The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Cheu Noodle Bar.

The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Cheu Noodle Bar.

Do you ever have the kind of day where focusing on the task at hand seems nearly impossible? The kind of day when you’re sitting at your desk, headphones in, really trying to focus, but then a really good jam comes on and you start humming and shoulder dancing, and then all of a sudden you remember — shoot, I’m still at work. Or the kind of day when you ask your coworkers (in rotation because it’s less obvious that way) if they’d like to go grab a cup of coffee. Not because I needed any more coffee, but because I needed some fresh air, some movement, some of anything that would get me away from my desk. I was unmotivated, uninspired. Plain and simple.

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So my boss, picking up on my coffee-every-hour-on-the-hour kind of antics, asked if I wanted to go out for lunch with one of our vendors that was coming in town from New York. YES. Yes was my answer. (She also made me promise that I would actually do some work when we returned. Fine.) She chose Cheu Noodle Bar, a small Asian Fusion joint in Washington Square West that opens at noon each day. We stepped through the front door at approximately 12:07PM, and Cheu was already packed and the wait was 20 minutes. (Pro: More time out of the office, coddling my ADD. Con: I’m generally impatient, and I was also very hungry.)

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When we were finally seated at the bar, we agreed on two different appetizers: broccoli, served with Vietnamese sausage, peanuts and soy, and General Tso’s brussel sprouts, cooked with kimchi, rice pearls and tofu. As Jenee (my boss) placed the order, some gut-wrenching desire for the sweet potato rangoons kicked in. So I Psst‘d her. She rolled her eyes at me, and added them to our order. And thank god she did because they were crispy and wonderful and the perfect combination of sweet and salty and I honestly wish I could have eaten 173 more of them. The broccoli and brussels were also incredible, and even though we had just started to nibble on our appetizers, I began to realize how Cheu Noodle Bar had made its way onto the list.

Our seats at the bar overlooked the kitchen, and the chefs had no qualms about making casual conversation with us as they chopped, swirled, sizzled, diced, fired and grilled our food. Right in front of us! But my favorite part was something that Cheu has received a lot of heat for. It’s not authentic. It’s Asian fusion. It’s not authentic Asian; it’s whatever the heck they want it to be. With an Asian flare. And I respect that.

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Admittedly, I had already fallen in love with the place. And then the cook placed my bowl of fried chicken tan tan in front of me. Stop. A bowl of the most perfect ramen noodles, buried under broth, collard greens, a sweet tea egg, a big ol’ piece of fried chicken and cornbread furikake. I did what every over-confident, noodle-loving foodie would do, and I clumsily attacked this sensational dish with some chopsticks. I comically failed, but it didn’t even matter. Every bite was better than the last.

Cheu, I could cheu on your noodles all day. (Sorry, had to. Buh-dum-dum-psh.)

The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Talula’s Daily.

The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Talula’s Daily.

Today, I’ve lived in Philadelphia for exactly 88 days. One third of those 88 days, however, have actually been spent not in Philadelphia. I went back to my hometown for the holidays (a few of them, actually), to Georgia, to DC, to New York, all around. And there is even more travel on the horizon – more trips to Georgia, DC and New York, a little bit of Tampa and then a whole lot of Portland. And that’s just in the next two months.

So, I think it’s safe to say that Philadelphia doesn’t quite feel like home. My feet haven’t been on the ground long enough for that to be true. Besides, that feeling of “home” doesn’t just show up because I have a residence here. Home is people, home is memories.

I’ve always been a little slow when it comes to change. I get into a routine and the instant that something – anything, big or small – changes what I’ve become comfortable with, it can be jarring. That said, I’m still adjusting here. Every now and then,  something will happen – I’ll hear a song, or overhear someone crack a joke, or see a small trinket at a store – and I’ll think of the people and places I’ve called home. I’ll get this tightening feeling in my chest – you know, the one you get when you’re watching the saddest part of a heartbreaking movie – and I’ll be reminded that I’m far from home, despite the fact that geographically, I’m not very distant at all. It’s surprising how little it takes to send me barreling backwards in time to a different place, a different set of circumstances. But each time, I get a little more thankful to have been where I have, and to know who I’ve known.


Day 66 as a Philadelphia resident: I’m finally going to cross off the first restaurant on my list: Talula’s Daily. That was my whole schtick in Pittsburgh – culinary exploration – but here? Now? Not so much.

