South Philly's brunch culture began to evolve in the 1990s with the arrival of the Big Three: Sam's Morning Glory Diner, Carman's Country Kitchen, and a bit later, Sabrina's Cafe. Each set new morning-meal standards, featuring the likes of homemade sausage, local preserves, and garden-fresh veggie burgers, making the local brunch outing less a morning-after necessity and more an epicurean experience in its own right.
In the last couple of years, so many new spots have sprouted that South Philly has stepped up to take on yet another culinary identity: Brunchland.
Cross Bainbridge and suddenly everyone seems to be young, leisurely, and, sometimes, hungover. That's gentrification for you.
While there are many great bruncherie destinations across the city, nobody seems to do it quite like South Philly, where the lazy Sunday morning is elevated to an art form.
"Honestly, all the newer brunch places are good for us," says Morning Glory chef Jenny Greer. "More traffic means more business for everybody. We never look at it as competition."
Besides, there's a sub-niche for every egg eater. For the quirky brunch experience, Carman Luntzel's converted luncheonette at 11th and Wharton is unparalleled. Visitors vie for a handful of counter seats and four tables, including one in the bed of the pickup truck parked outside (calling ahead for a reservation is always best ).
Over the years, Luntzel has given diners the kitschy thrill of signs proclaiming her famously bawdy persona and the culinary thrill of her exceedingly original specials (on a recent Passover day, they included pancakes with charoset topping, and pot roast with poached eggs over fried matzoh).
Sabrina's has turned the daily wait at its Bella Vista location (another larger location in Franklintown has its own lines) into an event, adding a waiting room where coffee and fresh pastries are served to clamoring diners. Chef Lance Silverman has churned out more than 5,000 different specials over the cafe's nine years.
"He eats, breathes, and sleeps the brunch specials," owner Robert De Abreu says. This obsessive thinking is manifest in over-the-top platters like peach-cornmeal-chive-cream biscuits topped with scrambled eggs, sour cream, and hot Italian sausage gravy, or French toast stuffed with cherry-marshmallow-graham-cracker-chocolate-chip-walnut cream cheese, topped with berry-orange syrup. Yet menu standards such as the Barking Chihuahua breakfast burrito and a blue cheese, mushroom, and spinach frittata are good reliables.
The most recent phenomenon is the boozy brunch, with a spate of pubs and taprooms opening their doors for hair-of-the-dog visitors: POPE (Pub on Passyunk East), Devil's Den, Lucky 13, and the South Philly Bar and Grille (which actually features a Sinatra brunch) fit in this category. The unrelated South Philadelphia Tap Room gives hangover remedy new meaning with sticky bun French toast (made, literally, from sticky buns) and a breakfast burger layered with bacon and poached egg that is, to gild the fat-craving lily, served with a side of hollandaise. A quick stop at the same-owned Brew across the street for a Stumptown iced coffee will right any home-fry sluggishness.
Bella Vista's Hawthorne's has a unique formula, allowing the brunchgoer to stop in for a meal, then carry home a sixpack or growler of craft beer for the rest of the day's activities (a game, perhaps?).
Cantina los Caballitos entices new hangovers with a selection of changing brunch cocktails (such as the Blue Blood, a spin on the Bloody Mary with Bluecoat gin and housemade sangrita). These are anchored by an array of Nuevo Mexican dishes, from chilaquiles to hotcakes smeared with cajeta, or goat's milk caramel. Sidewalk seating that seems to stretch for miles makes it the ideal East Passyunk scoping ground.
Of course, traditional Mexican fare is close at hand in these parts, too. Taquerias such as Veracruzana and La Lupe serve hearty desayunos with breakfast enchiladas and eggs scrambled with poblanos served with rice and beans.
At Cafe con Chocolate, a charming sleeper at 21st and Snyder, owner Yoshiko Yamasaki makes platters of eggs, chorizo, and tortillas; mole enchiladas; and long buttered rolls stuffed with refried beans and cheese, to be washed down with cups of the cafe's cinnamon-spiked namesake beverage.
There's even a brunch for the eco-minded. The newly minted Green Eggs Cafe, which is already doing a bustling business, was built with LEED-certified materials, composts its food waste, and has banned Styrofoam. Among the eats are quinoa porridge with raisins and agave nectar, organic eggs, and stone-ground grits spiked with aged cheddar and local scrapple chips.
Theoretically, dining out for brunch should be a time-saver, neatly packing two meals into one high-calorie wallop, no bacon crisping required. In South Philly, between the ritual wait for a table, the sidewalk people-watching, and the nap-inducing stacks of pancakes, brunching becomes a daylong activity.
The best places seem to share something that goes deeper than a fluffy omelet, something that can't always be whipped up at home (though South Philly chefs have generously donated their recipes for the willing). It's the true spirit of the meal: day-sucking leisure.
Back at Morning Glory, where the South Philly brunch was reinvented, that spirit is alive and well - ravenous people in twos and threes, with strollers and tattoos and designer bags, sticking it out on the patio until they can get their hands on those fresh biscuits. With no immediate plans by the restaurant's ownership to expand seating, the Morning Glory line will continue to snake out every weekend.
