The first trip back to Philadelphia for this Penn alum since late January 1993 was too short, but included the following dining highlights.
Wed. night: our flight got in @ 10:00 p.m. By the time we got bags, our rental car, and checked into our Center City hotel, it was after 11:30. Not wanting to try to figure out what was available, we went were we knew we could get a quick bite at a reasonable price: the Melrose Diner. Embarrassingly cheap breakfast classics in an authentic diner setting (highlighted by creamed chipped beef on toast).
Thursday: First time back on the Penn campus in 13 years was quite interesting. Obviously, I didn't get a chance to try many of the new offerings, but a quick observation revealed that both the campus proper and the University City area offer dozens of diverse offerings that were unavailable in 1988-1992, and which would have been quite welcome to me. Nevertheless, nostalgia reigned supreme, and I wound up at Abner's Cheesesteaks. There's not much to report, really. Abner's is still Abner's. It might not be the best in town, but it beats every cheesesteak and hoagie offering in the greater Los Angeles area.
Dinner: old-school Italian at Dante & Luigi's. For whatever reason, I never really made it into South Philly very often during my time at Penn. Perhaps because it was not really a destination for European immigrants, Los Angeles doesn't have much in the way of European ethnic neighborhoods (Asian neighborhoods - now, that's a different story). So, there's no real Italian neighborhood. You folks in Philly are lucky; don't take it for granted. Dante & Luigi's supposedly dates back to 1899, and it's exactly what I hoped for. The decor was a bit more modern than I had expected, but not exactly "modern." Add in the romantic gangster/mafia nostalgia (Nicky Scarfo, Jr. miraculously survived an assasination attempt in this very restaurant while I was at Penn), and you've got an experience that simply cannot be replicated in L.A.
The restaurant has a very comfortable, family home-style setting. The food was all I hoped it would be, and more: a dazzling antipasto platter for around $13. The equivalent in L.A. would easily run double that, if you could find one of this quality. A nice selection of meats, cheeses, peppers, olives & anchovies(!). Only the tomato slices were a bit lacking, but that's probably because they're not in season.
For our mains, we selected the veal parmigiana, a good-sized cutlet pounded thin, delicately fried to a perfect doneness without a hint of grease, and sluiced in a classic red "gravy." Served with a side of pasta topped with a very fresh-tasting marinara. Mmm. Our other choice was actually a dish of mussels nominally sold as an appetizer, but which was perfectl suitable as a main course after sharing the antipasto platter. A spicy tomato broth accompanied these mollusks.
We were too stuffed for dessert, but couldn't help indulging in a dish of spumoni. This one was nice and creamy, signaling a decent butterfat content.
Add three (or was it four?) glasses of wine, a cocktail, and an espresso, and the total bill even with tax & tip was right around $100. Well-worth every penny. N.B. - no credit cards accepted. Oh, and free, find-it-if-you-can (we did) street parking (which basically doesn't exist in L.A.). I noted a sign indicating that they have valet parking on Fri. & Sat. nights, though.
Fri. Lunch: Siam Lotus, 931 Spring Garden St. I discovered this restaurant while I was an undergrad. At the time, I don't think there were any other Thai restaurants in the area. Having grown up on Thai food in L.A., I felt like a crack junkie looking for a fix in a Salt Lake City suburb (OK, I've never been to SLC, nor have I ever been a crack junkie, but it sounds like a good analogy to me). I found dishes at Siam Lotus that I've been unable to find in L.A., despite living near a section of the city officially named Thai Town because of its proliferation of Thai residents and business establishments. Apparently, this place closed shortly after I graduated, then reopened some 10 years later. Though the lunch menu is more limited than the dinner menu, we were able to coax them into preparing a couple of favorite dishes. Now, this is the sort of experience that inevitably will disappoint - you build something up to unattainable heights, setting yourself up for a letdown - and yet, we were as pleased as could be. We got a dish called mieng caam, which consists of dried shrimp, dried coconut, peanuts, lime and Thai chilies piled on romaine leaves, served with a rather unique, thick sweet & spicy sauce (which you add yourself). I have literally dreamed about this dish for years. Try it. You'll like it. Also got a dish of chicken with ginger & mushrooms, and a spicy noodle dish with Thai basil (beef). All very good versions: incredibly fresh veggies in both; a nice serving of white-meat chicken without a hint of gristle. As for the beef noodle dish, I was impressed with the spice level. My past experience in various Philadelphia ethnic restaurants is that the east-coast definition of "spicy" is what I consider "mild." That wasn't the case here.
Service was a bit slow, but I'm willing to attribute that to the fact that we were having a late-ish lunch (about 1:30 p.m.) and there was only one server. She was friendly, though.
And that's it. I hope it's not another 13 years before I return.
1501 Snyder Avenue
38th & Chestnut (probably 3803, but I'm guessing).
Dante & Luigi's:
762 South 10th Street
931 Spring Garden St.