In fact, I had even broken the cardinal food rule of being a Philadelphia resident just a few days earlier. I ate (and enjoyed) a cheesesteak outside of city limits. I had been warned though: this non-Philly cheesesteak was the best. My unreasonable allegiance to Philadelphia cheesesteaks was unwavering – I had already decided I’d get my usual (cheese – not whiz, onions) and it wouldn’t compare to Jim’s before I even tasted it. Fortunately, my pride isn’t so great that I’m unable to admit when I’m wrong… because I was. This cheesesteak from a small, Cheers-like joint (where everybody knows your name) lived up to the hype. It’s also worth mentioning that I didn’t even take my first bite while it was fresh. I finished my beer (Coors Light, cash only) and rode back to the house, all while this cheesesteak rested inside a styrofoam container on my lap (with holes, though, so it wouldn’t get too soggy). And it was still probably the best cheesesteak I’ve ever had.

So, fast forward a few days and I’m ready for Talula’s: the first entry into the Philadelphia Food Diaries. (Because, let’s be honest, anything I could have written about up until this point were the cheesesteaks I’d tried from various places around town, and they just didn’t live up to the hype anymore.) The premise of the dining experience at Talula’s Daily is unique, creative and intimate. There is a pre-set dinner menu of several courses, served at a slow and intentional pace across the span of several hours (and across several bottles of wine). Each course is cooked in the open-style cottage kitchen, situated directly next to the long, wooden farm table in the dining room, and served family-style in the middle of the table. You take what you want, and share the dishes with everyone else around the table. The cups and serveware are slightly mismatched, and it feels like home. In fact, every thing about this meal reminded me of home in some far-removed way.

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The first course was an apple beignet, served with bacon jam and quick pickled cabbage. A seemingly odd trio of flavors, I proceeded with caution. It wasn’t necessary. The sweet fried dough that encompassed the warm and tender apples was balanced by the saltiness of the jam and mouth-puckering acidity of the pickles. These reminded me of my friend Cheryl. The last time I ate a beignet was with her at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.

 

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We then moved on to Meyer Lemon Scallops, served with Belgian endives, candied citrus butter and chunks of grapefruit. Another unexpected combination done incredibly well. This reminded me of my Grammy who first introduced me to the sour, biting taste of grapefruit.

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Then came the meat of the meal. No pun intended. The juicy short rib genuinely melted in my mouth, and was served on a plate with glazed seasonal vegetables and horseradish whipped potatoes. This reminded me of my mom. When I was younger, I remember she would often make a variation of this meal. Let’s be honest, whose mom didn’t? Meat, vegetables, potatoes. A childhood classic in my book. The whipped potatoes, while scalding hot, were glorious. The perfect amount of butter, the perfect amount of horseradish.

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Dessert was perfect – a chocolate tasting. A trio of white, milk and dark chocolates in a festive presentation. This reminded me not of a person, but of a place: a chain coffee shop in Southside Works where I would frequently visit before/after/during work for years. I became such a regular that I was on a first name basis with the baristas, knowing when to expect each of them to be working on different days. Each year around Christmas time, they would give me a tiny cup of the newest holiday beverage they had concocted to taste – tiny cups just like the one I had at Talula’s.

I left dinner that night feeling full – literally and figuratively. I couldn’t put another granule of food into my mouth or drink another sip, but I also felt oddly comforted. I realized that I could be seated at a table of (mostly) strangers, in a city that doesn’t quite feel like home, and still feel close to the people I love.

Pittsburgh Food Diaries: Philadelphia Edition, Part II.

Pittsburgh Food Diaries: Philadelphia Edition, Part II.

Last weekend, I pregamed in Philadelphia. Not the kind of pregame you know and love from your college days, but a weekend-long preview of this year’s annual Fourth of July vacation with some of the most wonderful people that exist in this galaxy.

We spent most of Friday night on Nate and Megan’s back porch with a bottle of wine and bubbling laughter, and I woke up the next morning with the sun and a hot cup of coffee. We started our long, sunny Saturday walk through town with a stop at Kite and Key before moving on to the Reading Terminal Market. We (obviously) picked up some donuts for breakfast before walking a few more blocks to Independence Beer Garden, an expansive garden overlooking the Liberty Bell and Independence National Historic Park. Decorated with reclaimed wood and distressed metals, Tivoli lights and every outdoor game you could think of, there’s no surprise why it’s the place to find anyone on a warm summer day in Philadelphia.

We made a few more stops along on Saturday afternoon (at places whose names I don’t remember) and hopped on bikes to zip home for a quick refresh before heading back out for the night. I have never laughed so hard or smiled so big or felt like my heart was going to burst with so much happiness from the joy that these people bring me.

