Thursday, August 16, 2018

Thursday's Pozole Day

On Thursdays in Guerrero, a southern state on Mexico’s Pacific coast, the Pozolerias are packed. “It’s been the traditional day since I can remember,” says Ernesto, who grew up in Guerrero.  

At a Pozoleria, “You can order chicken mole or taquitos,” Ernesto says. But on Thursdays, “You’re not going to look at the menu. You’re going to sit down with your friends and order pozole.”

Pozole is a Mexican stew of pork and hominy seasoned with chiles, oregano, epazote and topped with shredded lettuce, sliced radishes, cheese, avocado, tostadas or chicharrones. Leave as is, or swap chicken in for pork, and you have pozole blanco; add tomatillos, pumpkin seeds and cilantro for pozole verde; cook with dried ancho or guajillo chiles to make pozole rojo.

At his usual lunch spot – behind the counter at Lupita’s Grocery on the Italian Market – Ernesto dipped his spoon into a warm bowl of pozole blanco topped with sliced jalapeno, crispy chicharron, queso fresco, and chunks of avocado.

“A friend of mine cooked this and brought it yesterday,” he says. (It was Monday – since moving to the states in 1991, he enjoys pozole any day of the week.)

Ernesto doesn’t cook much. For lunch, he often orders tacos from Blue Corn down the street, or heads to the truck on the corner of 10th St. and Washington Ave. “Sometimes I cook. Like every other week,” he says. But for the most part, the ingredients at his grocery store are for customers.

Ernesto opened Lupita’s after working in Philly restaurants for more than a decade. His brother helped him get his first job after moving to the States, washing dishes at a now-closed mall in University City. “I was washing dishes, taking in deliveries,” he said. “I didn’t speak English so what was I going to do? It was not easy.”

He then found a job at the Midtown II Diner where he met Freddy, a Puerto Rican cook who helped him learn English.

“I asked him when he wasn’t busy to write down the words I heard in the kitchen in English,” Ernesto said. “At night, when I got home, I’d take out all the little pieces of paper and look through the [Spanish-English] dictionary.”

A few years later, he was out of the kitchen and looking to start a business of his own. He bought the 9th Street storefront from an Italian couple. “The walls were falling apart,” he remembers. He did major renovations and stocked the shelves with Mexican pantry items and home goods.

At Lupita’s you can buy dried herbs, canned hominy, fresh chicharrones (and the rest of the ingredients you’d need to make pozole at home), plus leather belts Made in Mexico, fútbol jerseys, and piñatas. 

“[Shoppers] know the good thing are the avocados here,” Ernesto told me. There’s usually a box of Purepecha avocados from Michoacán – the Mexican state known for producing the best of the crop – in the cooler in the back. These avocados are named for the indigenous people living in the highlands of central Michoacán. They have the perfect creamy texture, rarely a brown spot, and a rich, slightly sweet flavor. 

One change Ernersto has noticed over the years at Lupita's: “Now, American people buy avocados more that Mexicans!” he says, eyebrows rising above his black Oakley frames. “How about that?”

Friday, August 10, 2018

That's a Wrap

Gyros & Fries on Germantown Ave.
AROUND NOON ON A RECENT FRIDAY, students from Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy crowded the counter at the small market next door. Two cooks in knit hats shaved meat from a rotating spit and kept fryer oil spattering as the students ordered falafel, cheesy fries, chicken tenders and shawarma. Al-Amana Grocery Store offers a mash-up menu including kid-pleasers and traditional Middle Eastern sandwiches and platters.

Garrett, a math teacher on lunch duty who asked us not to use his last name, ate a gyro at a booth near the entrance. The thin man with gray curls and wire-rimmed glasses typically orders falafel—made in-house with chickpeas, heaps of cilantro and parsley and spices. But on Fridays, he often splurges for Al-Amana’s seasoned lamb and beef, chopped tomatoes, lettuce and pickles dressed in tzatziki and hot sauce and wrapped in pita.

