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.

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.

The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Georgetown Edition.

“Hi”

A few weeks ago, this was a text I received from my cousin Elliot. No punctuation, no emojis, no indication of any emotion whatsoever. Just “Hi”. A few hours and one ghetto Air BNB later and it’s 2:00 in the morning at Jim’s Steaks. I sat at a table next to him and Heather, chowing down on the best cheesesteaks in town and tossing back cheap beers. A short little text ended in a top notch night.

So, fast forward a little while, and I figured I’d try my luck with a quick “Hi” back to Elliot. The last time one of our conversations started that way, it ended pretty well, so I figured my odds were good. I was heading to Georgetown for a work trip that night, and was hoping he could provide me with a few dining recommendations since DC used to be his ol’ stomping grounds. After a little bit of back and forth, I had it. And I couldn’t wait.

But, before I could get there, I had to get through two other meals: dinner and breakfast the next morning.

For dinner, we chose this amazing Greek restaurant, Kapnos. We ordered an impossibly unreasonable amount of food (most of which I couldn’t even pronounce), and a lip-smacking delicious bottle (or two) of red wine. Each of us left stuffed to the brim with the happiest tastebuds in all of DC.

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The next morning, my mission was singular – I wanted coffee and a cupcake from Baked and Wired, a small, family-owned coffee shop and bakery in Georgetown. Autumn first told me about this place when she spent a summer in DC, and after I visited a few years ago, I fell in love with the joint. The coffee is excellent – I ordered an Americano, as usual – and the cupcakes served there are actually called cakecups. They’re huge and deliciously moist and (dare I say?) worlds better than anything you’d get at Georgetown Cupcakes. I chose the Elvis Impersonater, a banana cupcake with peanut butter icing, drizzled in chocolate. If you’re gonna have something sweet for breakfast, you might as well go big or go home, right?

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After a few hours of work, my wait was over. I was finally going to get my hands on a fish taco from Farmers, Fishers, Bakers before I had to hop on a train (literally my worst nightmare) and head back to Philadelphia. A fried white fish taco on a sweet corn cake, to be exact. Served with radishes, mangos, cashews, dates and coleslaw, every bite was light and refreshing and everything Elliot had said it would be… and then some. Even good enough to get me through a train ride home. And that’s sayin’ somethin’.

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The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Augusta Edition.

Two weeks ago, I spent a few days in Augusta, Georgia, a town that I had imagined to be small and uninteresting. I had mentally prepared myself to exist on a mostly-caffeine diet for my marathon days, fully expecting the culinary options to be sub-par.

I quickly learned, however, that Augusta is neither small nor uninteresting. It didn’t take long for someone to inform me that Augusta National Golf Club is home to the annual Masters Tournament, so I did my tourist duty and picked up a commemorative golf ball, and then I set my sights on what really mattered: leveraging a few food-loving locals to unearth some culinary gems.

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Stop #1.  As we waited for everyone to arrive at Abel Brown, a southern kitchen and oyster bar, Maddie and I decided to order a drink. The bartender, a quirky and talkative man with a southern drawl, started chatting about Pittsburgh (a surefire way to my heart) as he expertly crafted my “Sorry, Hank!” cocktail, a silky smooth concoction of gin, elderflower and lime. I asked about the name; Sorry, Hank! isn’t something very familiar. Two of Abel Brown’s usuals – Hank and Anne, a couple in their early 70s – were sitting at the bar one afternoon. After Anne had already downed a martini or two, she asked the bartender to whip up something else he thought she might like. It was the very drink I held in my hands, and when Hank leaned over for a taste of his wife’s, she said in her sweet southern drawl, “Sorry, Hank! It’s all gowne.” Hank rolled his eyes and looked lovingly at his wife, laughing. Now, her drink is a staple on the happy hour menu at Abel Brown.

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We took our seats inside the crisp, brightly lit and minimally decorated dining room and got down to business: appetizers. We started with a cheese plate (because when you’re lactose intolerant, obviously), smoked and fried chicken wings, johnny cakes, a drool-worthy scallop ceviche and a Caesar salad, complete with real life anchovies (yuck). Maddie and I agreed without hesitation – these were the best wings we had ever had. They had an incomparable smoky flavor, and when delicately dipped in the creamy horseradish sauce served on the side, it felt like the world stopped.

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Despite already feeling full, we quickly moved on to the main event. For me, that meant Georgia White Shrimp and Grits. (Because, when you’re in the South, is there really anything else to order?) Served with andouille sausage, fried okra, blistered tomatoes and jalapeno butter, it was everything I could have possibly imagined and more. I love grits – I mean, I really love grits – and these were creamier, saltier and more wonderful than any I’ve ever had before. (Sorry Emeril.)

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Fast forward 24 hours, and we’re seated in a dimly lit booth towards the back of Stop #2: Craft & Vine, a restaurant whose name alone piqued my interest. Walking through the front door was like crossing the threshold into a different era entirely. The waiters were dressed in varying shades of blue pants and cream shirts, each outfit held together (literally) with a pair of suspenders.  If you closed your eyes, the sounds could remind you of what a speakeasy sounded like. Hushed voices, bursts of laughter, and the shimmering, shaking and slamming of cocktails being crafted behind the long, wooden bar. The leather seats felt cool on the back of my legs, and the house rules lent an air of exclusivity to the whole joint. And to think – I almost decided to stay in. But now, I was hooked.

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Craft & Vine is less of a place to get a traditional dinner, but instead, a communal tasting space at your table – more tapas than individual meals. So, I ordered a French 75 (my favorite cocktail of all time – yum), and we slid our fingers down the menu, rattling off to our young waiter everything that caught our eye. We began, in our typical fashion, with a selection of charcuterie, and then layered in the weekly adaptation of deviled eggs, which were served with crispy chicken skins and a light layer of buffalo sauce. We added in some rabbit “wings,” a beet salad and a plate of Cab Sirloin, served with roaster fingerling potatoes, bravas sauce, romesco and wood oven grilled onions. The sirloin, by far, was the winner of the night. It melted in my mouth in the most delectable way imaginable.

Maybe it’s true what they say: everything is better in the South. And maybe the anonymity of Augusta (aside from golf-lovers around the world) works in my favor. These hidden gems will always be mine.