Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Garces Trading

It's been too long, my friend. In the midst of a Neapolitan pizza revolution in Philly, I'd forgotten the companionship and comfort of that most deepest of dishes, Chicago style. Luckily for us, we don't have to catch a flight to Midway to get a taste of Gino's East or Lou Malnati's (though I can verify that the price of the ticket is well worth it). We can get something almost as good as the original right on Locust Street. 

With his Windy City roots, Chef Garces is baking up an incredibly close rendition of the Chicago legend at Garces Trading Co.  I offer the following words of advice: This will not be a quick meal. This will not be a light meal. You will not be able to finish the whole thing - unless you've got several hungry friends.  The pizza will take about an hour to cook, so bring plenty of wine to keep your whistle wet. In the meantime, there are plenty of amazing appetizers to keep you busy.

When you first walk in, you're greeted by the meat counter and the olive oil tasting bar. Don't be shy about helping yourself to some samples of the various oils & vinegars. You can take home a bottle of anything you like. The "house" olive oil served with their fresh bread is better than you're going to see on most tables in this city. A pinch of salt sprinkled ever so lightly over the oil sends your taste buds over the top like dough boys on the Somme. You could simply nosh on this till the pizza comes.  

But man cannot live on bread & olive oil alone. Well, you probably could but there is so much other good stuff to try. Do get yourself a cheese plate. You can order as many cheese as you like for $7 a piece, but the cheaper option is to go with chef's selection - $15 for 3.  We had a great Valdeon, which is a Spanish cheese that is pungent and bluer than Louis C. K.; a soft cow, goat & sheep's milk combo called Rocchetta that was out of this world; and a Tomme Crayeuse that was firmer and tasted a bit like smoked gouda. 

Complimentary Iberico ham for the FoodBaby? Thank you very much. Imported directly from Spain, I started getting flashbacks to Madrid and bar hopping through late night tapas joints. This is the real thing. Literally melting in your mouth with the most luscious, nutty flavor imaginable. This is why I get out of bed in the morning.  

A surprisingly good smoked trout appetizer with apples and fennel escabeche. I say surprisingly because even the wifey liked it - and she's not usually a trout fan. The smoke is not overwhelming, and the skin has a great crispiness to it. Slivers of charred fennel, marinated in vinegar, and slices of granny smith add a tart counterpoint to the delicious fish.

Ah, the main event. The deep dish. A proper thick, baked crust that holds it's vertical integrity. Thank god they cut it for you or you'd never be able to get a piece out. The side angle shot lends some cred to the magnitude of this thing. I also love the image of the cheese oozing out the side, seeking relief from the weight of the toppings above. If you plan on having more than two slices, you better wear your eating pants.  Give your pizza a few minutes to cool, and the slices should hold their form.  It's knife and fork time from here on out.

You've got a good selection of toppings to choose from - artichokes, peppers, bacon, chorizo & sausage can all be had. We went with spinach and mushroom and were not disappointed. The tomato "sauce" has an amazing depth of flavor to it - understandable since it's described on the menu as a confit made from San Marzanos. It's thick and chunky, not smooth or runny in the least bit. What seems like pounds of mozzarella and gruyere lurk at the bottom, on top of that perfect crunchy yet somehow still soft and chewy crust. Like viewing rock striations at a geological dig, each forkfull is a near perfect cross-section of pizza mountain.  

There is of course an entire menu of other options at Garces Trading - none of which will take an hour to make. And just about everything on the menu is worth coming in for. The deep dish is pretty stellar though, and worth your investment of time and $30. They serve wine now, but still let you BYO or utilize the in-house wine store to pick up something last minute. The cheese and meat counters are rivaled only by DiBruno's for their quality and selection. Take your time and sample some parma ham, truffled olive oil, or some funky French cheeses.  You really can't go wrong here.

Food Baby Rating:  Triplets!

Garces Trading Co.
1111 Locust Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Pizza Challenge Round 1: Zavino

We embark yet again, this time on a new quest.  To find the very best pizza that our fair city has to offer.  We're looking for that perfect pie.  A crust that's at once chewy and crunchy, with just the right amount of heat blisters, that can stand up to a few toppings and not sag in the middle like Kirstie Alley -  a blank canvas on which to paint a masterpiece. The sauce should be sweet but not sugary, with a nice tang to act as a backdrop for all the vivid toppings brushstrokes. The cheese should be mozzarella, hand pulled and never shredded - like a happy little cloud floating ethereally through a crimson sunset. Toppings should be bold and  confident, but never distracting from the overall piece. 

The ratings scale will be similar to the Burger Challenge with a ranking of 1 to 5 in each of five categories: Crust, Cheese, Sauce, Toppings and Overall.  We'll order a "plain" pizza from each location and also one (or more) with toppings. This second pie should be the house specialty - whatever is recommended as the best they have to offer.  And here we go...

Round 1 brings us to Zavino at 13th & Sansom in easily the busiest and most happening neighborhood in the city.  They don't take reservations, so you're going to have to wait if you come on a Friday night. If there is no room at the bar, they will however take your phone number and text you when your table is ready. And there is no shortage of places to wait it out on 13th street these days.

It's a tight space at this corner, with a bar & counter seating running the length where you can watch the art being made. You're going to get friendly with your neighbors and you're going to be dodging servers often. In the summer the outside tables are always full. It's all part of the allure though. There's a reason so many people want to eat here. Full restaurants are always a good sign.