“On Fridays he splurges on lamb, beef, tomatoes, lettuce, and pickles dressed in tzatziki and hot sauce in pita.”

Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy and this grocery/deli are both part of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society, which houses a mosque and cultural center. On Fridays, members of the neigh- borhood’s Palestine and Arab Muslim community gather at the mosque for Jumu’ah, a weekly congregational prayer held just after noon. They stop at the market next door for lunch and groceries; the Syrian American owner stocks Al-Amana’s shelves with imports from countries including Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey.

Rushing past the case of halal meats, a student shouted hello to her teacher. Garrett replied with a nod.

“Now that’s disrespectful, you didn’t say ‘hi’ back!” She feigned a pout and marched out the door to enjoy her pile of ketchup- topped fries.

“Very bright student, but she loves to play,” Garrett laughed quietly and returned to his lunch.


Mama’s Vegetarian
18 S. 20th St.

947 Federal St.

Kamal’s Middle Eastern Specialties
Reading Terminal Market 45 N. 12th St.

1526 Sansom St.

4420 Walnut St.
Writer's note: This story was published in the Summer 2018 issue of Edible Philly

Thursday, June 21, 2018

British Squash & Philly Jam

Jennifer settled onto a sunny bench in Washington Square and untied the plastic sack on her lap. She withdrew a bottle of Schweppes, a container of tuna, and a bag of bagel crisps. She’d stopped at Old Nelson on her way to the park to pick up the cracker-spread combo. “I’m not a big sandwich person,” she said, pulling open the bag of New York Style Bagel Crisps.1

Her one o’clock lunch break was well earned; that morning, she’d used a CRM database to compile a list of contacts for an e-blast to promote an upcoming career fair. (She’s a sales manager at the Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News and oversees the customer database.) She ended up with 850 contacts tagged with ‘HR’ or ‘recruitment,’ and was pleased.

“That might not seem like a lot to you, but those are highly customized contacts,” she said. “Some might be duplicates, but who cares!” She threw her hands in the air. “I decided, I’m going to lunch to celebrate.”

Jennifer wore a white and green polka dot sweater, a long khaki skirt, gray 50s-style sunglasses, and practical sandals. Recovering from an ankle injury, today’s walk to the park was the longest she’s managed in three weeks.

She took a sip of Schweppes pink grapefruit seltzer. “It reminds me of the Orange Squash from England,” she said. Squash is the British English word for concentrate, she explained. “We used to drink it when I went to visit my aunts and uncles.” They’d pour a bit of the concentrated citrus syrup in the bottom of a glass and then dilute with seltzer water.2

These days, Jennifer concocts a different type of concentrated fruit. Her and her husband run Fifth of a Farm Creations, a side-gig jam company. About once a month they load up with fruit and head to the Greensgrow Community Kitchen to spend the day making preserves. Their flavors, which they sell to MOM’s, and at the Church Street and Clark Park Farmers’ Markets once a month, are named after Philly neighborhoods: Strawberry Mansion Jam, Old City Quince Butter, and Point Breeze Tomato Jam.

They source fruit locally when it’s in season. “We use mint grown in our garden to make our mint jelly,” Jennifer says. Right now, she’s excited about the tart cherries ripening at Weaver’s Orchard in Morgantown. They’ll use them to make her favorite flavor: Fairmount Cherry Jam. 

It’s the flavor that inspired her to start the business. “Growing up, we had a sour cherry tree in our yard,” she said. “I had this fond memory of making jam and giving it to people for Christmas – and that's still what I do.”

Jennifer prefers her jam atop toast with peanut butter -- you won't catch her eating a PB&J at lunchtime.

1 You may remember the New York Style Everything Bagel Chips: a sturdy, savory dipper and the perfect beach snack. They came in a wax-lined paper bag and were irresistibly seedy and salty, and left a nice greasy sheen on your fingertips. Caving into the anti-fat fad, New York Style re-branded them as bagel crisps – and touted ‘Twice Baked, Never Fried,’ among other gloomy health claims. As with Lays Baked!, we miss the original.

