I ate my way across 2018 with a special gusto for Philly’s stunningly diverse flavors and an eye toward endurance. You just don’t make it through 400-plus restaurant meals in a year with a smile unless you acknowledge that this lucky task is an epic adventure that unfolds one dish at a time. So which bites stood out as the most special?
Looking back at the last 12 months many thousands of plates later, the year as a whole was a unique feast, from my extensive journey through South Philly’s rapidly expanding Mexican food community to the dozens of reviews I wrote for the Sunday paper, umpteen Good Taste features, hundreds of Crumb Tracker Quiz clues, a sunny trip to the Jersey Shore, and all the research meals for this year’s Ultimate Dining guide (200 restaurants strong!) that paid special homage to the Philly classics. Yes, I inevitably nibbled through plenty of sorry clunkers along the way. It’s just part of the reporting process. And do not worry: I didn’t suffer. Because, inevitably, some special dishes rose up like gold in the pan and will forever linger in my imagination as the best of 2018. I’ll gladly hold on to those, thank you, so … cue the highlights!
I ate so many memorable things during my deep dive into the wonders of Mexican South Philly, from the surprise of my new favorite enchiladas rojas at a folding table in the market aisle of tiny La Tienda grocery, to the mole-sauced lamb chops at El Rancho Viejo and, of course, the always transcendent lamb tacos and consommé at South Philly Barbacoa. But I cannot stop thinking about the tamales from Tamalex. Four women work throughout each weekend night hand-filling thousands of corn husk bundles with moist masa dough, tender meats, and vivid salsas, red and green, and then pack them tightly into a giant pot for a slow steaming. By 8 a.m., when those foil-wrapped packages of fluffy tamales begin flying out the door ($6 for three), the air is sweet with the earthy smell of corn and the true taste of Puebla-delphia comfort. Tamalex, 1163 S. Seventh St., 215-465-1665.
>> READ MORE: How Craig LaBan reviewed Philly’s restaurants in 2018
>> READ MORE: Craig LaBan’s 2018 Philly restaurant awards
Chicken wings are universal. But in Cambodia Town in deep South Philly, the chefs take chicken wing craft to another level – by stuffing them. At the Boba & Co. food truck at Sixth and Moyamensing, chef Sarin Sieng debones the blade of each flapper and transforms it into a “Golden Phoenix” by stuffing it plump with a flavorful pork sausage threaded with glass noodles and a vibrant yellow Cambodian savor — a turmeric marinade vivid with lemongrass and ginger and a flicker of chili spice. The time-consuming and tricky handiwork alone is well worth the effort. But the flavors have resonated in my imagination since. And the dawning notion that a chicken wing has far more possibilities than I ever dreamed is priceless. Golden Phoenix stuffed chicken wings, $7 for two, Boba & Co., Sixth and Moyamensing; boba-and-company.business.site
At their innovative South Kensington BYOB, Cadence, the three Fork alums who are co-owners and co-chefs — Jon Nodler, Samantha Kincaid, and Michael Fry — made one of my favorite meat dishes this year, a fire-roasted bone-in tenderloin topped with smoked brisket jus. They also produced one of the year’s most compelling vegetable creations, “oysters on the half shell,” that involved hollowed-out salsify roots stuffed with oyster mushrooms. But few dishes captured the spirit of this cutting-edge kitchen — intricate, elegant, hyper-seasonal, and edgy — as much as the asparagus crab salad. It looks like a spring seafood storm in a bowl, with sweet crustacean and grilled squid tumbled with shaved raw asparagus ribbons in a spicy fish sauce marinade with crunchy shallots and a blast of herbs. But then my spoon slid into a silky steamed custard enriched with yellow crab fat hidden at the bottom — and this naturalistic chaos of colorful flavors suddenly unified in pure harmony. Cadence, 161 W. Girard Ave., 215-419-7537; cadencerestaurant.com
