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. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Nanny's Notes on Nutrition

Hannah rolled a stroller through Washington Square, settling cross-legged on a bench. She brushed her light auburn curls back against the wind and peeled the foil from a yogurt cup.

“It’s kind of a pathetic excuse for lunch,” she says, swirling dark berry jam into the single-serving yogurt container. She had waited until the 11-month-old in the stroller was asleep before she ate. “Maggie loves yogurt,” Hannah said, “I can’t get away with eating it in front of her.”

Hannah managed to enjoy a few spoonfuls before Maggie woke up – and immediately spotted the yogurt. She reached out her tiny pink-sleeved arms and squawked at her nanny, who leaned forward with the spoon. She nudged Maggie’s coat collar under her chin. “You have carrot all over your face from lunch!” Hannah says, wiping the girl’s flushed cheeks with a thumb.

 Hannah takes care of Maggie four days a week and occasionally cooks for the family. “Today I made turkey meatloaf and roasted vegetables for the mom, and creamed spinach and shredded chicken for Maggie,” she says. She makes plant and protein-based meals – generally no grains, gluten, or refined sugar – following the lead of food and health gurus like Micheal Pollan, Chris Kresser, and Lauren Geertsen (Empowered Sustenance). She reads their work in her spare time, studying to become a nutritional therapy practitioner. 

A few of Hannah's health premises:
Food is medicine.
All disease starts in the gut.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” – Micheal Pollan (In Defense of Food)

Maggie reached for the yogurt  again – Wallaby’s whole milk ‘Purely Unsweetened’ mixed berry. “I like Wallaby because they source from pastured cows,” Hannah says as she fed Maggie another spoonful. Dairy from grass-fed animals is an important first food that helps nurture a baby's gut microbiome, she says.

Half a container of yogurt is not a typical lunch for Hannah. “Normally I’ll have a salad that’s way to big,” she laughs, “Like in a bowl you’d serve to a group of people.” She adds whatever vegetables she has in the fridge to a heap of mixed greens, cooks a couple strips of local bacon - she likes La Divisa Meats in Reading Terminal - and then fries kale in the bacon fat. Recently, she added sacha inshi seeds (high in protein and Omega-3s, and well on their way to ‘superfood’ status) for extra crunch. 

“I have to have every texture,” she says. She tops with avocado oil mayo mixed with apple cider vinegar, and she always salts with “real salt” – anything that’s not iodized (she gets her iodine from kelp flakes instead).

Hannah wasn’t raised eating giant salad for lunch. She grew up on Long Island, cooking with her Jewish family and eating the “Standard American Diet.” By the time she was in her 20s, she ate more consciously, realizing that healthy food improved her mood and energy level. Now, eating well is a priority. “Family members ask me how I can afford to buy grass fed beef and raw milk,” she says. “I don’t have cable, I don’t buy expensive clothes or makeup.”

She’s also not excessively strict about her diet. "You have to have a balance," she says. It was Valentine’s Day, and her boyfriend had surprised her with chocolate and flowers after her yoga class that morning. “He got me these super couture strawberry hibiscus white chocolate truffles,” she says, and pulled out a small box of pink hearts from the stroller pocket. The white chocolate shells encased gooey, rich dulce de leche. She loved them. “If I’m going to have refined sugar and soy lecithin, it better be really good.”

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Christina's Cake Pop

It was 66 degrees around lunchtime yesterday in Rittenhouse Square. Many took advantage of the abrupt flash-forward to spring, leaving Center City offices to walk leisurely and coat-less for the first time in months. Those who’d given up on scoring a bench seat perched on the concrete edge of the square's fountain. It was dry - it’s still February after all - and a toddler rode his scooter back and forth, rustling leaves from the edges.

Sunlight struck a pink can in front of a young woman who sat eating a cake pop. Christina savored the last morsel of her Golden Oreo Truffle on a stick.