2 Black currant squash made international headlines in 2016 when Kumbuka the gorilla escaped from his enclosure at the London zoo and drank 5 liters of the undiluted drink. Turns out, it’s part of the gorillas’ daily beverage selection – they are fed diluted squash along with cold fruit tea.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Una Bella Vista

Each spring, Philly’s Italian Market sets up a rollicking two-day block party. The music is loud, the people-watching spectacular, and the food plentiful. In search of lunch, one might walk the eight-block festival and consider a porchetta sandwich or ravioli, barbacoa tacos or tamales, skewered grilled quail or papaya salad. (‘Italian Market’ is sort of a misnomer these days; in the 1980s and 90s, immigrants populated the historically Italian neighborhood with Vietnamese, Cambodian and Mexican restaurants.)

Natalie and Hope, first-timers at the festival, were strategic: “We sat for a while and watched other people eat, and then decided what to eat,” Natalie said.

They chose Dibruno Brothers’ spinach arancini and chicken meatball hoagie, and made a tentative plan to return for Esposito’s massive porchetta sandwich. At a table set up a comfortable distance from the throngs on 9th street, they had a prime view of the festival’s main attraction: the Greased Pole Competition.

It’s an old, offbeat Philly tradition: people attempt to shinny up lard-sheened pole to reach sharp provolone, sausage, gift cards and cash hanging from the top. Some competitors form teams that meet to practice throughout the year; others join hodgepodge groups recruited by the MC on the day of the festival. A crowd assembles around the piazza on 9th and Montrose Streets to cheer and fling their shirts to the top climbers to use as grease rags.

No joke.

“That’s the way…”

“His hands are all up on his butt!”

“His arms are going to give out!”

Natalie and Hope scrutinized a team of six – two at the base of the pole gripping each other’s forearms, two climbing to stand on their shoulders, and two steadying ankles and boosting butts with both arms.  

“We’ve been watching this for a while,” Natalie said. “It’s the same group – they keep getting a little higher.” But the dangling prizes still hung 30 feet in the air, untouched. The MC, sporting a #GuidoLive t-shirt, tried to cajole a few more volunteers from the crowd.

“I think it’s the Breathalyzer,” Hope said. She suspected that passing the BAC test – a policy put into place two years ago – had deterred many.

Natalie laughed. “When I met up with her this morning, she had a pineapple with rum in it.” Blue Corn Restaurant serves piña coladas in hollowed pineapples.

“An excellent breakfast,” Hope said.

It was her day off. She’d spent the previous week thinning fruit in the rain at North Star Orchards, a farm and orchard in Cochranville known for developing stunning apple varieties. “Apparently the fruit doesn’t taste good if you leave all the clusters,” she told me. Growers typically pluck the diseased and undersized fruit to allow the tree to send its resources to fewer choice specimens.

Hope started working at the farm this spring. Everyday at noon, the entire crew eats lunch together. Hope forages for greens and mushrooms in the woods near the farm to incorporate into her meals.

She’s an urban forager, too.

“There were a bunch of pork skewers in the trash can that she wouldn’t let me eat,” Hope said, leather tassel earrings swishing as she gave Natalie a look.

“I figured there was a reason they were in the trash can.” Natalie says.

Natalie is a front of house operations manager for catering at UPenn. She typically eats lunch with colleagues at Houston Hall. “When we don’t have time it’s a standing lunch with returned hors d’oeuvres from whatever event we’re at,” she said. “It’s the one perk of working in food service – I never have to pay for lunch.”

The two might splurge on a few more lunch bites at the festival, and stick around to watch a dozen pumped bros armed with bath towels storm the piazza.

“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”

 The team built a clenched, grunting tower around the pole and in fewer than five minutes, their top climber was throwing sausages to the ground in triumph. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

W.B. Saul's Brisket

 Steers grazed on an east-facing slope several yards from the Food Sciences building at W.B. Saul High School. A line stretched through the back door where students served beef brisket, pulled pork sandwiches and scoops of ice cream.

