Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Weekend: Philadelphia for Food and Escape

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
Philadelphia, PA 19103

Alma de Cuba on Urbanspoon

Capogiro Gelateria
119 S. 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Capogiro Gelateria on Urbanspoon


Unknown said...

Happy Anniversary! We celebrated our 10th this past weekend in DC. Had a great time with some great eating: Redwood in Bethesda, 1789 in Georgetown (which was just all-out terrific) and Central Michel Richaud. And happy upcoming birthday too.

Anonymous said...

My wife went to a conference in downtown Philadelphia about a year ago and I tagged along. We had a great time and I was pleasantly surprised by the downtown. Liked the Reading Terminal Market and just went beserk for Capogiro. Hands down the best Gelato ever! Also found a great bar along the river (Front Street I think) that had 130+ wines by the glass. No surprise that its name escapes me.

Doug S said...

Any suggestions for local & really good sub/hoagies? I live in Columbia and haven't found anything spectacular yet.

HowChow said...

Doug S -- I haven't found a great hoagie. My wife and I eat lived four years in Philadelphia, so we know how good they can be. I'm doing a series of posts about the "best of" and asking people for input. One of the future ones is going to ask for great delis and hoagies.

Doug S said...

That's about what I've found - it disappointing really. We had a hankering for subs a couple of weekends ago, but couldn't come up with anything that really wow'd us.

Thanks for the response!

bboyneko said...

When you said "columbian rolls" did you mean "Colombian"?

Also an AMAZING restaurant in Philadelphia that has Cuban and Colombian food with amazing Mojitos is called 'Tierra Colombiana'

You might be shocked at how scary this neighborhood is, but you have an oasis in the Rite-Aid. You are allowed to park there to eat at Tierra Colombiana and it's well-lit and safe. Just try not to appear too frightened as you cross from the parking lot into the restaurant.

The place is huge, in the evenings it is a night club and you can hear the thumping music through the walls. It is always latin music however, so it fits. If you don't want that eat an earlier dinner.

The Mojitos are AMAZING and the Cuban black beans are probably one of the most delicious foods I have ever had in my life. The chef has a secret recipe from Cuba that he supervises for those beans, and my God does it show.

Skip the overly-fancy Alma de Cuba in downtown Philly and go here instead for real Cuban and Colombian food. The only negative mark I give the place is their Colombian Empanadas were not that great, everything else was amazing.

Don't forget the real Colombian coffee before you go! They import the beans directly and grind them on the spot.

CMolieri said...

I have been watching your blog and love that you highlight some of the local markets not only in your own hometown, but those you travel. I'm a newbie of sorts, and lately have been showcasing some of the meals I've cooked with locally grown and farmed produce, as well as others along that vein. This post was great and I especially love that you came to Illadelphia for a weekend escape.