“It’s delicious," she says. “Tastes like one of those vanilla Oreos.” It’s covered in dark chocolate and specked with rainbow sprinkles - her dessert following a turkey avocado sandwich with arugula from Cosi. “If you’re going to have something healthy, you gotta balance it out,” she laughed and pushed her hair back from her temple with a delicate forefinger.

Christina walked to Rittenhouse Square from her center city office at Five Below, where she works as a real estate coordinator, scoping out potential new store locations. “I help from before we get the site to when the store opens,” she says. She started working for the company last summer and commutes from her home in South Jersey.

Normally, she packs a lunch to save money – usually brown rice, tuna, or leftovers from dinner the night before. And when she wants to switch it up, she goes out. Mac Mart’s buffalo chicken mac and cheese, Continental’s grilled chicken sandwich, and tacos at Revolution Taco are a few of her favorites.

She'll take her lunch hour at noon and walk around the city, stopping into shops and food stores at random. “I’m a sweets kinda gal,” she says, sipping from her lipstick-stained straw stuck in the top of the Dr. Brown's Black Cherry Soda can. “It’s almost like Dr. Pepper, but probably better."

She couldn’t resist browsing the dessert section at DiBruno Brother's one day, where she found the cake pop made by the Philly-based company Marie Bee. Though she doesn’t want to make it a regular indulgence, “It’s turning out to be,” she says, smiling –  cake on a stick seemed like just the treat for a mid-winter spring day.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Today, Tortas

Warning: If you read this, you’re probably going to want to get your hands on one of South Philly Barbacoa’s tortas. My apologies in advance -- you’ll have to settle for their just-as-stellar tacos on the weekends. The owners stopped making their tortas on the weekdays because they wanted more time for life, outside the restaurant… and we really can’t blame them for that.

South Philly Barbacoa was listed as one of Bon Appétit’s top 10 new restaurants this summer. The tiny taco and torta spot is busier these days – it was especially bustling the week after Bon Appétit published their list, when I met a few friends there for lunch.

I took the opportunity to talk lunch with James, a teacher at Philadelphia Electrical and Technical Charter School (and also a friend of a friend). During his last week of summer vacation, he made his first trip to South Philly Barbacoa.

The feeling of the place is somewhere between a home kitchen and a restaurant. Paper napkins are stuffed in dried gourds that sit next to flower bouquets on each table. There’s an old-school coca cola drink cooler stocked with lemonade, strawberry lemonade, and free bottles of water. We noticed a lone copy of the Bon Appétit summer issue (with their #6 listing) stashed behind the cooler, clearly an afterthought.

From his seat near the window, James had a view of co-owner Cristina Martinez slicing bread for tortas and stirring big pots of simmering beans and albóndigas (Mexican meatballs, typically made with beef or pork).

Martinez’s husband and co-owner Ben Miller came over to our table to tell us the day’s menu. He ran through a list of tortas (their former weekday-only sandwiches): potato chorizo, chicken with mole poblano, albóndigas with salsa verde, and double-cream queso fresco with avocado and refried beans. James ordered the potato chorizo torta and a watermelon agua fresca.

He says his typical lunch is pretty basic during the school year. If he packs a lunch, it’s a sandwich with lunchmeat, cheese, and mayo. No lettuce, no tomato.  “I mean like the basic,” he says. Sometimes he pops next door to grab a sandwich at CVS, or gets something from a nearby food truck. He never eats in the cafeteria. “From what I’ve heard from the kids, it’s not the best,” he says. (I bet you’re not surprised… isn’t it tragic that bad school lunch food is so normal?)

James is happy to have fourth period lunch this year, which means he’ll eat at 11:15 (unless he has to grade papers or talk with students during lunchtime, in which case he’ll wait until dismissal at 2:12). “Some of my coworkers eat lunch at 10:30am,” he says. Those teachers – and students – are stuck in the cafeteria basically just after breakfast and left with a long stretch to last until school is over.

