 23rd St., which is always decent for standards like satay, pad Thai, and coconut milk soup (tom kha gai) and spicy basil-fried rice — but it’s rarely amazing. The other places I might send you do double-duty with dual menus fused to the other cuisines of neighboring countries. Penang and Banana Leaf in Chinatown are Malaysian restaurants, but also have Thai menus that deliver a confident punch. Sa-Bai-Dee in Upper Darby gives its Thai food a distinctive Lao funk I think highly of. If you’re out in the suburbs, meanwhile, you might also want to try the beautiful rambling rooms of Downtown Bangkok Café in Phoenixville, where I recently had a lovely meal. Again, not life-changing Thai food. But it was still a very nice dining experience with flaky curry puffs and an unusual Southern Thai curry called kaeng kua — a variation on red curry that’s both coconut creamy, spicy, sour and sweet with pineapple — that you don’t see everywhere.