This was the year that pasta made a solid leap beyond purely Italian settings, thanks in part to the accessibility of smaller extrusion machines that allowed chefs to get creative with noodles. But when you find a cook who’s truly mastered the handmade Italian classics, like Anthony Andiario at Andiario in West Chester, an old-school plate of casoncelli made from silky dough wrapped around ricotta filling can still be truly stunning. Topped with the twiny dark snap of locally foraged black trumpets and a lightly steeped tan cream, eating one of these dumplings was like riding the Mushroom Express deep into the earth. Andiario, 106 W. Gay St., West Chester, 484-887-0919; andiario.com
One of this year’s most impressive new restaurants, Suraya, does so many things well, from the cardamom-scented morning pastries to next-level takes on Lebanese classics like raw minced lamb kibbeh, shish taouk, and intensely smoky baba ganoush. But the upscale seafood cookery from chef Nick Kennedy at dinner showed me a side of Lebanese cuisine I didn’t know. The red pepper-walnut harra sauce for the whole pompano? Yum. But don’t miss these meltingly juicy chunks of skewered halibut. They’re marinated in cuminy yogurt for hours before they kiss the charcoal grill. Finished with the tangy black powder of grated dried Omani limes, they were a revelation. Suraya, 1528 Frankford Ave., 215-302-1900; surayaphilly.com
Too often, old bars go upscale and lose their character. And there’s no doubt that Mayer’s Tavern — a longtime fishermen’s haunt on Schellenger Landing in Cape May best known for rowdy bar fights and killer fried scallops — has been reborn as a polished gastropub for a new generation. The brawls are a thing of the past. But chef-owner Alex Laudeman has safeguarded the stellar scallops. They’re hand-plucked daily from the fleet of scallop boats owned by Alex’s dad, Lobster House owner Keith Laudeman, and fried at Mayer’s beneath a micro-crust so perfect it seals in all the sweetness of the sea. They’re so good in a minimalist kind of way, you could say preserving this Jersey Shore special scallop tradition was definitely worth fighting for. Mayer’s Tavern, 894 Third Ave., Cape May, 609-435-5078; mayerstavern.com
The epic dim sum feast is the biggest draw to China Gourmet. The wok-fired lobsters plucked from the wall of live seafood tanks is yet another worthy reason to make the drive to Northeast Philly. But wouldn’t you know this massive new addition to our authentic Cantonese scene also happens to make one of the best Peking ducks in the region? The sublimely tender, flavorful hunks of boneless meat come wrapped in burnished mahogany crisps of rendered skin that, dabbed with sweet hoisin and crunchy scallion threads, crackle inside the puffy softness of a bao bread sandwich. China Gourmet, 2842 St. Vincent St., 215-941-1898 or 215-941-1716; on Facebook
I’m a big fan of the refined French brasserie flavors at Nick Elmi’s Royal Boucherie, from the superb charcuterie (pheasant terrine!) to the polished raw bar and herbaceous green ode to Georges Perrier’s escargots. But chef de cuisine Steve Forte and I have a burger history. I loved his double-patty beauty a few years ago at Meritage. And he’s only improved his take on the Big Mac upgrade here, where he’s amped the savor with Lancaster beef, a delicate blade of bacon, truffled black garlic mayo, classic slices of oozy American cheese, and a pain au lait bun from Machine Shop Boulangerie that, with its ability to remain soft without falling apart, is the ideal frame for this fistful of juicy pleasure. With a side of crispy pork fat fries for the win, Boucherie’s signature burger ($17) is my current Philly favorite. Royal Boucherie, 52 S. Second St., 267-606-6313; royalboucherie.com
Stinky Époisses cheese. Creamy cauliflower gratin. Mini-Parker House rolls fresh from the oven. Any of these three things would be capable of getting my appetite rumbling. But at Helm Rittenhouse, the casual Center City cousin to Kensington’s Helm, chef and co-owner Kevin D’Egidio had the bright idea to put them all together in one hot little ramekin. Add some raclette to the mix for a smoother melt and dust some flakes of sea salt across those warm little buns for extra grip, and we’re off and dipping. Helm Rittenhouse, 1901 Chestnut St., 215-982-1671; helmrittenhouse.com
