Let's Eat: Life, Libertine and the pursuit of happiness

Libertine arrives in Center City

The chef who helped create the Manayunk dining scene a quarter-century ago is back in business, and he’s moved to Center City. Also this week: word of tasty Vietnamese cooking in Queen Village, a solid Mexican cantina in Montco, and an easy-on-the-wallet lunch spot with locations in Center City and Malvern. Speaking of values: Craig LaBan rounds up some of his favorites. Need food news? Click here and follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Email tips, suggestions, and questions here. If someone forwarded you this free newsletter and you like what you’re reading, sign up here to get it every week.

— Michael Klein

A familiar name returns

Derek Davis, whose 24-year restaurant run in Manayunk included Sonoma (later Derek’s), Kansas City Prime, Arroyo Grille/Carmella’s, and Fish on Main, is back in the game. He’s in the soft-opening phase of Libertine, a smart-looking American bistro at 13th and Spruce Streets, off the lobby of the new Fairfield Inn. Floss Barber decorated in pinks and reds, picking up the original marble floor. Extensive, seasonal dinner menu has a touch of whimsy – witness the categories of “major commitments” for entrees and “smaller commitments” for appetizers. Pressed for recommendations, he touts the steak sandwich (made with grilled tenderloin, fried onions, provolone, and xo sauce and served on pressed sourdough) and the house-cured and -smoked short rib “pastrami sliders.” Full bar is stocked with 20 wines by the glass, local craft beers, and assorted cocktails (thumbs-up to the Aleister Crowley, which includes cucumber vodka, watermelon shrub, mint leaves, and lime).

Where we’re enjoying happy hour

Camera icon Michael Klein
Buffalo cauliflower taco and La Preferida margarita at Bar Bombon.

Bar Bombon
133 S. 18th St., 3-6 p.m. weekdays.

Nicole Marquis’ Puerto Rican heritage shines in her bustling corner bar-restaurant near Rittenhouse Square, a few doors from her original eatery, the casual HipCityVeg. Bar Bombon is similarly plant-based (aka vegan), and the 3 p.m. start may inspire you to knock off early from work for $5 margs, mojitos, wines, even its “citywide” (Tecate and a shot). Bites include guac and chips ($7), $4 empanadas, and my fave – a $4.50 Buffalo cauliflower taco.

Where we’re eating: Ngon Ngon, Cantina Feliz, Dixie Picnic

Camera icon Michael Klein
Com dia from Ngon Ngon.

The Ngo family, in its first ownership role, has gone the pun route to name its simple but elegant BYOB Ngon Ngon at 615 S. Third St. in Queen Village. Pun? Ngon means “tasty.” Menu hits the basics (pho, salads, vermicelli bowls, banh mi). Don’t miss any of the phos; the summer rolls (aka goi cuon), generously filled with pork, shrimp, chicken, grilled pork, and tofu; and the com dia, which are platters of grilled pork or shrimp topped with scallion. Served with vegetables, white rice, and fish sauce ($11 for pork, $12 for shrimp), it’s a light, summer-worthy option that packs a lot of flavor.

Camera icon Michael Klein
Mushroom huarache from Cantina Feliz.

Seven years ago, Tim Spinner and Brian Sirhal took the leap from Jose Garces’ Distrito restaurant and opened Cantina Feliz, replacing the short-lived bistro (Alison two) that took over from a once-popular Mexican joint (Marita’s). Cantina Feliz spawned La Calaca Feliz in Fairmount and Taqueria Feliz in Manayunk – all done up in Day of the Dead decor and delivering familiar south-of-the-border flavors along with sparks of ambitiousness. Cantina Feliz’s mushroom huarche ($10.95) is a must – a flatbread topped with manchego crema, jalapeno, requeson, truffle, queso, and caramelized onions.

Camera icon Michael Klein
Box lunch from Dixie Picnic.

This is a deal worth noting: The box lunches at Dixie Picnic, where $10.99 buys you a sandwich (such as BLT, egg salad, pimento cheese, or a “Thanksgiving” that puts turkey, cranberry, and stuffing on a homemade Sally Lunn roll), a side dish (such as the addictive lemon-basil pasta salad), a deviled egg, and for dessert a signature, iced-all-around cupcake that boss Tracey Deschaine calls an “upcake.” Dixie Picnic started in Malvern (215 Lancaster) and last year branched out to 1306 Chestnut St.

Dining Notes

Old City will be hopping Thursday, June 21. Second Street will close at Market Street for the Old City Eats block party. Nearly two dozen Old City restaurants and bars will serve and entertainers will, um, entertain. Runs 5 to 9 p.m.

Free Turkey Hill ice cream will mark the first day of summer on Thursday, June 21 from 3 to 7 p.m. at Dilworth Park, on the west side of City Hall. Shake hooves with Turkey Hill’s Giant Cow while you’re at it.

Hey, restaurant folk. South Philly’s rooftop gem Bok Bar now offers industry nights the first and third on Monday of the month (6-10 p.m.). Entry is by pay stub; you can bring two friends.

