There’s hummus among us

Hummus has long had a place at the table. Over the last few years, some tasty, fast options have sprung up in Center City. This week, we visit a terrific new ramen/sushi specialist in Old City, a quirky brunch spot-slash-pizzeria in Fishtown, and a homespun taqueria in Norristown. Craig LaBan is here to discuss an oddity regarding "hot" restaurant neighborhoods. And oh, yes. Today is the launch of Center City Sips, the Center City District's seasonal Wednesday happy hour. If you need food news, click here and follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Email tips, suggestions, and questions here.

We’re crazy for chickpeas, gonzo for garbanzo beans around here.

A bowl from Hummus Republic, 115 S. 18th St.
A bowl from Hummus Republic, 115 S. 18th St.

This week, L.A.-based Hummus Republic joined the hometown hummus happenings with a tiny franchised shop at 115 S. 18th St., most recently Konditori coffee. HR is an assembly-line, build-your-own situation — pita ($8.75), bowl, salad ($9.95).

Huge variety: Four kinds of hummus, a feta dip, tzatziki. Add a protein (such as braised vegetables, chicken shawarma, lemon chicken, falafel, vegan "beef," pasture-raised steak strips), choose unlimited toppings (pomegranate kale salad, tabbouleh, kalamata olives, etc.), and add dressings (tahini, hot sauce, lemon/olive oil, etc.). There's also a vegan burger ($8.95, served with waffle-cut sweet potato fries), and assorted flavors of lemonade with comp refills.

Initial thoughts: Outstanding value. Control freaks will enjoy the options, and the line moves fairly briskly considering the newness. Vegans now have another destination up the street from HipCityVeg and not far from such competitors as Dizengoff, Goldie, Hey Hummus, Mama's Vegetarian, Noon Mediterranean, and Naf Naf Grill.

I found HR's chicken shawarma lacked signature smokiness; then I saw it came from a heat-up bag pulled from a box. (Obviously little prep space.) Signature hummus is thick and kind of bland, unlike the creamy hummus-tahini jawns at, say, Dizengoff, Hey Hummus, Mama's, and Hummusology across town. Tip: Ask for tahini on the side, and mix your own.

There are a few seats in the window, but overall HR is meant for takeout.

Where we’re enjoying happy hour

Samosa chaat at Veda, 1920 Chestnut St.
Samosa chaat at Veda, 1920 Chestnut St.

Veda, 1920 Chestnut St.
5-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 6-8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

The bar at this modern Indian bistro is tucked behind glass off the entrance, giving you looks at Chestnut Street while sparing patrons in the dining room. Happy hour brings tasty specials all year. During Center City Sips, starting today, the margaritas (that most Indian of cocktails) come down to just $6.   

Where we’re eating: Tomo Sushi & Ramen Bar, Medusa, Ricos Tacos

Chicken ramen at Tomo, 228 Arch St.
Chicken ramen at Tomo, 228 Arch St.

Old City north of Market has become quite the Japanese destination, what with stalwart Kisso and the sleek new Tuna Bar. Now comes Tomo, where Andy Kho — who made maki at Kisso for a decade before, he says, he was fired — turns out sushi and ramen in a tranquil storefront at 228 Arch St., next to dessert gem ICI Macarons. The look is vaguely Doma in Logan Square meets Fat Salmon (where Kho worked during Tomo's year of development). Hours are in flux, but include weekday lunch (specials abound on the sushi bar) and daily dinner. It's BYO; phone is 267-519-0209.

Rosemary-lemon wings at Medusa Pizzeria in Fishtown.
Rosemary-lemon wings at Medusa Pizzeria in Fishtown.

Is it Medusa Pizzeria or Green Eggs Cafe? Both. Since Green Eggs took over the fam-friendly Neapolitan pizzeria at York and Gaul Streets in Fishtown last month, you get brunch grub till 4 p.m. At 5 p.m., an expanded Italian menu kicks in with reasonably priced pastas and solid apps, including shrimp scampi, seared scallops, wood-fired ribs, and these lemon-rosemary wings, dusted with sea salt and served with grilled lemon and blistered tomatoes. It's BYOB, cash-only (ATM on premises). Second-floor deck is the way to go; on a clear day. you can see I-95.

Birria at Ricos Tacos in Norristown.
Birria at Ricos Tacos in Norristown.

There's nothing fancy about the Mexican food scene in Norristown — just outstanding hole-in-wall taquerias. Ricos Tacos (239 E Main St., 610-275-1313) has the tipico favorites, including barbacoa, carne asada, chorizo, and chicken, but also cabeza and lingua — all for $2.83 each ($3, including tax). On weekends, the kitchen turns out tamales with chicken and cheese ($2.50 each), plus the spicy Jalisco stew known as birria ($13), a feast. Atmosphere? Not much. The dining room is the back of a bodega. It's cash-only and closed Tuesdays (so no taco Tuesday, obvi).

Dining Notes

Center City Sips starts today — with higher prices, as organizers try to bougie it up. Our coverage starts here.  And the official site is here.

