There's sure to be a beautiful story behind a place called The Ugly American, the new South Philly gastropub that revels in dishes like "the garbage plate" and upscale hot pockets.
But owner Kevin Kelly is the first to burst any false pop-culture-inspiration bubbles. He can hardly tell you Marlon Brando's best lines from the 1963 movie of the same name, let alone remember the original book's author ("It's like William Lederer, I think," he said, correctly, when pressed). So that tattered paperback posed atop the maitre d's stand isn't bedtime reading?
"I just thought it was a funny and provocative name," he says.
It is catchy, I'll admit. Even if Kelly resists the urge to go all book group on it, the restaurant is indeed riffing on regional Americana fare. And the name certainly offers us pundits a self-deprecating wink (or is it a "wick"?) at some worthy themes.
The book was a tale of Cold War culture clash when the "ugly Americans" headed to Southeast Asia. Well, there's a curious geo-cultural shift going on at Front and Federal Streets, too, as yet another red-gravy relic of old-time South Philly meets its seemingly inevitable fate: hipster gentrification.
Out with La Vigna, one of the last bastions of garlicky detente, where wiseguys and cops alike could share chicken Sicilian in furtive peace.
In with the Ugly American, where the taps flow with Walt Wit (and other local brews), the sweet biscuits are house-baked, and the crowd debates the provenance, pronunciation and proper spelling of the caraway-speckled "beef on Wick."
All in all, it's a fine improvement, as La Vigna was one nostalgia room that had long passed its prime and was ready for a scrub. But it's fascinating to see how Kelly and his chef, David Gilberg, strive to mold the restaurant into a place that feels ambitious, yet still welcoming to the locals.
Keeping prices in line has been one task, with a new menu that goes heavy on fun sandwiches and entree salads. The menu of mostly sub-$20 entrees has been whittled down by more than half to just four, with specials added for flexibility.
Our server certainly had that genuine friendly Philly-ness. Where else can a waiter expound upon the fine points of beef butchery, his position against the Barnes Foundation move, his high school and art school pedigrees, slip us his Jersey Shore Realtor's card, mention his contacts in the local porno biz, and offer solid cabernet recommendations all in one visit? (Did he just name-drop Ginger Lynn?)
But what ultimately gives the Ugly a chance to thrive is a kitchen that revels in pop-food updates with some memorable results - despite a share of stumbles.
Gilberg's wife and pastry chef, Carla Goncalves, gives the kitchen a few great loaves to stand on, from the warm, fluffy biscuits that welcome every table to the caraway-and-sea-salt-studded kaisers that are essential to its "beef on Wick," a hearty roast beef cornerstone of the Upstate New York bar-food theme that threads through this menu.
Or is it "weck," as my Buffalonian guest passionately insists? After all, the name is short for a kummelweck roll: "That's the only self-respecting way to spell it."
Gilberg, a Rochester native, insists "wick" is a fine alternative spelling, a case that a quick Google hit-search backs, 161,000 "wecks" to 89,700 "wicks."
However these guys want to settle it, I'm buying. Because that roast beef sandwich is sublimely tender, with a spark of house-pickled horseradish and a dish of intensely meaty au jus to dip in.
Upstate New York pride is also alive and well in the Ugly American's "garbage plate," a Rochester delicacy that Gilberg interprets with two beautifully seasoned burger patties over macaroni salad, with raw onions, good fries, and a mustard sauce to complete what our waiter described as "a picnic on a plate."
But Gilberg, a veteran of Novelty, Matyson, Loie and Coquette, doesn't limit his inspiration strictly to his home country. The pan-fried ravioli, stuffed with tender, slow-braised shortribs and ricotta, then set over a bright marinara, is a nod to the great toasted ravioli bars of St. Louis. His ham and cheese pocket, a mustardy core of oozing cheese sauce and ham wrapped in a golden brown shell of house-made puff pastry, is like the Quickie Mart munchie of my dreams - minus the microwave.
There were a few real misses here, like the hearty but bland venison chili, the tasteless mussels, and a $23 slice of wild striped bass (the menu's most expensive item) that was fishily overripe.
The duck confit and black bean-topped nachos would have been stellar if the chips had not been poorly fried and chewy. The creamy lobster-stuffed poblano pepper was too liquidy for its own good. And fish tacos should have been served hot, with fewer sprouts. Once the pork porterhouse was re-cooked through on a second try, it was a hefty, herb-infused chop to savor.
Gilberg has a few nice moves with seafood, too, like the garlicky head-on shrimp, and the seared dayboat scallops with chunky bacon-laced chowder and puffy popovers, and fried oysters with an addictive celery root-spinach salad.
But he has a special touch with beef, including possibly the best prime-grade steak deal in town. His ginger- and soy-marinated "Belvedere" - a wonderfully marbled chuck cut patented by Wells Meats - comes with a skillet-seared crust over a lavish smear of black truffle bearnaise. At $22 (and with a brilliant side of twice-baked potato stuffed with sweet creamy crab), this dish should draw surf 'n' turfers of all ilk, from the Pennsport neighbors to visitors from the no-man's-land of the nearby Riverview complex.
They can top it off with an excellent cheese plate that features rare farmstead gems like "Up in Smoke," a soft maple-smoked goat from Oregon.
Neither should Goncalves' ambitious desserts be missed, even if they're as inconsistent as Gilberg's menu. Some promising efforts fell flat, like the homemade apple pie in a calzone-thick double crust served with a daring scoop of salty cheddar ice cream that was unfortunately out of whack (or was it "weck"?).
But she also bakes some real winners, like the Key lime pie, the profiteroles stuffed with chocolate pudding, and the fudgy brownie that deconstructs a Reese's Cup - warm, dense cake topped with peanut butter ice cream and pureed banana sauce.
My favorite, though, was the carrot cake, which was really a carrot cube, dense and moist with homespun rooty sweetness and glazed in sour-cream frosting studded with nuts. It doesn't get more American than this. And as reinvented classics go, this one's anything but ugly.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Misso, near the Avenue of the Arts. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.