IT'S A FAMILY affair in Fishtown. The owners of the comfortable Hot Potato Café are two sisters plus a sister-in-law. And, Kathryn, Claire and Erin Keller get their produce from another family member who owns Iovine Brothers Produce in the Reading Terminal Market.
The cafe is located in a former State Store on Girard Avenue. The owners tossed about the name "Stewed Tomatoes." Apparently that was unseemly to some family members. So, how do three sisters known as "Hot Potato" have more decorum?!
That aside, the literal interpretation of the name brings you potatoes in many forms. We started with a Fishtown signature dish, Pierogies ($6).
Sadly, these aren't your grandmom's tender puffs of dough and potatoes.
More like Mrs. T's, but the sour cream was the real deal.
We moved onto the On the Way to Cape May Crab Dip ($9). Real crabmeat that is served hot in a creamy base. A very tasty dish, as long as you are not put off by some grease separating out. OK, a lot of grease, but it is tasty and the bread sops it up.
The surprise hit of the menu was the Walnut Pear Salad ($7). Candied toasted walnuts add a wonderful crunch to the sweet pear and offset the bitter greens. Blue cheese added a nice note of creaminess.
The Chicken Rouillade ($15) - chicken breast stuffed with cream cheese, roasted garlic and sun-dried tomatoes dressed in some coarsely chopped tomato - dressed up a cut of meat that is often tasteless.
Stuffed Flounder ($16) was the miss of the evening. It seemed more like a frozen entree with a bready crab-and-shrimp stuffing.
For inexpensive comfort food, look no farther than Chef's Pasta ($13), a huge portion of bow-tie pasta tossed with chunks of chicken breast and a caramelized onion and brandy cream sauce.
I enjoyed the Beef Filet ($19), a nice cut cooked to my desired doneness and topped with a creamy caramelized onion sauce. Although it was reminiscent of the Chef's Pasta caramelized onion and brandy cream sauce, who can complain about efficiency?
All the entrees come with a mound of mashed potatoes and the vegetable of the day. Frankly, I could eat just a plate of the potatoes, a chunky mix of red bliss and sour cream with just a hint of the skin remaining.
I was skeptical when I heard that day's vegetable was fried, but if you put the health incongruity aside, these green beans were delicious.
They were so good I started justifying their time in the Fryolator. After all, how much oil can a skinny green bean absorb? And it couldn't have been in there long, because it was tender crisp. Plus, they are tossed in soy sauce, and we all know soy is good for us. Right?
Despite the hearty portions of the entrees, you must save room for desserts ($5). Three offerings are made in-house and make my recommendation list: Bread Pudding, Creme Brulee and Butter Cake.
The most unusual is the Butter Cake, a family recipe of Hot Potato Café's chef, Beth Rafter. More like a German tart than a cake, each bite is full of crunch and butter.
The Creme Brulee passed my spoon test - the spoon has to shatter the caramelized-sugar topping as if it were glass. And the custard underneath has to be smooth, rich and scented with vanilla.
Service is best described as earnest. Note: earnest, not Ernest. I won't mention his name because the bucket to chill our sparkling wine never showed up, and our entrees weren't served together. When we asked him a few questions at the end of the meal, he pulled up a chair and sat down with us. Which was oh-so-wrong, and, yet, very endearing.
Hot Potato Café succeeds as a casual, affordable neighborhood place. In a changing neighborhood with good newcomers such as Bistro Julianna and Modo Mio, competition will be heating up.
So I have a few recommendations. Ditch the frozen pierogies and find a handmade version that can be as exquisite as properly made potato gnocchi. That would bring the foodie fraternity knocking on the door for the "new" artisanal product. Add a few lighter dishes on the menu to offset the heavier choices, and even the chic artist overflow diner from Northern Liberties will be saying, "I'd like fried green beans with that order."