The appetizers are one of the best parts of the menu with a great selection of salumi, cheeses, roasted veggies, and hand made pastas. You could get by just on the appetizer section and leave with a smile on your face. We are here for pizza though - the apps will have to wait. 

As the challenge rules clearly state, we needed to start with an obligatory margherita to establish a level playing field for all the contenders. The crust was great - just a perfect amount of chew, a few nice scorch marks and blisters and no middle sag to speak of. Cheese was good, but the sauce was too sweet.  Maybe a little extra sugar thrown in with those crushed tomatoes?  Shame, really. It totally distracted me from what should have been a great pizza.

the stache

My favorite was definitely The Stache.  Start off with a whole wheat crust, top with pistachio pesto, mozzarella, parmesan, and baby arugula dressed with lemon vinaigrette. Wow. I've had pistachio on pizza before but not in pesto form. There is a lovely lusciousness in the rich yet crunchy sauce, and it picks up a great char from the 850° oven. The peppery arugula and tartness of the vinaigrette cuts right through the pesto. Even the whole wheat crust was good - which is a rare thing I think. It always sounds like a good idea, but ends up tasting something closer to cardboard.  We asked the server what our specialty pie should be and she automatically said Stache. It's their best pie.  

The Truffle - with baby spinach, truffle oil, and a barely cooked egg with all that yokey goodness strewn across the pizza. They let you break the yoke and spread it around, so it's even more fun. The subtle hints of truffle are enough to let you know it's there but not overpowering. So many times you get a pizza that just tastes like one big truffle (#first world problems). This is an amazing pie. The perfect combination of super savory ingredients. It is decadence on dough.

Zavino is also getting in on the Italian beer train and offering a few large format bottles that are really interesting and worth a try. Give the Collesi Ambrata a go - it's an amber ale that is just slightly hoppy with some notes of dried apricots and dates.  It also helped that one of the challenge team members happens to work at Moore Brothers in Delaware. Any mention of this to a manager and we usually get some sort of hookup. This time it yielded a bottle of Italian stout that was like a smokier version of Murphy's Irish. I didn't even know stout was brewed anywhere close to the Mediterrenean.  Lucky for us it's one of a few new bottles that the restaurant is trying out for the spring/summer season.  I don't recall the name, but you can ask at the bar. 

Overall this was a hell of a start to the Pizza Challenge. Zavino's oven is humming as it churns out near perfect pies at a dizzying clip.  The artists in the kitchen are churning out pieces worthy of Raphael (not the Ninja Turtle). And they are keeping it interesting with new specialty pies every week or so. Everything is really high quality and the service is tight. There's a reason this place is always busy.

Food Baby Rating:  Triplets!

112 South 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Monday, March 4, 2013


Korean and sushi on the same menu usually sounds alarm bells for me. When a restaurant tries to do both, more often than not they both end up half assed. You either get a Korean chef trying to do maki rolls or a Japanese sushi chef that doesn't know the first thing about kimchi. Needless to say, I was a bit skeptical about our prospects at Doma. The fact that it's in a bit of a wasteland area (18th & Callowhill) doesn't score it any bonus points either.

But oh to my surprise, this little kitchen that could is putting out extremely good renditions on Korean classics and some inventive sushi that rivals any in the city (Morimoto excluded).  We had a hightop table in the back with 8 other people, so got to try lots of great dishes.  Here's some of the highlights. 

dok bok ki
The dok bok ki - a crispy rice cake with roasted onions and spicy kochujang glaze. I ordered this because it looked like the weirdest/most Asian thing on the menu and it delivered.  If you can find a roundeye that even knows what kochujang is (a cousin of kimchi) it's likely they've spent some time near the Korean DMZ.  I absolutely loved the dense yet almost airy rice cake and that chili paste wrapping every bite in it's fiery embrace. The onions add a bit of bite and substance to a great starter. I've never had anything like it. 

edamame w/ spicy garlic sauce
Just to make things interesting, why not throw some spicy garlic sauce on the edamame? Can't hurt right? As you squeeze out each little soybean, your lips get a slather of the slightly numbing chili sauce and a pungent kick of garlic. Don't get these on a first date. You want to make sure you've got it in the bag already before you share these with someone.

korean tacos

The superfood of the food truck scene - Korean tacos! I couldn't help myself.  Had to try them . You get two soft tacos with spicy Asian slaw, and your choice of bulgogi, spicy pork or braised pork belly.  With my newfound knowledge that the Koreans know what they are doing with some grilled beef, we went with the bulgogi and were not disappointed. Soft, tender slivers of marinated beef mix with the cool crunch of carrots and cabbage. Add some sliced jalapenos on top of that spicy slaw, and your taste buds are about to be slapped around and have their hair pulled. Trust me, they want it.   

maki rolls....too many to count
Doma boasts an impressive sushi list that won't cost the kimono off your back. The standard maki rolls are in the $3-$6 range, and the special rolls top out at $16 with most around $12. You can get yourself a serious sushi-baby on here and not break the bank. Oh, they're also BYOB, so stop by the state store and grab a decent bottle of saki or shochu to wash down all the spicy goodness that is coming your way.

Somehow Doma manages to do two distinctly different cuisines exceedingly well. Delicate, nuanced Japanese and strong flavored, tongue scorching Korean.  There's a certain yin & yang element to it that leaves you satisfied and contemplative. It is undoubtedly worth a cab ride from just about anywhere in the city. If you are lucky enough to live in walking distance, you should probably be eating here once a week. 

Food Baby Rating:  Twins!

1822 Callowhill Street
Philadelphia, PA 19130