Philadelphia is a big city. This is perhaps a self-evident, simplistic statement. But Philly is truly bigger than many of us—especially those of us who spend our lives working and surviving the daily grind in Center City or Old City or East Passyunk or West Philly or Fishtown—can scarcely imagine and rarely appreciate.
I was thinking about this on a recent evening while I was eating at a Georgian restaurant, called Georgian Bread, tucked away amid the vape shop, nail salon, and Nuts To You in a well-worn strip mall on Bustleton Avenue in Somerton, the farthest of the Far Northeast—at least 45 minutes by car from the Citizen’s offices in Center City, or about an hour and a half by public transportation.
Over the past few weeks, I’d also eaten at two other Georgian restaurants in two other strip malls within a mile of this one—New Georgian House and Georgian Bakery & Café. The latter of these sits in Leo Mall, across from NetCost, a grocery store that’s sort of like an old-school Acme in a parallel dimension, in which almost every item has been replaced by a Russian or other Cyrillic-language product, with seemingly endless varieties of pelmeni and pierogies in the frozen aisle, separate counters for kielbasa, plov, pickles, smoked fish, and caviar, and transactions mostly happening in Russian. Outside, you can pick up a half-dozen Russian or Eastern-European local newspapers.
The cheese-filled bread that is Georgia’s national dish is so central to life there that Georgian economists track inflation using a Khachapuri Index.
This Russian-speaking presence, with immigrants from the former Soviet republics, as well as Eastern Europe, is perhaps slightly better known—all you have to do is drive down Bustleton Avenue to notice all the Cyrillic business signs. But the estimated 26,000 Russian-speaking residents of Philadelphia live mostly under the radar, and mostly in the Northeast—where 30 percent of the 200,000 residents who reside north and west of Roosevelt Boulevard are foreign-born. For years, you could eat fine Ukrainian and Uzbek, even Moldovan, food—much of it served in flashy banquet-hall-style event spaces, with live entertainment, strobe lights and smoke machines.
Yet you could not dine on food from the Republic of Georgia, a country bordered by Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Then, in 2017, the first of three Georgian restaurants opened in Somerton, and then two more over the course of 18 months. This actually follows a strange-but-logical arc, because over the past couple years, Georgian cuisine had become oddly popular among hipsters at the avant-garde of food and drink trends. It began with Georgian wines, made from obscure grapes like saperavi and rkatsiteli, traditionally aged in huge earthenware amphora called quevri, which became darlings of the natural wine movement. Georgian food followed.
What is Georgian food? It begins with the bread, and the star attraction is khachapuri, a cheese-filled bread that is Georgia’s national dish (actually protected by UNESCO as “intangible cultural heritage”). It’s so central to life there that Georgian economists track inflation using a Khachapuri Index. Khachapuri takes several forms, but the most popular here is adjaruli khachapuri, which comes out looking like a boat filled with piping hot cheese, butter, and a fresh-cracked egg, which is then swirled, poached, and mixed together tableside. For those who are not carb-, gluten-, or dairy-averse, khachapuri is simply cheesy-eggy heaven.
“It’s not pizza, though it looks a little like pizza,” says 32-year-old Imeda Londaridze, the owner of Georgian Bread, which has a bakery and take out shop next to the restaurant. In the morning, you can watch Londaridze through the front window, baking the crisp, chewy band-aid-shaped loaves in a toné, a cone-shaped brick hearth. He sticks them inside the hot wall by hand, where they bake and crust until he pulls them off with a hook. “Georgians eat a lot of bread,” he says, adding that he sells about 300 to 400 khachapuri in the restaurant during a normal weekend.
Londaridze immigrated to the U.S. with his parents and siblings in 2007. Before he opened Georgian Bread, Londaridze had no restaurant experience. But he saw there was an opportunity to bring Georgian food to the Northeast. Now, he employs a Georgian chef, though his mother and wife are in the kitchen making the khachapuri and khinkali.
But Georgian food ranges well beyond khachapuri. The big soup-dumpling-like khinkali, filled with herbal broth, beef, and pork—which you eat with your hands—are alone worth a visit. Georgian food is excellent cold-weather comfort food, with stews like chakpuli, with veal and tarragon slow-simmered in a wine broth, or the traditional spicy-beef kharcho, or even a rich slow-cooked mushroom stew covered with melted cheese. The mtsvadi, shish kebab with chicken or lamb, are dramatically served on dagger-like skewers.