It was the 65th annual Country Fair Day at the agricultural high school in Roxborough; visitors shopped for herbs in the greenhouse, listened to students share vermicomposting know-how, toured the farm, and walked down a grassy trail to feed the sheep.

And many parents, alumni, and neighbors lined up for student-made lunch featuring dairy and meat produced on campus.

A senior at W.B. Saul splayed soft rolls in foil-lined paper boats and assembled them above trays of pulled pork and brisket. 

Charles is studying food science and processing, one of the four programs (including horticulture, natural resource management, and animal science) students choose between after their freshman year. “I didn’t know much about food science or nutrition,” he says, “I wanted to learn how to eat healthier.”

Charles wakes up at 5am and catches two buses to get from his home in Southwest Philly to school. But to him, it’s worth it. “It’s like two educations in one,” Charles says. In the morning, he’s in psychology, environmental science, English, and sociology classes; in the afternoon he’s studying food science, safety, and nutrition.

The day before the fair, he helped cut the brisket in Mr. Amoroso’s class. “This is all about student involvement,” the food sciences teacher says. Wearing a white, knee-length butcher coat, he popped between the meat lab (the school sell cuts of campus-raised beef to the public once a year at the fair) and the lunchtime operation, keeping an eye on brisket supply. 

As a student dug her tongs into the juicy brisket I asked if they enjoyed this spread during the school week. “Ha! We wish!” Though they're served the standard school district lunches, they get one special perk: salads made with veggies from the campus CSA farm run by Weavers Way Coop.

The students sold out of brisket a half hour before the end of the open house. “We had four pans!” Charles was incredulous, but Mr. Amoroso wasn't too surprised. Alumni come back for that W.B. Saul flavor, achieved with an extra zingy rub, eight hours in the smokehouse, and, of course, the well-tended steers of last year's pasture.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Sure Sell on Jewelers' Row

The first thing Abe ordered at Paul’s Pizza was a tuna hoagie with everything. “I said go crazy – lettuce, banana peppers, onions, tomatoes...” The chunky tuna with a mess of topping on a chewy Italian roll impressed him; it was a hoagie that merited a new lunchtime habit for the graying gentleman who’s been selling diamonds on a small street in Philadelphia for 37 years.

Jewelers’ Row (on Sansom between Seventh and Eighth Streets and on Eighth between Chestnut and Walnut Streets) is the oldest diamond district in the country. Jewelry makers and appraisers have been doing business there since the late 1800s. Abe commutes from New York City to sell his imported diamonds and gemstones to several jewelers on the block. He eats lunch on Jewelers’ Row almost every weekday.

Much like the street outside, the interior at Paul’s Pizza feels decidedly stuck in the early 80s. A glowing menu above a ketchup-red plastic counter advertises Pepper-Mushroom Steak and Chicken Steak Florentine (among 36 other steak variations). There’s a list of burgers, melts, and hoagies, a flounder platter, and the namesake pizza and stromboli. Prices have been modified over the years and the fading black numbers are barely legible.  
Abe sat down at a narrow table with his hoagie and lemon tea Snapple, and offered to cut a section of the sandwich for me to try. He’d had a couple pieces of Philly pretzel with honey mustard earlier, he explained, “That’s how I can share with you.” He sawed at the bread with a plastic knife.

I guessed he’d been killing time with a pretzel excursion because, as he told me, the diamond business on Jewelers’ Row these days is slow. Abe blames the Internet for the downturn in sales over the past ten years. “And extra money doesn’t go to jewelry anymore - people buy clothes and electronics,” he said.

Back in the early 80s, when Abe moved to New York City from Iran, it was a promising industry. A couple of his cousins were already buying diamonds from Israel (which is still one of the world’s biggest diamond producers, alongside Belgium and India) to sell to buyers on Jewelers’ Row. They were making good money.

“We – the guys who come from New York – own this street,” Abe said, gesturing to include a gathering of fellow city commuters eating at a nearby table. Whatever happens in the industry, the Philly jewelers are dependent on the New Yorkers’ importing businesses.

