“They call this a Colombian bagel,” said our tour guide. The group of us crowded around a table in La Caleñita Bakery & Café as a server delivered a tray of pandebono — the sweet cheese bread made with cassava starch that’s a morning staple in Colombia. I’d never eaten pandebono before, and it was such a revelation that I devoured two along with a strong cup of Colombian coffee. But even though I enjoyed it, and would return again for more, I puzzled over whether or not we should contextualize pandebono as a “Colombian bagel.”
If I’m being honest, this is one of several self-conscious mixed feelings I have about the “Global is Local Ethnic Food Tour” of Olney’s North 5th Street that I joined on a recent sunny autumn Saturday, along with a half dozen others. Certainly our group had the best of intentions and we were game for two-plus-hours of great eating. Among us was a solo tourist from Brooklyn, a family of three with a middle-school aged-son who said he was an aspiring chef, and an older couple named Laurel and Charlie who’d lived in Olney for three decades. All of us, to be clear, white. And could afford the $35 per person price for the tour. We were given turquoise bags that read “Global is Local” that thoughtfully had Tupperware and ziplock bags inside for leftover.
Our tour guide, Ambrose Lin, is the director of Olney Culture Lab, which runs a number of cultural programs here. “Food is a great doorway into culture,” he told us. “We really want to share different cultures with all different types of people.”
Lin has worked and lived in the Olney community for many years. He was accompanied by Stephanie Michel, the director of the North 5th Street Revitalization Project, which promotes a commercial district stretching from 5th and Spencer streets to 5th Street and Roosevelt Boulevard, an area with more than 300 businesses, including 79 restaurants, in an area with more than 25,000 residents. More than a third of the residents were born outside the U.S. “This is one of the most linguistically diverse neighborhoods in Philadelphia. At least 30 languages are spoken in the school,” Lin said. “I looked around and thought, ‘This place deserves a food tour.’”
Lin said many of the local businesses are still owned by Koreans who arrived in the neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s. “But the Korean community has mostly moved to the suburbs now,” he said. Newer immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Southeast Asia have now taken their place.
Our first stop was Island Taste, a relatively new Jamaican restaurant. There, we met Kadene Davis, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband Nickoy Marsh, who is the chef. Davis told us she’d immigrated to Philadelphia with her family when she was 10. Marsh had been cooking his Jamaican specialties for family and friends, she said, “And people were always saying, ‘You’ve got to open a restaurant! The food is so good!’” And at the beginning of this past summer, they did.
Davis served us plates of Jamaican beef patties, the classic island meat pie, and possibly the best jerk chicken I’ve tasted in Philadelphia — spiced with garlic, ginger, scallion and allspice, and cooked out back on a charcoal grill — all accompanied with the classic Jamaican grapefruit soda Ting. Everyone on the tour mmm’d and ahhh’d their approval as we ate, and within 20 minutes we moved on.
From there we headed further south down North 5th Street. “Olney is a hidden gem,” said Lin. It’s true that there’s a great deal of bustling activity along the corridor. Plan Philly, last year, called it “The hottest Philly neighborhood no one is talking about.” But North 5th Street’s rebirth doesn’t look like the gentrification that’s happened in other neighborhoods.
For instance, Michel had told us that part of North 5th Street Revitalization Project’s mission is to keep the streetscape clean, as well as doing anti-litter education in the business district. But as we walked down some particularly trash-strewn blocks, Lin said that keeping the streetscape clean was a continual struggle. Again, I felt mixed. On the one hand, a cleaner streetscape might draw more outsiders to the neighborhood. And cleaner streets are certainly safer streets. But I could see how certain development forces might use the idea of a “cleaner streetscape” to justify wholesale changes of ownership in the neighborhood. Just because the neighborhood doesn’t fit the usual gentrifying stereotypes of “revitalization” doesn’t mean that it’s not happening.
Our next stop was a neighborhood mainstay, Café Liz Restaurant. “We don’t have a huge Portuguese population here, but we do have the best Portuguese restaurant here in this neighborhood,” Lin said. Upstairs in the cozy dining room, while a soccer game played on the TV in the corner, Edison, the manager, served flaming chorizo and seafood paella. All of it was lovely and the group began to warm up a little with small talk. Our young aspiring chef was invited to check out the kitchen with his father.
Then, as we finished up the last of the paella, we were quickly off to the next place. Lin pointed out a Cambodian cultural organization and a place that specialized in making Korean rice cakes. Finally, we ended up at Panadería Mexicana El Trébol, where Alberto Macias served us horchatas and chicken tacos with handmade tortillas. The Macias family opened this place almost five years ago. “North 5th is a great place to have a business,” Macias said. “It’s always very busy.”
After we ate, I went to buy some Pan de Muerto (the traditional Mexican bread for Day of the Dead). At the counter, an African-American teenager was struggling to communicate with the cashier, who only spoke Spanish. She asked Michel and I if we could help her. “I can’t understand what they’re saying,” the girl said.
Michel reminded us later that it wasn’t just visitors like us, from the outside, that needed better awareness of North 5th Street’s diversity. “Even people in the neighborhood might not have even tasted the different foods here,” she said.
When we finally arrived at our last stop, La Caleñita Bakery & Café, everyone was clearly stuffed. Most of us had filled our Tupperware with leftovers. But everyone swarmed the tray of fresh pandebono.
“Everybody will bring their own baggage on this tour,” Lin told me as we walked back up North 5th. “People in the suburbs might say, ‘Olney! All I hear about is crime there.’ But no, there’s a lot going on in Olney.” Occasionally, Lin said, the tours get emotional. He told a story about a woman who had grown up in Olney, but had moved away with her family. On the food tour, they walked by the street where she grew up. “She got incredibly sad about the state of her old block,” he said.
I’ve been thinking about my experience on the “Global is Local Ethnic Food Tour” for a couple of weeks now. While the word “ethnic” sort of makes me cringe, I would encourage diners stuck in their Center City-Passyunk-Fishtown bubbles to explore Olney. I even think maybe it’s okay for an outsider to describe a pandebono as a “Colombian bagel.” We all bring our own baggage, whether we like to admit it or not, to whatever new and foreign foods we try for the first time.
Maybe, in the end, it’s what we do next — after that first bite — that really matters. What do I do once I bring home my Tupperware full of leftovers, in my turquoise “Global is Local” bag? As the group broke up and went its separate ways, Michel reminded us: “This tour is just a taste. You can always come back.”
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 the recent The Cider Revival, series editor of The Best American Travel Writing, and writes for the Washington Post, New York Times, New Yorker and many other publications. You can find him at jasonwilson.com.Photos by Jason Wilson