People act surprised when I say that they should go away to Philadelphia.
I understand. I lived there in the late 1980s, when the city wasn't a place to wander for food and window shopping. But you need to leave Howard County some time, and driving two hours can create a short escape that feels like weeks away.
First, pick a downtown hotel. Anything within five blocks of City Hall would be great and give you the opportunity to enjoy a city time. Consider just two nights like Mrs. HowChow and I stayed last week for our anniversary
Then, check the Web for a special restaurant where you might need a reservation. We recommend Alma de Cuba, a modern Cuban place west of City Hall. Great food runs from Olde City against the river through Center City along Chestnut, Walnut and Sansom. But we can't take ourselves away from Alma de Cuba. Beautiful, dim atmosphere. Delicious mojitos and caipirinhas. They start you with Columbian rolls with a light crust and a soft interior. Then we always start with ceviche. Alma de Cuba serves at least six varieties, and we splurged last weekend for the trio sampler -- a classic hamachi, a tuna variety, and lobster and crab in a coconut milk. Honestly, I can still taste the corn nuts in the hamachi ceviche, but I don't remember what I had as a main dish.
Then walk. The fun of Philadelphia is that you can stroll day-long loops and graze with no reservations. No plans. This isn't Columbia. This isn't even Washington DC. Check out Reading Terminal Market for breakfast or cheesesteaks that make Lexington Market seem pedestrian. Head all the way down to Fork Etc. at Fourth and Market for gourmet sandwiches (the Cuban!) or the makings of a picnic outside the Liberty Bell (the fried chicken!). You can walk 40 blocks and stop in any pizza shop that you pass. The slices or the hoagies will exceed almost anything you can buy around here. It's like New York without the Manhattan prices.
Or it's like Italy with more imagination. We plan our days around Capogiro -- the best gelato that I have ever had. It's the creamy taste of Italy, but it's even better because Capogiro's daily flavors include both traditional flavors like dark chocolate, fior di latte or fruits with imaginative ideas that you won't taste even in Rome like sea salt or Thai coconut milk. My favorites are actually sorbettos -- mixtures of made from sugar, fruit and a paired herb. Lime-cilantro. Lemon-opal basil. Orange-cardamon. They're expensive. But Capogiro invites you to taste -- literally taste a dozen flavors before you pick two or three for your dish.
Those discoveries make Philadelphia an adventure and an escape. A few years ago, we window shopped for clothes, then looked at art galleries. Last week, we nosed around modern furniture stores in a district along Third Street north of Market -- six interesting stores topped off by the cool vintage pieces at Mode Moderne. Heading back to the hotel, we stumbled on Foster's -- a home store with a mix of furniture, kitchen ware, clocks, books, etc -- and walked out with a shiny mobile. That is the fun of being away.
If you want to check out Philadelphia, start with Philly Mag. If you go to Capogiro, also check out El Vez across the street. That is great guacamole that inspired Mrs. HowChow's creation. We tasted the El Vez version last week, and we were shocked to realize that they taste nothing alike.
Alma de Cuba
1623 Walnut Street
119 S. 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107