As an appetizer, there is a colorful, cold plate of phkhali—spinach, beets, or green beans ground into a paste with walnuts and herbs, and topped with pomegranates, that are perfect spreads for the bread. Then there is the strange “Georgian lemonade” that is not lemonade at all, but sodas flavored pear or tarragon, the latter surprisingly pleasant despite the alarming neon green color. Traveling to the Far Northeast to eat Georgian food is truly like traveling to a foreign country without leaving the city.
“Americans, they know every kind of food. But Georgian food is very different. Nobody else has exactly this type of food,” says Londaridze, who spells out his motto, “Try Something Different,” right on the takeout boxes. Still, Russian or Georgian was mostly what I heard from fellow diners speaking at the other tables. In fact, at all three Georgian restaurants, we were greeted in Russian before switching to English. Georgian food is a well-known entity in Russia and Ukraine—sort of like Italian restaurants here—and so there was a built-in audience in the Northeast for Georgian cuisine. The prefered BYOB for a number of tables seemed to be healthy pours of Cognac or vodka.
I’m a fan of all three Georgian restaurants, and each has its specialty. New Georgian House has an interesting take on khachapuri with bacon and decadent smoked hocks and Georgian Bakery & Café’s space is attractive, with wooden tables and brick walls decorated with traditional Georgian costume, and evening entertainment, and it may have the best phkhali. But Georgian Bread is my favorite.
We’ll see what happens when the so-called “hipster situation” meets Georgian food sometime this year, as a new proposed Georgian dinner theater will open on Frankford Avenue, in an old ice cream factory next to Barcade.
Londaridze immigrated to the U.S. with his parents and siblings in 2007, when he was 19, first to Brooklyn, then soon ending up in Philadelphia. “When we came here, there weren’t a lot of Georgians. Just a few families and I knew them all,” he said. “Now there are a lot more.” Before he opened Georgian Bread, Londaridze had no restaurant experience — he ran a trucking company with his brother. But he saw there was an opportunity to bring Georgian food to the Northeast. Now, he employs a Georgian chef, though his mother and wife are in the kitchen making the khachapuri and khinkali. His father built all the long wooden tables and benches, and the light wood-paneled walls that sort of look like the inside of a sauna. “If it’s sheetrock in here, it won’t look Georgian,” Londaridze says.
What he’s doing here in Philadelphia must be traditional enough, since he’s twice been featured on Georgian television back home. Georgian Bread even caught the attention of the former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili—who dined in the restaurant last month. Saakashvili was taken to the restaurant by his son, Eduard, who now lives in Philadelphia and works as a journalist, after having graduated from Swarthmore College.
“I didn’t know about the Georgian community here when I was in college. I didn’t realize there was a fairly large community,” says Eduard Saakashvili. He would Google “khachapuri” and find nothing. Then, suddenly, Georgian Bread opened. “I’m not really a foodie,” Saakashvili says. “I just like Georgian food because it reminds me of home.”
He finds it amusing that the food of his homeland has suddenly become so popular among the cognoscenti. “It’s sort of a hipster situation,” he says. “Suddenly, you come to see it in a whole new light. Suddenly, it’s all around in this new form, with a new set of lenses. They’re saying, ‘Georgian cuisine is so Instagrammable.’”
In fact, we’ll see what happens when the so-called “hipster situation” meets Georgian food sometime this year, as a new proposed Georgian dinner theater will open in Fishtown on Frankford Avenue, in an old ice cream factory next to Barcade.
There’s always, of course, the danger of cultural appropriation. Saakashvili is a tad ambivalent about Georgian food becoming a “culinary meme.” He mentions a new Georgian-themed restaurant in in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called Cheeseboat, for instance, which he and I both agree is kind of a dumb name. “It’s a little bit grating. It’s bizarre to me,” he says. “But if it’s becoming more popular, I don’t see a downside.” One positive effect of the mainstream appeal, he says, is that chefs back home in Georgia have proudly embraced their humble, traditional dishes as important contributions to world cuisine.
Saakashvili, who says he “lives a Center City type of life,” also learned a lesson about his adopted city by traveling to eat Georgian food. “I didn’t realize that Philadelphia is very large and the Northeast is very far away,” he says.
Make the trip anyway. There’s virtue in being a traveler in your own city. Spend an evening in a place that feels thousands of miles away from the Philadelphia that you know. It’s part of what makes this city great—that there are amazing, surprising local pockets of humanity tucked away everywhere.
Jason Wilson is The Citizen’s 2019 Jeremy Nowak Fellow, funded by Spring Point Partners, in honor of our late chairman Jeremy Nowak. He is the author of three books, including most recently Godforsaken Grapes, series editor of The Best American Travel Writing, and writes for the Washington Post, New York Times, New Yorker and many other publications.Header photo: Tim Toohey