September 14, 2014

Hit Me Banh Mi One More Time: Ba Le and Nam Son

"What's your favorite banh mi?" is the question that stumps us whenever we discuss Sandwich Quest with someone in Philly, considering our first banh mi at Q.T. Vietnamese more than three years ago was a big disappointment. The two sandwiches we tried there were just not good enough for us to recommend and we have not sought another since.

It was clearly time to jump back on the horse and try the banh mi again. This time we decided to tackle two - one each from Ba Le Bakery and Nam Son Bakery along Washington Ave.

Close-up of Nam Son banh mi
Thank the food gods that we did because the banh mi is squarely back on the list of things to try on Sandwich Quest. The shredded pork banh mi at Ba Le was the "a-ha!" moment, in particular. From the first bite, I began to understand why people love the banh mi. Just like any good sandwich it starts with the bread, and in the case of the banh mi - the French baguette!

The Ba Le baguette surpassed Nam Son although both were good. Soft and light on the inside with a crackly crust, every bite was a joy. And get this: you can buy individual baguettes for dirt cheap. At Nam Son they are 65 cents or 4 for $2.50. Compare that to Metropolitan Bakery, where a single baguette costs $1.25. The full banh mi sandwich is also a bargain at $4.50 at both places.

What really made the difference for both Ba Le and Nam Son was the freshness of the ingredients. Ba Le, where I tasted more of the cilantro flavor and the right combination of cucumber and carrots atop shredded pork, was a step ahead even though Nam Son was not bad by any means. Nam Son was a bit heavy on the carrots as you can tell from the picture.

Shredded pork banh mi from Ba Le Bakery

Shredded pork banh mi from Nam Son Bakery

And yowzers did the Ba Le version pack a punch of heat. It was just the right amount, though, as the jalapenos and spicy pork added much to the flavor without overpowering the rest of the sandwich.

If this were a banh mi smackdown, I’d give it to Ba Le with a late round knockout. However, the real winner was Sandwich Quest as both places more than proved that the "Vietnamese hoagie" belongs on anyone's list of Philly sandwiches to try. 

Let me know your favorite banh mi and be sure to tell us which type to order, too (barbecue pork, tofu, etc.).

And yes, the headline parody is the first and last Britney Spears reference that will ever appear on this blog.

September 6, 2014

7 Reasons to Eat Cambodian Food at Khmer Kitchen

Pra_hok Kateeh, a signature Cambodian pork dish
Few food experiences excite us more than when the flavors of a new culture zap our taste buds for the first time. It’s like finding a new toy that you didn't know existed as a kid.

It's happened to us many times, like with Pakistani food from Lahore Kebab House in London and our first crack at Dim Sum in San Francisco. Now we can’t get enough of either.

While Cambodian flavors are similar to Vietnamese and Thai, a twist in the way they use certain vibrant ingredients made our experience at Khmer Kitchen in South Philly an eye opener.

Here are seven reasons why you need to go to Khmer Kitchen, too:

August 28, 2014

6 Awesome Places to Ride Your Bike to During Labor Day Weekend in Philly

Holiday weekends are a great time to stick around Philadelphia. Sure, a lot of people migrate to the beach but that means smaller crowds and easier reservations here at home. Philly also has endless miles of trails and outdoor space to enjoy before another sub-zero winter settles in.

If you're around this Labor Day weekend, here's a fun idea: take yourself on a bike tour of the Delaware Waterfront. A lot of effort has been put into making Penn's Landing and other piers along the Delaware River the place to be this summer, and you're missing out if you don't take advantage. I made up my own Tour de Delaware Waterfront last weekend; it ended up a perfect way to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Here's my suggested route:

1. Washington Ave Park. Hop on your bike and head to Washington Ave & Columbus Blvd. If you're already hungry, grab a cheesesteak at Shank's. Otherwise, just to the right of the Coast Guard building is an opening in the fence and paved path leading toward the river. Look for walk/bike signs on the road to guide you.

About 50 yards back is the brand new Washington Ave Pier. It's not huge but makes great use of existing, abandoned space with paths, benches, a little rock beach kids can play at, a fishing deck, and an observation tower/monument honoring this location as Philadelphia's original "Ellis Island." Best of all? It was SO QUIET. I couldn't believe how peaceful it was back there. Worth a visit.

Entrance to Washington Ave Pier
The end of the pier, great view and so quiet

2. Trail to WalMart. No kidding, the same secluded, paved path actually runs further south a short bit to the South Philly WalMart parking lot, so take a quick spin down there for extra mileage and to check out some views of the water I guarantee you've never seen before.

August 24, 2014

Bank & Bourbon at the Loews Hotel

Admit it - you're a little biased against hotel restaurants, just like we are. Of course we had a superb meal at The Four Seasons but that's in a class of its own. And Lacroix in the Rittenhouse Hotel is supposedly excellent. But I won't deny that we generally have lower expectations for hotel food vs. the price and tend to avoid them at home and when we travel. Anyone else feel the same?

The popular Secret Knock
Bank & Bourbon, the new restaurant in Philadelphia's Loews Hotel, surprisingly exceeded our expectations on food but was a little rough around the edges on service.

It makes better use of the huge corner space than the last occupant, Sole Food, with dining tables, an open kitchen and lounge area, and a nice-sized bar extended out into the lobby. If I were from out of town and staying at the Loews, it would look like an inviting place to grab a drink.

Obviously bourbon is their "thing." Our bourbon-enthusiast friend enjoyed one of their bourbon flights and I was a big fan of the Secret Knock, a refreshing cocktail of house-aged whiskey, green tea, lemon and clarified milk. It's impossible to imagine what those ingredients taste like together so just trust me. The milk part sounds weird but it's practically clear, I promise.

Pastrami Short Rib
I'd advise the waiters to avoid freely admitting if they are "not a bourbon drinker," like ours did. No need for that awkward moment, just send over the bourbon master to help us choose. Service was also a little slow, bread disappeared just after the starters, and they never asked if we wanted second drinks... all a bit strange for having been opened a few months by now.

On the plus side, the food at Bank & Bourbon was pretty good. We all really enjoyed the beef short rib, pastrami-brined for something different and quite delicious, as well as the roasted corn salad, served with snap peas, parmesan, sesame granola and a citrus vinaigrette. Pea pierogies were a hit, but super tiny so if sharing among four don't expect more than two bites.

August 16, 2014

Choose Your Own Taiwanese Hot Pot Adventure at Simply Shabu

One of the many great things about dining out is being able to sit back and let someone tend to your every hungry need. But sometimes it's more fun to take an active role in the experience. You can experiment with different combinations of flavors, rarely end up eating too quickly and in general have something to do besides just eat and talk.

That's why I liked Simply Shabu. Not only was the food good and cheap ($15 a person. Total!) but it was as engaging as an art class, where you can focus on your own creation and forget about the outside world while also enjoying the company of others. 

Tucked away from the Chinatown rush at 10th and Cherry Streets, Simply Shabu is a Taiwanese-style hot pot restaurant where customers choose their meats, seafood and veggies, cook them in private pot of boiling both, and make their own sauces for dipping. "Shabu shabu," the term for "hot pot," is a centuries-old tradition but varies a little by Asian culture. The majority of Simply Shabu's ingredients come from regional farms and its broths are made without MSG or gluten. 

Here's how it works: