Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat of Nov. 29, 2016:
Reader: What's the best thing you can get in the city for under $10?
Craig LaBan: We've been posting some of the lists from my Ultimate Dining guide online recently, and my favorite values include Dizengoff, Stargazy, Dana Mandi, Henri's Hotts in Jersey. Also, Chinese Restaurant from Chinatown, an entire neighborhood of great values.
Reader: Have you been to Khmer Kitchen in South Philly?
C.L.: Yes, I reviewed Khmer Kitchen almost four years ago and LOVED it! It's probably the best all-around example of good Cambodian cooking in South Philly, where the local community has taken root. But I'd like to explore that neighborhood more, especially FDR Park one weekend afternoon when a Cambodian street market pops up selling authentic Southeast Asian foods.
Reader: I definitely recommend FDR on a weekend! Lots of culture and amazing food. Try the beef sticks and boklahong (spicy papaya salad).
C.L.: A friend also loves the bamboo sticks stuffed with sticky rice - the perfect on-the-go snack.
Reader: Have you reviewed Andy's Chicken in Fishtown?
C.L.: Not a formal review, since it's just a take-out shop. But I featured it in my guide to Fishtown/Kensington last year. I liked it a lot - even if it can be slow, and I think the legs are always juicier than the breasts. But that's the price to pay for fresh butchered chickens cooked to order, as well as some of the house-made sauces. Too many of the KFC places taste prefab to me. Also, BTW, I find the kimchi-fried rice an addictive little indulgence.
Reader: Any recommendations for goat in Philadelphia? Preferably "birria" with tortillas?
C.L.: Goat is having an excellent year in Philly. I'm suddenly seeing a lot on local menus - and loving it. Kanella South does it over the charcoal grill, Cypriot-style. Hungry Pigeon makes it Stroganoff-style over house-made noodles. I've had a barbacoa of goat (chivo) on weekends at Mole Poblano on Eighth Street. And, of course, all the authentic South Indian places out in the western burbs use goat meat in their best biryanis. Indian Hut, also the Dosa Hut.
Reader: Did your list of 25 favorites have a 2- beller on it while leaving off other 3-bellers? I assumed you'd exhaust restaurants in a given bell tier before going to the next tier. No?
C.L.: Good question. My goal was to pick a group of restaurants to represent the full diversity of our dining scene, not just the most expensive ones. I've reviewed 800 restaurants over the last 18 years, and many have been 3-bellers, so there wasn't room for everyone with that rating. Plus, two bells (Very Good) is still a recommendation from me. Sometimes, a place may not have one aspect of its operation up to snuff for a 3- bell rec, but the things they do well I just LOVE. The two-beller in question - Sate Kampar - represents something unique, a deeper dive into Asian street food that's a little different what we've seen, one of the more exciting Asian restaurants in the area right now. Pizza Beddia also made my Top 25 - and I decided, after much thought, not to give it a bell rating at all! Too hard to do that fairly for essentially a take-out place, but does that job exceptionally. Wanting to reflect all the great pizza energy in Philly now, Beddia was the most special - quirks, lack of bells, and all.
"Craig LaBan's Ultimate Dining," a glossy, 52-page, magazine-style book that wraps up the food critic's 25 favorite restaurants, as well as lists such as favorite BYOBs, Chinatown, and Philadelphia classics, is available by mail, through this link, or in person at the newspaper's offices, 801 Market St. (entrance on Eighth Street), from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays ($5.95, cash only).