Saturday, June 9:  Fishtown FestivAle will run along five blocks of Frankford Avenue, from Girard Avenue to Oxford Street, with a full slate of food and drink and three stages featuring live DJs from noon to 8 p.m. Info is here.

Sunday, June 10: The eighth annual Burger Brawl, postponed from last week, is to be tried again outside Xfinity Live with dozens of burger, taco, and cocktail samplings, benefiting the School District of Philadelphia, from 3 to 6 p.m. Info is here.

This week’s openings

Frankie Ann's Grill | Fairmount

Rembrandt's gets new life. Jerry Blavat will host the grand opening party starting at 3 p.m. June 7.

Hummus Republic | Rittenhouse

Mediterranean fast-casual, mostly takeout.

It's Nutts on the Canal | Lambertville

The crew from the casual It's Nutt's in Titusville, N.J., has taken over the long-running Lilly's at 2 Canal St. with a similarly situated bruncherie. (Early word suggests service goofs.)

Koreana | Rittenhouse

Fast-casual Korean bowls and dumplings just opened at 37 S. 19th St., the long-ago Matyson.

Tomo | Old City

A veteran sushi chef presents sushi and ramen in a peaceful storefront.

Wander Inn | South Philadelphia

Corner bar (Third and Porter) reclaims the name of a South Philly landmark. Easy menu, six beers on tap.

This week’s closings

Blue Duck on Broad  | Avenue of the Arts

The yearling pub next to the Bellevue's parking garage ran out of steam; supposedly a new tenant is waiting in the wings.

Danlu | University City

This two-story Taiwanese street-fooder, open only six months. will be closed all summer for an undisclosed reboot.

Shoo-Fry | Rittenhouse

The subterranean poutine specialist never got off the ground.

Smoke's Poutinerie | Queen Village

The Canada-based poutine franchise has served its last spud.

Craig LaBan answers your dining questions

Reader: Your review of Cadence sounds terrific, but how do South Kensington and Fishtown get so many interesting eats and the Graduate Hospital/Fitler Square area so few? Not fair! The small three-story house with no parking around the corner from us on Bainbridge just sold for $900,000.  Perhaps they'll have no money left for dinner, but I'm guessing not.

Craig LaBan: You've touched on an ongoing mystery to me, as well: Why, of all the fast-evolving neighborhoods, has the Graduate Hospital/Fitler zone accumulated so many underwhelming, unadventurous places? The most forward-cooking fine-dining kitchen there is still Pumpkin, the tiny BYOB that is already 14 years old (but aging gracefully).

The answer considers both demographics and real estate. The right mix of residents just hasn't been quite been there to support a cutting-edge restaurant. There are a lot of Penn students and that's resulted in a vague college-town vibe to the many casual new places that have popped up around South Street West.

There are well-to-do residents in the sprawling Naval Square development, but its origin as a gated community did not foster much spillover to a thriving restaurant scene beyond its walls.

Lovely Fitler Square, just north, meanwhile, is filled with older empty-nesters who still pine for the mushroom soup of the old Friday Saturday Sunday. (Just kidding! I liked that soup, too!) Actually, the new edition of Fri Sat Sun is definitely in Cadence's league in terms of culinary thrills, but it's officially in the Rittenhouse neighborhood, which is a well-established dining destination.

In the neighborhoods we're talking about just south and west, Pub & Kitchen has always overachieved on the plate for a gastropub. Rex 1516 has its moments for southern inspirations, too, beyond its excellent burgers. And I like Trattoria Carina on 22nd Street just fine, as well, but it only exists because the more ambitious Fitler Dining Room struggled to win lasting support from a neighborhood that just didn't warm to that kind of upscale dining.

But it really also comes down to real estate. In Fishtown and Kenzo, as well as East Passyunk, you have both the millennial demographic of hungry, adventurous young professionals living there and the reasonable retail rents (at least for now) where start-up entrepreneurs can take chances, invest $120,000 or less to get up and running (as Cadence did), and still keep menu prices within reach.

More tellingly, many of these emerging neighborhoods are also close to where many restaurant industry staffers live. So, when chef Michael Fry passed by the corner storefront at Girard Avenue and Hancock Street and saw Modo Mio was suddenly up for rent, which started the ball rolling for Cadence, he and partners Jon Nodler and Samantha Kincaid decided to open their dream restaurant not in Center City where they'd worked together at Fork and High Street on Market, but in South Kensington — close to home.

For those living in G-Ho and Fitler Square, the blocks in Point Breeze just south of Washington Avenue are ripe for similar pioneering bistro action, though to date mostly gastropubs (i.e. American Sardine Bar) and Mexican spots have thrived.

But it's important to also let each neighborhood find its own unique voice, and the recent news that Dock Street Brewing Co. plans to open a large production space and taproom in a former tile warehouse at 2118 Washington Ave. is especially intriguing. This longtime industrial corridor feels poised for a major transformation into a thriving commercial strip. Will it bring fine-dining thrills, too? Who knows. But as with so much in Philly these days, if the craft beer starts flowing, good things are likely to follow.

Email Craig here.