But at Barbacoa, James was able to enjoy his torta right in the middle of the day, without any academic distractions. Soft potatoes smothered in the spicy juices of the chorizo, topped with tomato and avocado and smashed into the fresh torta bread Cristina used to make each week. (I only know this because I tried a bite. When I asked James what was in it, he said, “I have no idea, I just ate it.” He was hungry and it was just too good to slow down.)

Next week he’ll be back in the classroom, teaching ninth-grade English. He says he’s strict with the kids at first, which is hard to imagine if you’ve met the enthusiastic, quick-to-smile guy outside of school. Like in a Mexican restaurant, for example, where he sipped bright pink watermelon juice with and bobbed his head to the latin music. “I gotta get this Pandora station,” he said as we stood up to leave. “I’ve been jammin’ out this whole time!”

Just give him some time, ninth graders; he’ll lighten up as the year goes on.  

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Prohibited: Eating on the Deck

 Standing at the pool's edge - dreads pulled back away from his shades - a lifeguard aimed his pointer finger at each swimmer, counting. It was Sunday. It was 88 degrees in South Philadelphia. The community pool on the corner of Carpenter and 13th was at capacity.

With just two lifeguards on duty, the pool could accommodate 60 people in the fenced in area - each lifeguard can oversee 30 people. After completing his count, the lifeguard walked around the deck, hustling people who laid on towels, reading books in the shade. "We got a lot of people waiting," he says. "You gotta get in the pool or get out."

Seems harsh, but there was a line outside the gate. At the end of the line, a toddler shook her red curls as her dad sprayed her down with SPF. She jumped and twisted in her lime green tankini, perpetually on tiptoes in anticipation. About 10 people waited in front of her.

Two women left their chairs behind and walked through the gate with paper bags. They made space for two others as they left, but their intentions weren’t necessarily philanthropic. “We got yelled at,” Daneen said. Of course, eating on the deck is prohibited.

Daneen and Sara settled at a picnic table under an oak tree in the park bordering the pool fence. They’d picked up sandwiches at The Last Drop Coffee House (13th & Pine) on their way to the pool in the morning. Sara unwrapped hummus with cucumber, tomato, and lettuce smashed between two pieces of Metropolitan’s 9-grain, whole-wheat loaf bread. Daneen had a chicken salad sandwich with tomato and lettuce (which she promptly removed before taking the first bite). “I haven’t had chicken salad in forever,” she said. “It’s good.”

Daneen works at Jefferson Hospital, and often goes to Dibruno’s around the corner for lunch. “But that’s getting really expensive, so now I pack leftovers from dinner the night before,” she says. It’ll be quinoa (if she has the energy to cook after her pool day) or a Lean Cuisine from the freezer for lunch on Monday.

Sara works at Nutrisystem in Fort Washington. She packs her lunch; Monday she’ll likely have a kale salad with chicken, dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. She eats lunch at noon at her desk and takes a break for a walk at 1:00.

She used to go out to lunch at Good Dog Bar. “They have a really good veggie burger,” she says. “All the burgers are really good though.”

Daneen recommends Continental. “If I want to go big, it’s the crispy calamari salad,” she says. It’s a pile of chopped greens topped with sprouts, carrots, tomatoes, crispy calamari and sesame-soy vinaigrette.

The two friends finished their sandwiches quickly, ready to get back to the pool. They would not be waiting the recommended 20 minutes for digestion. “It’s only a four-foot deep pool,” Sara laughed. 
In matching red baseball caps and towels hiked up around their waists, they headed back to the gate to wait in line. In fewer than 10 minutes, they were hopping back in the cool water.
The Ridgway Pool is open for one more week - until August 16th

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Pizza and Pickled Dahlias

On a stormy Wednesday morning I potted dahlias in the greenhouse with Owen, the manager at the Roughwood Seed Collection. Rainwater streamed through a freshly punctured hole in the plastic roof onto the back of my neck as I bent over a bag of soil. I was volunteering in a small garden in Devon, PA, where heirloom varieties of plants you’ve never heard of get their start.

