11 Hidden Hot Spots from a Philly Insider
Chef Judy Ni goes off the beaten path for amazing food in PhiladelphiaLeah Koenig
September 30, 2019
Judy Ni only moved to Philadelphia eight years ago, but she’s wasted no time making her culinary mark. Along with her husband, Andy Tessier, Ni helms bao.logy—a celebrated Taiwanese restaurant in Center City that draws inspiration from her family’s heritage.
Ni, a James Beard Chefs Boot Camp alum, has also become a quick study—and champion—of Philly’s mosaic of restaurants, particularly those owned by members of the city’s many immigrant communities. To that end, bao.logy is hosting a pop-up dinner series this fall highlighting chefs and cuisines that might not otherwise have a chance to shine. “We want to use our good fortune of having this space to give other people a platform,” she said.
Not surprisingly, Ni’s Philadelphia dining recommendations are less “top 10 hit list” and more a deep dive into the city’s gastronomic soul...plus doughnuts. Here’s a look at her favorite spots to dine.
One of our go-to places for a great night out is a.kitchen. The chef, Eli Collins, is one of the under-sung chefs in this city, but he absolutely kills it. His food is so well-sourced and thoughtful—it is deceptively simple looking, but he knows how to extract the beauty of the ingredients he’s working with. I always get the charcuterie plate—he does a great job with seafood, a great burger, and he just has this unparalleled way with vegetables. You can’t go wrong.
There are a lot of great cuisines being showcased in the city by women. There’s kind of a sisterhood of women telling personal stories through the cuisines we grew up with. There’s El Merkury (Sofia Deleon) making Central American cuisine, and Hardena, which has been serving wonderful Indonesian food for a generation—the daughters of the owner (Diana and Maylia Widjojo) now run the business. And then there is Tova Du Plessis of Essen Bakery. She’s this teeny tiny chef making great bagels and truly incredible babka.
Philadelphia has some super classic places that have been around forever. There’s John’s Roast Pork, which is very, very good. Everyone goes there for the roast pork sandwich, but the sleeper hit is their cheesesteak covered in Provolone. I also love Little Sicily II, which is an Italian restaurant run by an Indian family. They do a lot of standards, but also some wonderful mashups like an Indian cheesesteak with spices and masala fries. It is such a uniquely American thing, I think—making food that the masses love, but incorporating unexpected flavors from their heritage. It represents the best of what our country has to offer.
Philadelphia also has a huge Puerto Rican population—the second-largest behind New York. I love El Coqui, which makes traditional dishes and pastries. Their long-braised pork is delicious, and if you go, get the flan. It is phenomenal.
For doughnuts, there are two places I have to mention. South Philly’s Frangelli’s Bakery is great—they are an institution. When we know it is going to be a busy week at the restaurant, one of our guys will ride his bike there and bring back doughnuts. I’m not a huge chocolate fan, but I love their perfect chocolate glaze. Then there is Curiosity Doughnuts, which is technically a bit outside of Philadelphia, though they do pop-ups in the city sometimes. They make wonderful doughnuts with in-season fruit and flavors. And their cruller is perfect. You can taste the vanilla and egg, which is the way it should be.
For Caribbean food I love Ron’s Caribbean Cuisine. I have to confess, I just pick new things to order each time, like a choose-your-own-adventure. I’ll say, “that looks good, let’s try it.” And it is always delicious. But whenever there is goat, I get it. It is such a difficult meat to work with because it can be really lean. But they do it so well—it is always so unctuous and flavorful.
I moved to South Philly recently, where there is a decent-sized Mexican population. There’s this one food truck nearby called El Mariachi Food Truck that I go to a lot. His al pastor tacos are so delicious, and his sauces are just the best. I pay him with Venmo. He will take the order and then you hear his music stop for a second, and you know the Venmo came through!
Judy Ni’s Philadelphia Dining Guide
a.kitchen (Contemporary American)
135 S 18th St; 215-825-7030
Curiosity Doughnuts (Doughnuts)
El Coqui (Puerto Rican)
3528 I St; 215-634-5508
El Mariachi Food Truck (Tacos/Mexican)
2001 S 9th St; 267-367-3769
El Merkury (Central American)
2104 Chestnut St; 267-457-5952
Essen Bakery (Jewish Bakery)
1437 E Passyunk Ave; 215-271-2299
John’s Roast Pork (Italian)
14 Snyder Ave; 215-463-1951
Little Sicily II (Italian / Indian)
1608 S. Christopher Columbus Blvd; 215-465-8787
Ron’s Caribbean Cuisine (Caribbean)
5726 N. Broad St; 215-924-3966
Leah Koenig is a food writer, author of several cookbooks, including her latest, The Jewish Cookbook (Phaidon), and cooking instructor living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Instagram at @leah.koenig.