"On Saturdays, people are in and out quick because they're still trying to go out and get things done. We always get busiest on Sundays," says Greer. "That's the day when people really come here to sit and relax."
Makes 4 servings
24 ounces canned tomato juice
1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons celery salt
2 tablespoons sriracha sauce
4 ounces Bluecoat gin
1 ounce fresh lime juice
4 ounces cucumber puree (about 1 large cucumber)
1. Make the sangrita by combining tomato juice, orange juice, Worcestershire sauce, garlic powder, celery salt, and sriracha sauce.
2. In a cocktail shaker, shake together the gin, lime juice, and cucumber puree with ice. Divide between glasses. Top off with sangrita.
Hotcakes With Cajeta Sauce
Makes 4 servings
For the cajeta sauce:
1/2 gallon of goat milk
2 cups sugar
1/2 tablespoon baking soda
1 4-inch piece of canela or 2 cinnamon sticks
For the hotcakes:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/4 cups milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1. Combine goat milk, sugar, baking soda, and canela in a nonreactive pot. Bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower heat to a rapid simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is deep brown in color and the consistency is thick like maple syrup, about 2 to 3 hours.
2. Strain sauce through a fine strainer. Serve warm or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a month.
3. In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Make a well in the center and pour in the milk, egg, and melted butter; mix until smooth.
4. Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium high heat. Pour or scoop the batter onto the griddle, using approximately 1/4 cup for each pancake. Brown on both sides and serve hot with cajeta sauce.
Per serving: 985 calories, 26 grams protein, 160 grams carbohydrates, 125 grams sugar, 34 grams fat, 138 milligrams cholesterol, 1,558 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Blue Cheese Frittata With Sauteed Spinach, Mushrooms, and Bacon
Makes 2 to 3 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon minced garlic
8 ounces white mushrooms, sliced
2 cups baby spinach
5 eggs, beaten
3 to 4 tablespoons crumbled blue cheese
2 tablespoons cooked crisp bacon, crumbled
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Heat olive oil and butter in an ovenproof 10-inch pan. When foaming subsides, add garlic and mushrooms and saute for 5 minutes. Add spinach and saute until soft. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
2. Season eggs with salt and pepper to taste. Add eggs to pan, turn down heat and allow frittata to set until just the top is liquid. Sprinkle blue cheese and bacon over top and set in oven for 5 to 7 minutes, or until puffed. Serve hot.
Per serving (based on 3): 306 calories, 17 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 26 grams fat, 374 milligrams cholesterol, 410 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Sweet Potato Black Bean Burritos
Makes 12 servings
1/2 pound black beans, soaked overnight
1 large sweet yellow onion, cut into eighths
1 tablespoon minced garlic
4 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 small red onion, chopped
2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
Juice from 2 lemons
12 flour tortillas, warmed slightly
3 cups grated extra-sharp white cheddar
1 1/2 cups chipotle salsa
Guacamole (optional, for garnish)
Sour cream (optional, for garnish)
Chopped scallions (optional, for garnish)
1. Combine beans with 3 cups water, onion, and garlic. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer until tender, about 1 1/2-2 hours. Drain, season with salt, and set aside.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook sweet potatoes until just soft, about 15 minutes. Drain.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine beans, sweet potatoes and a pinch of salt. Add diced red onion, jalapeño, cilantro. cumin, and lemon juice and stir. Taste and add more salt if needed. Mixture can be refrigerated for several hours if making ahead.
4. Set out tortillas on a clean, dry surface. Spoon the filling onto each tortilla, making a line down the center. Sprinkle a few tablespoons of grated cheddar over the top, then fold in the short sides. Finish by folding the long side over and continue rolling until it makes a package. Tuck the ends in and set the burritos seam-side down in two lasagna dishes. Spoon more cheddar and the salsa on top. Bake in oven for 30 minutes. Serve hot, garnished with guacamole, sour cream, and scallions.
Per serving: 329 calories, 15 grams protein, 40 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 30 milligrams cholesterol, 407 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.
Sticky Bun French Toast With Maple Berry Jam and Honey Butter
Makes 8 servings
For the Maple Berry Jam
1 pint blueberries
1 cup blackberries
1 cup raspberries
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup maple syrup
Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
Zest and juice of 1/2 orange
For the Honey Butter
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon honey
For the Sticky Bun French Toast
8 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
8 sticky buns without nuts
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Make the jam: Set the berries in a bowl. Combine sugar, maple syrup, and lemon and orange zest and juice in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Pour liquid over berries and let mixture sit for 20 minutes. (Jam can be made several days ahead and refrigerated.)
2. Meanwhile, make butter by whisking together honey and butter. (Butter can be made several days ahead and refrigerated.)
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, vanilla, salt, milk, and cream. Working in batches, submerge sticky buns in batter for 20 seconds, then set them aside until all have been coated in batter.
4. Heat a large cast iron skillet (if you have a smaller pan, you may need to do this in batches) and melt butter. Add sticky buns to pan, smooth side down, and cook until browned, about 2 minutes per side. Flip and cook the other side. Set pan in oven to heat through, about 5 minutes. Serve hot with maple berry jam and honey butter on the side.
Per serving: 686 calories, 13 grams protein, 97 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 29 grams fat, 235 milligrams cholesterol, 1,078 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.