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Philly Has the Best Food. This is Not an Op-ed

Philadelphia restaurants dominated the James Beard Awards. But, let’s be clear: Our elite food scene stands on the shoulders of Philly’s unequaled papi stores and other family-run, internationally-rooted food operations

Philly Has the Best Food. This is Not an Op-ed

Philadelphia restaurants dominated the James Beard Awards. But, let’s be clear: Our elite food scene stands on the shoulders of Philly’s unequaled papi stores and other family-run, internationally-rooted food operations

I consider myself a pretty well-traveled person. I’ve spent many a week in the Caribbean and some time in the South. I’ve climbed mountains in Greece, and jaywalked the streets of New York City. Everywhere I go, I always make sure to try new food; food is one of the main reasons I love traveling. And, almost every time, the food just doesn’t hit the same as it does in Philly.

Completely unbiased

If we’re talking formal awards, Philly’s been running the James Beards since 2016. This year, Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon of Kalaya in Fishtown took home the Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. (Chefs from Hardena and Gabriella’s Vietnam were also contenders for that one.) After being nominated in 2018, 2019 and 2022, Ellen Yin, owner of Old City’s 26-year-old Fork and High Street Hospitality, finally won the highest-ranked honor of Outstanding Restaurateur. Then, there’s the biggest biggie: Friday Saturday Sunday, a longstanding Rittenhouse haunt, clutched the prestigious award for Outstanding Restaurant.

A plate of food, including rice, chicken and s hard-boiled egg, from Hardena, an Indonesian restaurant in Philadelphia.
Hardena. Photo by Neal Santos.

Winning isn’t just for the Birds. It’s for our food, too. In other words, winning is true to us, not new to us. Zahav, Vetri and vegan Vedge are multi-time James Beard winners. On the drinks side of things, Philly bartender Toby Maloney of Hop Sing Laundromat won the Beard book award for best Beverage with Recipes for The Bartender’s Manifesto: How to Think, Drink, and Create Cocktails Like a Pro, co-authored by Emma Janzen. Nationally, Philly’s fancy food scene sorta totally rules.

Philly: “a great, glittering mosaic”

James Beard aside, the best food I’ve experienced in the city has been from neighborhood cooks, small businesses, and papi stores. Want to know why? The fact that more than a quarter of Philadelphians are immigrants or of immigrant descent. And as Billy Penn reports, more than 40,000 immigrant entrepreneurs do business in the city.

These new Americans — from Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Russia, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, India, China, to name a few — don’t just make our city more diverse. They also make it more delicious.

As Philadelphians, we all know (or should know) the simple joys of walking up to a food truck, or darting into a hole-in-the-wall where a speaker plays voices singing words that are definitely not English. Coming from a Jamaican family with a small catering business, I’ve grown up with an appreciation for the cultural importance of food. My family and neighbors made it clear to me: There’s something very special about connecting with the food you make, especially when serving it to others.

There is a reason, a person behind the magic of all the flavors. In Philly, you’ll get this experience in every neighborhood, every street — and you can thank the thousands of immigrants for making Philly food culture the way it is.

It’s not just about the food, either. It’s about the atmosphere, who’s cooking for you, and what they choose to serve you. It could be as simple as listening to music — for my folks, it’s reggae — or praying over the food before you prep it. In many cultures, more rice means more love. If a Jamaican lady gives you extra oxtail or gravy, just know for a fact: You’re special.

Next time you sit down in a new spot, take a moment to observe your surroundings: family photos on display; spice aromas, but also incense on altars, conversations from the kitchen (which can also get spicy) in other languages.

Let’s face it, if you’re from the city, or lived here long enough, you know that you don’t have to go all the way to Max’s or Geno’s for a good cheesesteak. Or even Wawa for a good hoagie (even though they are, despite myself, top 5). Instead, you hit up your local papi store.

There is a reason, a person behind the magic of all the flavors. In Philly, you get this experience in every neighborhood, every street — and you can thank the thousands of immigrants for making Philly food culture the way it is. As the late, great Jonathan Gold, Philadelphia is “less a melting pot than a great glittering mosaic.” In Philly, eating out, especially at the spots off-your-radar, can be a journey unto itself.

Too many local spots to love

Let’s face it, if you’re from the city, or lived here long enough, you know that you don’t have to go all the way to Max’s or Geno’s for a good cheesesteak. Or even Wawa for a good hoagie (even though they are, despite myself, top 5). Instead, you hit up your local papi store. But don’t take it from me. I’ve had friends visit from Chicago, New York, even Siberia who cannot believe how good regular-old food is here in Philly. (Especially New York City, where I go to college: Tasty, affordable food is almost nonexistent there.)

I’m a huge believer in finding your spot and ordering what they do best, for less. These are some of my faves:

A bearded man with a cap holds a plate of Cajun food from Beck's Cafe in the Reading Terminal Market.
Beck’s Cajun Cafe in the Reading Terminal Market. Photo by Reuben Harley.
    • Poplar Food Market on (883 N. 5th Street), a deli that pretty much looks like every other deli/bodega in Philly, held me down throughout my entire high school career. When I was down bad, after a basketball game, or extracurriculars, those empanadas saved my life. Not once did I have to ask, “How’s your hoagies?,” or “What’s the bestseller here?” The quality of the food was always on point. I know they got me every time.
    • Beck’s Cajun Cafe in the Reading Terminal Market (1100 Filbert Street and not just for tourists!), known for their creamy blackened chicken Cajun alfredo, provides restaurant-goers with a decent-sized portion for only $9.95 a serving.
    • Great Wall (9 N. Lansdowne Avenue), a strip mall Chinese spot with a 100-plus-item menu — the best being garlic chicken — has been another one of my go-tos, for consistency, pricing, and family-size portions.
    • Al Amana Grocery Store (1501 Germantown Avenue) is a family-owned Palestinian market. Founder Amer Dabbour’s recipe for shawarma initiated me into a new, spectacular, savory world.
A man with a grey-and-white bear and glasses wearing a white apron and red polo shirt and a small striped hat smiles while holding a plate of shawarma from Al Amana in Philadelphia.
Amer Dabbour of Al Amana. Photo by Reuben Harley.

Other places my colleagues recommend, and I look forward to checking out:

    • Korea Taqueria (3101 Tasker Street), for don’t-knock-it-til-you-tried-it Mexican-Korean mashup: bulgogi birria or grilled shrimp and kimchi tacos.
    • Kaffa Crossing (4421 Chestnut Street) for authentic Ethiopian kitfo (minced beef marinated in spiced butter — delicious raw, but can be ordered cooked) and injera.
    • Manakeesh Cafe (4420 Walnut Street) serves Lebanese sweets like basbousa (semolina cake) and chicken tawook kabobs topped with creamy garlic sauce.
    • Plus, West Philly has all those food trucks.

Don’t get us started on food trucks, which is where previous James Beard winner Cristina Martinez got her start. Also, the big eaters at The Citizen could go on for days about the tamales from South Philly street corners, potato-horseradish pierogi at Czerw’s (3370 Tilton Street), pho along Washington Avenue, egg tarts and bean buns from Bread Top House (1041 Race Street). I’m told James Beard nominee Hardena was once the most hidden of gems, if you can believe it. And we haven’t even touched the Great Northeast.

Point is, knowing you’re buying from a small business, and an immigrant-owned one at that, is not only good for the heart, but also for your wallet and the overall economy. And the cherry on top of all of that, is that it is always-freaking-delicious!

Hit up The Philadelphia Citizen with your favorite local spots here. We’ll definitely check them out.

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