At one point not so long ago, the five of us shared the small city of Pittsburgh. Now I’m the last man standing here, while Nate and Megan hold down Philadelphia and Kris and Rita are living the New York City dream. But when we all come back together, even if it is just a few times a year, it’s like nothing has changed at all. Kris is still a Sea Puppy and Nate’s still Two-Tooth. Rita will always have Baby’s First Brunch, and there will always be that one time with Megan and the paper at Belvedere’s. (And shoutout to Carl and Becky, who couldn’t be there with us this weekend.)

To bring our whirlwind weekend to an end, we all grabbed brunch at BlueCat on Sunday morning, a Latin infusion restaurant in Fairmount. We rolled up armed with a bottle of champagne, and a weekend’s worth of laughs between us.

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The waitress placed two small plates down on the table: an appetizer of jicama, watermelon, cucumber and a white vinaigrette, topped with cilantro. Delicious. Then, in my typical salty breakfast fashion, I ordered the breakfast burrito, which came served with fried plantains (stahhhhhp) and stopped speaking entirely in between my first bite and my last. Meg went with the huevos rancheros and, to no one’s surprise, Rita went with the french toast. Nate and Kris jumped on the burrito train with me, adding chorizo to theirs.

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Maybe it’s because I was starving, maybe it’s because I got less than 10 hours of sleep the whole weekend, or maybe it’s because BlueCat was actually that amazing, but this brunch was the best way I could’ve imagined ending a Fourth of Julancer pregame with these amazing people. It’s kinda like we run the world. La da dee da dee.

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The Pittsburgh Food Diaries: Philadelphia Edition.

The Pittsburgh Food Diaries: Philadelphia Edition.

From when I was young — think: middle school field trip age — I’ve always loved everything about Philadelphia, and as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that its food is like the city itself: real, hearty, grounded and unpretentious. So last weekend, when I found myself on a spontaneous road trip to the City of Brotherly Love to visit two of my dearest friends, I was excited. Excited for some good, quality time with Nate and Megan, excited to be back in Philadelphia, and excited for some new food.

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On Saturday morning, we walked from their apartment in Fairmount to the Reading Terminal Market, a historic institution that, since 1892, has been able to offer the community a blend of locally grown and exotic produce, meats, baked goods, and about a million other things. For the yinzers out there, imagine the entire Strip District in one building. That’s the Reading Terminal Market.

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We started by grabbing sandwiches from DiNic’s — Nate and I opted to try the world famous roast pork and broccoli rabe, while Megan went with the Italian-style pulled pork. The pork on each of our sandwiches was amazing: perfectly tender and wonderfully seasoned. And the freshly baked bread? Don’t even get me started. The rabe, eh, I could have done without it — Nate agreed — and Meg made the best choice by throwing peppers and onions onto her ‘wich.

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To water down the gratuitous amounts of food we ate for lunch, we headed to Old City Coffee for some freshly ground brew. And then, being the gluttons that we are, we just had to make one last pit stop at Beiler’s Doughnuts, a Pennsylvania Dutch family-owned doughnutery (I obviously made that word up) that serves myriad variations of creme-filled delicacies.

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I chose a maple bacon doughnut, while Nate had the salted caramel and Meg ordered chocolate peanut butter. It was hard not to drool over the cases of fresh sweets, and even harder to choose just one.

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This food-filled afternoon was then followed by a series of games of Settlers of Catan, lots of snow, lots of laughter, a little whiskey, some wine and a few beers. During this time period, we added in more food in the form of appetizers from Rembrandt’s, including loaded tater tots, French onion soup, cheesesteak spring rolls, crack mayo french fries and the best macs and cheese with truffle I’ve ever eaten in my whole entire life. No joke. 763,159,076 calories later, we walked home, tired, but happy (and full) as clams.

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This leads me to the next morning. There is literally nothing more wonderful about the weekend than Sunday brunch. We three musketeers walked through the brisk air to Bishop’s Collar, a local Fairmount eatery whose name is derived from an old Celtic expression for a perfectly poured pint of Guinness. Well, I didn’t have a beer with my breakfast — I stuck with a mimosa — but I did order a simple wrap, stuffed with a fried egg, sliced ham, provolone and guacamole. Seriously, brunch and guacamole?! I literally cannot.

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I left Philadelphia with a full and happy stomach, and an even fuller and happier heart. La da dee da dee.

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