Be aware that Ocean Resort Casino and Hard Rock Hotel Casino both will open in Atlantic City June 28 with scads of dining options, including (at Ocean) branches of Amada and Distrito.

This week’s openings

Buutchiis Grille | Ambler

Caterer Kwabena Buatchi has set up a casual African/Caribbean restaurant in a former pizzeria at 35 E. Butler Ave.

Eggroll Queen Cafe | Chalfont

Cafe at 459 W. Butler Ave. features a huge variety of egg rolls, starting at breakfast, plus espresso.

Hatch & Coop | Washington Square West

Jake’s Sandwich Board’s last day at 122 S. 12th St. is Wednesday, June 20 as the changeover to Hatch & Coop – a chicken-and-egg specialist – is pegged to launch Monday, June 25.

This week’s closings

Blue Duck | Northeast Philadelphia

The original location of the popular American BYOB, a victim of growing too quickly too soon, has buttoned up after less than four years.

Catelli Duo | Moorestown

The Italian destination at the mall has closed after a year and a half. The Voorhees location remains.

Union Taco | Flourtown

The final location of this taqueria has shuttered.

Six Feet Under | Washington Square West

Underground pub at 727 Walnut St. is closed, pending a rebranding as a restaurant called Sedition.

Your dining questions answered

Reader: I just arrived as a summer intern in Philly for two months. I’m on a somewhat restricted budget, but what reasonably priced restaurants would you recommend for me to make the most, gastronomically, of my stay?

Craig LaBan: First off, welcome to Philly! We’re such a great restaurant town, in part, because of how far your dining dollar goes for quality cooking here compared with other East Coast cities. We have a wealth of options here, including gastropubs and BYOBs, but also especially among our international communities, where you can taste soulful, handmade flavors at very fair prices.

I’m thinking of Chinatown and Mexican South Philly as among our best values, to get you started, and I’ve written about them in recent months. But I’d also encourage you to explore the city’s many distinctive neighborhoods, and I have value picks in a few key spots around town.

South Philly offers a gold mine of other value flavors. You can check your boxes there for the city’s best cheesesteaks and pork sandwiches (if you had to visit one for both, it’s John’s Roast Pork, 14 E. Snyder Ave.), hoagies (Pastificio Deli is my pick, 1528 Packer Ave.), and classic Italian red gravy cuisine.

Try Mr. Joe’s Café (1514 S. Eighth St.) for that throwback Italian luncheonette feeling, with the sweet bonus of a cannoli from Termini’s Bakery across the street.

Trendy East Passyunk Avenue is also an essential visit, and while there are lots of upscale restaurants there, the fantastic British meat pies at Stargazy (1838 E. Passyunk Ave.) are one of the city’s best values. I also love the authentic Malaysian flavors of skewered meats grilled over coconut charcoal at Saté Kampar (1837 E. Passyunk Ave.) Bop across to the west side of Broad Street for another taste of Southeast Asian flavors at Indonesian standby Hardena (1754 S. Hicks St.).

Fishtown and Kensington are emerging neighborhoods of serious restaurant energy you’ll also want to know. The Fishtown branch of Asian fusion-minded Cheu Noodles (1416 Frankford Ave.) is one of the most creative quality meals you can get for $15 or less. For $26, two of you can feast on a platter of “Bubbie Chow’s” pastrami-spiced short ribs with steamy bao buns.

Just up the street, check out beautiful Suraya (1528 Frankford Ave.), the Lebanese café and restaurant I’m reviewing this weekend. The lunch menu, in particular, is very fairly priced. Philly’s craft-beer scene is flourishing everywhere, but especially nearby on Spring Garden Street, and is another source of fairly priced dining: Check out the vast new location for pioneer Yards Brewing, whose airy taproom is a great place to sample classic Philly beers and a pub-plus menu that’s entirely $16 or under a plate.

Center City has good values, too. Kanella Grill (1001 Spruce St.) consistently serves one of the best flavor-to-dollar quotients around, with Cypriot cooking that’s fresh and evocative of the Mediterranean. It’s one of the best of our many BYOBs that, by definition, automatically save you money on the drink bill.

Dizengoff (1625 Sansom St.) will open your world to the possibility that hummus can be an exciting meal for $11 or less. As the sibling of Zahav, it’s also an affordable way to taste one of our top chefs in Michael Solomonov.

My colleague Allison Steele wrote this useful happy hour round-up a few months ago, with tips on deals at Double Knot, El Rey and Fette Sau. For the purposes of getting to know Philly, though, my pick from her list is the Oyster House (1516 Sansom St.), where the buck-a-shuck oyster happy hours will introduce you to the last of the great fish houses that once ruled this city. If you come back for lunch, be sure to order the fried oyster and chicken salad platter with pepper hash for $16. Sounds odd, but it’s delicious. And it’s one distinctive Philly value meal that, once your summer internship is done, you won’t taste anywhere else.

Email Craig here