The Roughwood Seed Collection comprises 4,000 varieties of heirloom seeds, preserving varieties that might otherwise be extinct. They collect seeds from our region (Tuscarora Flour Corn, for example) and from distant countries (like the Cypriot Skouroupathes Leek) to grow, regenerate - in some cases cross-pollinate - and save.

Retreating from the unexpected heavy winds and showers outside, we worked in the greenhouse sorting and re-potting dahlia bulbs that had been harvested last year and stored through the winter. “We’re essentially cloning the dahlias by separating the tubers,” Owen told me. He hadn’t been too keen on the flowers until he found out that the tubers are edible. “They were originally bred by the Aztecs for eating,” Owen said, “But then Europeans bred them for pretty.”

We’ve since ignored the nourishing part of the flower, which is supposedly delicious. “The texture’s like a water chestnut, and the taste is somewhere between celeriac and carrot, but with a hint of ginger,” Owen said. Roughwood develops varieties that are meant to be eaten, like the Old Velvet dahlia, who’s purple flesh is especially good for pickling.

Owen sorted through paper bags, pulled out clusters of tiny sweet potato-like tubers and divided them into smaller pieces, which he passed to me. I nestled them into pots from the teetering stacks assembled against the back wall, while two other volunteers – Nova and Beth – wrote out new labels. Mary Ellen; Fiesta; Old Velvet; Roughwood grows more than 100 varieties of the flower and correct cataloguing is crucial.

As empty trays filled with newly labeled pots, our conversation turned to lunch; Owen planned to pick up a couple pizzas from Whole Foods – two for $22. A topping deliberation began, and finally, without any clear decision, Owen placed the order.

“Can I have one mushroom and shallot please?” he said into the phone.
“And there was this one with chicken I got once… I can’t remember exactly what was on it,” he paused.

“No, it wasn’t that…”
Another pause.

“Buffalo?” he looked up to get our attention.
“Guys? Buffalo sound good?” We nodded.

“Um… with cheese?” We nodded again.

An hour later we gathered in the kitchen of the 210-year-old farmhouse that belongs to William Woys Weaver, the food historian and author who founded Roughwood Seed Collection after finding his grandpa’s 40-year-old seeds in his grandmother’s deep freeze.

Will leaned against the island’s wooden countertop fingering an antique comb used to collect chamomile blossoms. “It’s from Bulgaria,” he says, “Can you believe I got it on Ebay for next to nothing?” His cat Satch perched on a stool, facing two giant pies.

When there are volunteers around and pizza gets ordered for lunch, Will can’t resist. “When I’m by myself it’s a salad from the garden,” he says, folding his arms across his pale green polo. He adds pickled vegetables and a little pickle juice for dressing. “Of, if I get fancy I’ll use on of my herb vinegars,” he says. He pointed out a jar on the windowsill: his first batch of honey vinegar from a Polish recipe he found in an 1821 farm manual. He mixed one cup of honey (harvested from on-site hives), one quart spring water, and a heavy splash of apple cider vinegar to get it going. The glass jar was loosely covered and exposed to air; “It’s developing mother,” he says. (The mother develops on fermenting alcoholic liquids and converts alcohol to acetic acid, producing vinegar.) He makes it himself because honey vinegar is expensive, “It’s sold in perfume bottles for around $30,” he says.

Will rarely makes it into Philadelphia for lunch, but he knows a few good spots. “If I had my druthers I’d got to Brick and Mortar, Kensington Quarters, or Buckminister’s [now closed],” he says, “I happen to know the chefs and they happen to use ingredients from here.”

Brick and Mortar held a benefit dinner for Roughwood last spring and featured ingredients from the garden in their menu. They made hummus with Roughwood’s heirloom beans and used their Landis Winter Lettuce and Red Rice Cow Peas in the third course. Will even gave them a jar of homemade pickled Old Velvet dahlia tubers to use, which were a hit atop the salad.