It crackles. It pops. It radiates heat and sounds like a bubbly white cracker that’s come to life. It’s … um … well, you probably don’t want to know. But you’ll have to trust me. The Chicharron Moment that virtually every table starts with at Sarvida in Fishtown is not just a sign that Filipino flavors are having their moment. These crispy puffs are proof that flash-fried beef tendons are the most magnetic little snack Philadelphians have yet to embrace. Sarvida 300 E. Girard Ave., 267-273-1234; sarvidaphilly.com
Philly has never had a strong barbecue identity. Cheesesteaks? We obviously own those. So it’s no surprise that one of the best things to eat at the city’s most legit new barbecue joint, Mike’s BBQ, is a hybrid of the Philly birthright reimagined in a smokehouse: the smoked brisket cheesesteak. Owner Mike Strauss didn’t exactly invent this idea. But with all the trappings of the lusty classic — seeded rolls, caramelized diced onions, and a creamy house whiz made from Cooper Sharp (the lesser-known American cheese with century-old Philly roots), plus the bonus of peppery Creekstone beef expertly wood-smoked for 14 hours — Strauss has perfected it. Mike’s BBQ, 1703 S. 11th St., 267-831-2040; mikesbbqphilly.com
The luncheonette revival is alive and well at tiny, adorable Middle Child in the Jefferson Hospital district, where house-cured corned beef and salmon anchor a menu that’s all about thoughtful updates to sandwich classics. The best of these, the “Phoagie," is the ultimate sign of the times, a vegan hoagie remake that also turns to the Vietnamese flavors of Washington Avenue for a boost. Owner Matthew Cahn and his co-chef, Keith Krajewski, layer hoisin-roasted rounds of eggplant with chili paste, crispy onions, cilantro, Thai basil, and a schmear of vegan mayo scented with five spice and the singe of burnt onions and ginger. It’s essentially a bowl of vegetarian pho on a bun, and, perhaps, a new signature Philly sandwich of its own. Middle Child, 248 S. 11th St., 267-930-8344; middlechildphilly.com
There’s a fine art to creating a perfect tasting menu. And Jesse Ito has become a master with his chef’s choice omakase meals at Royal Sushi, where he leads the lucky diners at his coveted sushi counter through an 18-bite roller-coaster of raw seafood sensations that play with your taste buds' emotions. From the saline pop of a creamy kumamoto oyster to the alabaster gloss of a sweet scallop dusted with yuzu zest to the briny wash of live surf clam, myriad textures of various wild snappers, dusky shades of silver fish, sea-flavored threads of hairy crab, salt water eel, a creamy uni bomb and a slice of salmon torched just until its richly marbled orange flesh puffed like a warm soufflée, my prime emotion was simply that I didn’t want it to end. But when it did, it happened with a boom. This slice of pristine chutoro, its buttery pink tuna belly flesh scored lightly for a seamless chew, positively melted over a nub of perfect warm rice while a generous scoop of kaluga sturgeon caviar on top burst like buttery-briny fireworks shower over top and then lingered long after that bite was gone. Royal Sushi, 780 S. Second St., 267-909-9002; royalsushiandizakaya.com/sushi.html
Count on the Berley brothers of Franklin Fountain fame, Eric and Ryan, to deliver the year’s keeper dessert. Their Franklin Ice Cream Bar, a storefront for their new production facility just a few doors east of their 1910-theme soda fountain hit in Old City, is a take-out spot with updated versions of frozen custard and other chilly delights. But the Keystone-shape ice cream bars are my newest dessert obsession. With a choice of Franklin’s excellent ice creams, they’re a supreme upgrade over the supermarket variety. They also offer a perfect combo of fresh textures, deep flavors, and customizable whims, dipped to order in a vivid chocolate (milk or dark) that’s crafted from bean-to-bar cacao roasted and processed right next door at the Berleys' other venture, Shane Confectionery. There are almost too many good options to choose from, but my choice of coffee ice cream in a dark-chocolate shell streaked with caramel, chopped cashews, and Cape May sea salt was fantastic, the ice cream cold enough to hold its shape (but not so cold I got a brain freeze), the thin chocolate shell delivering a decisive snap, but also a supple, roasty cocoa richness. And then those toppings: sweet, salty, savory. Yes! Happy New Year! Franklin Ice Cream Bar, 112 Market St., 215-967-1184, franklinicecream.com