“We eat them for breakfast,” he said, and wiped the corner of his mouth with a paper napkin.

But by the time he’d finished his hoagie, Abe’s confidence had waned. “If I had a chance to pull everything out I would,” he said solemnly. He worries that the future of the diamond industry isn’t promising.

The future of Jewelers’ Row itself is in question too; a local developer has demolition and construction permits for a 16-story residential tower on the 700 block of Sansom Street. The preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is working to attain historic protection for the five buildings just east of Paul’s Pizza that would be demolished in the developer’s proposal. (You can sign their online petition here.)

For now, Paul’s Pizza is safe, preserving its own piece of history and providing a gathering place for a few not-so-busy businessmen. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Feeding the Bird

Lulu surveyed Chestnut Street on a particularly warm afternoon last week. She was out for a late lunch, awaiting her pita at a table outside of Hey Hummus. When a red tray was set in front of her, she swiveled her head to eye the brisket piled in the center of a bowl of hummus.
Just as she was likely considering her first bite, a passerby approached the table. “Can I take a picture?” the woman asked, raising her IPhone. Lulu let her dining companion, Anthony, answer for her.

“Yeah, go ahead,” he said, smiling. The woman stood back and captured the brilliant parrot perched atop a metal chair, poised over a pita pocket. 

Lulu didn’t seem to notice.

 “She’s been cooped up all winter,” Anthony said. On the last day of February, it was 70 degrees outside; he’d stopped home to pick up the bird and bring her out to lunch. He eats out almost everyday, at places like Di Bruno Brother’s and Jane G’s. He looks for healthy dishes – “Something with more protein, less carbs,” he said.

He and Lulu had ended up at Hey Hummus, the new middle eastern spot that opened in mid-February. Chef/owner Victor Fellus, who moved to Philadelphia from Israel, makes the thick hummus fresh everyday. It’s served with toppings like chicken shawarma, mushrooms with turmeric, or brisket that’s slow-cooked for 18 hours.

“It’s very tender,” Anthony said, “And carries the flavor of the beef.” It’s served with bright sides like pickles and ‘Zhug,’ a spicy Yemen sauce made with dried jalapeño and coriander. “Taste that,” he said, passing me the small cup of ‘Zhug.’ I dipped in my pinky. “Is it spicy?” he asked, as he emptied the container over his bowl.

We were interrupted as a lanky high school kid walking by noticed Lulu. “Dude!” He looped back, away from his clique. “Yo,” he stopped, looking from Lulu to Anthony in disbelief. “Can I touch it?”

“No, but you can come closer and appreciated it’s beauty,” Anthony said, swiping a piece of brisket through the hummus. “She has kissed people and she has bitten people,” he said – he’s never quite sure which way it’ll go.

The Harlequin Macaw was locked to the chair with a tiny chain clipped to her left talon. As the boy walked back to join his friends, she let out high squawk. A few seconds later, the same squawk sounded from Anthony’s phone on the table.

“Anthony’s skincare lounge can I help you?”

“Tomorrow? What time? I’m pretty booked,”

“12:30? I’ll need to check the books – can I call you back at this number?”

Anthony owns a skin care lounge in the Jason Matthew Salon a few blocks east on Chestnut street. It had been a busy morning – before lunch, he’d done three facials and a couple of Brazilians. “Just $30 for a Brazilian,” he said. “We won best of Philly.”

The aesthetician opened the business 10 years ago - his smooth, tan skin and dark, impeccable brows are a give-away. But before he went to beauty school, he wanted to be a chef.

“I went to cooking school 20 years ago,” he said. After getting his associate degree at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill, he worked in French restaurants in Chester County, before he realized a cook’s life wasn’t for him. “It’s a little hectic,” he said. “When there are three or four of you in the kitchen and you’ve got ten things cooking,” he shook his head, “It’s a lot of responsibility!”

He ripped off a piece of pita for Lulu, who clamped it in her beak. These days, he’s content to feed the bird.