I was chatting about the state of Northeast Philly food over creamy crab cakes and crispy potatoes at the Mayfair Diner with a regular known as “Gumbo Bob” when longtime waitress Betty Woods overheard our conversation. I had identified myself as an Inquirer reporter but, well, she hadn’t heard my name …
“I don’t like Craig LaBan because he’d never come to a place like this,” Woods said with the kind of conviction that comes from presiding over a diner counter for 46 years. “He only writes about fancy, expensive places in Center City, and he’d look down his nose at us. But this is where the real people eat!”
Ah, the world of an anonymous critic, where honest opinions often go both ways. But let’s get one thing straight: I'd come to celebrate the Northeast and one of the last stalwarts of its diner culture, not to bury it. Too many of the great diners that fed its post-WWII working-class boom with affordable and scratch-cooked American meals have faded beneath waves of fast food, changing demographics, and shifting tastes. But the Mayfair, judging by my pleasant lunch and Gumbo Bob's steady devotion, is one of the few that has changed little, despite a change in ownership after decades under the watch of the same family.
What has changed drastically, however, is the face of those "real people" of the Northeast, where nearly 30 percent of the 200,000 residents who live north and west of Roosevelt Boulevard are foreign-born. And that stunningly diverse immigrant infusion has transformed this vast and too-often ignored swath of the city into a positively thrilling culinary destination for international flavors.
For two months, I feasted on Uzbek kebabs and Brazilian churrasco, Transylvanian stuffed cabbage, stellar Vietnamese banh mi, and flaming Portuguese sausage. I tasted the authentic offerings of Russian markets, a growing Chinese corridor with some of the city's best seafood and dim sum, and a South Indian community that produces the hard-to-find dishes of Kerala -- not to mention an Indian cheesesteak wrapped inside a dosa crepe. With side trips to some of the area's more traditional spots, from classic cheesesteak and hoagie delis to Italian gems, kielbasa corners, craft beer pioneers, and, yes, some still-great diners, rarely has a Philly eating adventure been so fun. There may be no Philly food destination more dynamic than Northeast Philly.
Here are nearly 60 recommendations to prove it.