Thursday, January 15, 2015

Soho Cafe

There is a little known place, in a village called East Oak Lane, on the physical edge of Philadelphia. I'd heard rumors about this place from foodie friends. It even got a shout-out from Anthony Bourdain on The Layover. You drive for miles, north up 5th street till you swear you can't be in the city any more.  All of a sudden the storefront signs start changing to Korean.  In the span of a few blocks you are transported to South Korea. You pass Jong Ka Jib on the left, Kim's Korean Bar-B-Q on the right.  You round the corner onto Cheltenham Ave and tucked between a bank and a gas station is Café Soho.  The exterior unassuming to the extreme, save for the uniquely Asian designed chicken sign hanging out front. 

Inside, the place looks like a failed night club from Old City circa 2005. Mirrored ceiling tiles, black and red leather banquets, a discoball like chandelier, K-Pop blasting from a big screen TV.  To the untrained eye, these should all be big red flags to turn around and walk out. But wait, is that a call button on the edge of each table?  Do they give you a plastic pitcher of water at each table, and pour with both hands? Ah-ha. We've found the place.

Café Soho is an ode to Seoul and the ubiquitous Hof's that are too numerous to count in that city. In Korea the Hof (from the German Hofbrauhaus) is basically a sparsely decorated restaurant serving two things - pitchers of cheap beer and plates of fried chicken. If Japan was all about fish, Korea was all about land animals - namely chicken & beef. Fried chicken is a staple there. It is cheap and it is done impressively well - fried hard and slathered with a sweet & spicy sauce. It is the go-to for college kids, after-work office workers and just about anyone else that needs a beer and a bite. 

The kim chi pancake was tasty. Just crispy enough to not flop over when you pick it up for the dipping. A little heat, but not enough to make you wince. On it's own it merits a decent nod, but it is just a warm up for the main event. 

Ahh, this is what I've been waiting for. Look at those beautiful little nuggets of fried deliciousness. These little guys are of the boneless variety.  It's like popcorn chicken, but actually good. The meat to breading ratio is spot-on and the spicy sauce coating each piece packs a punch. Between the four of us, we devoured these in about 5 minutes. Even the girl that doesn't like spicy stuff couldn't stop eating them. She was visibly sweating and going back for more.

And now onto the original. The bone-in chicken wings. The head of the class. The reason hot oil matters. Oh Captain, my Captain. Fried to a shattering crunch that is audible with every bite. The meat is tongue scalding hot, but that won't stop you. They are light and crispy, not greasy. They are near perfect on their own. A little soy dipping sauce puts them into an ethereal plane of existence.

They do a take-out business, but I don't see how anyone could make it home with a box of that chicken sitting next to them on the passenger seat untouched. I have joined the ranks of those that now make pilgrimages to Oak Lane for Café Soho. It's a hankering that cannot be denied, and satisfied only one way.  This is hands down the best fried chicken I've had in Philadelphia. It is worth the drive, and so much more.

Food Baby Rating:  Triplets!

Cafe Soho
468 Cheltenham Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19126

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Goat Cheese Lemon Pasta with Kale

When life hands you kale flower sprouts, make goat cheese lemon pasta with it! In our CSA pick up last week we were handed a curios new vegetable.  Basically a hybrid between brussels sprouts and kale, they are tiny little sprouts with a purplish leaves. The flavor is not quite as pungent as regular kale, and since they are so small you can eat the entire leaf without having to trim the tough rib from the center.  They also last a while in the fridge - added bonus.
The official website (when did vegetables start getting their own websites?) claims they are super healthy and lists some recipes, none of which sound particularly appealing.  So what does one make with these you ask? Apparently pretty much anything you would make with regular kale. When in doubt, sauté in garlic in olive oil! I did a quick search online for kale recipes involving pasta (we had half a box of rotini in the pantry) and one of my favorite blogs happened to have the recipe below.  It's simple as can be - sauté onions & garlic, add kale, lemon zest & juice; cook the pasta, add goat cheese and combine with the kale mixture.  We had dinner ready in 20 minutes. Rachael Ray would be jealous.

The recipe below is from two peas & their pod, slightly adapted by me.  I've included the direct link to their original recipe here.

12 ounces pasta - penne, farfalle, rotini, etc.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium shallot (or 1/2 a small red onion), diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Dash of crushed red pepper flakes (if you can handle some heat, substitute an Italian long hot pepper, sliced thin)
Zest of 1 large lemon
Juice of 1 large lemon
1 small bunch kale (about 5 cups), coarsely chopped, stems removed (we substituted kale flower sprouts)
5 ounces goat cheese
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water and cook pasta according to package directions.
2. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the shallot/onion and garlic. Cook until tender, about 4-5 minutes. Add red pepper flakes and/or long hots. Stir in the chopped kale. Stir and add the lemon zest and lemon juice. Cook until kale leaves are wilted and tender.
3. Carefully drain the pasta, reserving some of the pasta water. Return to pot. Crumble the goat cheese over the hot pasta and stir until creamy. It should look like mac & cheese.  If it's too dry, add some pasta water and stir. Add the kale/lemon mixture and stir well. Season with salt and black pepper, to taste. Serve immediately. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Tuk Tuk Real

Alex Boonphaya, who owns Circles in South Philly and Northern Liberties, and his sous chef, Silvestre Rincon have hopped onto the Mexican fusion train and opened Tuk Tuk Real at 5th & South.  The name is a play on the fusion concept - Tuk Tuks are the little 3-wheeled taxis buzzing all over Bangkok and Real meaning "royal" in Spanish. 

As the story goes, the two men had cook-off at Circles NoLibs, with dining guests rating each dish in a six-course meal.  They had to use a mix of Thai & Mexican ingredients and guests were not told who prepared which dish.  Rincon was pronounced the winner and named executive chef of Tuk Tuk Real, and the menu reflects his influence.  It very much leans toward the Mexican side - nachos, tacos, sopes, quesadillas, and  burritos, but with a Thai twist to each.  Think chile lamb mole, chipotle curry shrimp, lemongrass carnitas, and lamb massaman  nachos.

Salsa verde & chile de'arbol sauce with homemade chips are served straight away.  Based on the picture above, you could be at pretty much any Mexican restaurant in Philly.  Things quickly take a turn though. 

We got a plate of the lamb massaman nachos. Homemade nachos piled high with slowly cooked massaman spiced lamb, melted cheese, pickled red onions, cilantro and Mexican crema. At first thought Mexican & Thai would seem strange bedfellows, but all the limes, cilantro, fresh veggies & hot chilis present in both cuisines make this an intriguing and sultry relationship. 

Chorizo Tamales - the specialty of the day. Beautifully steamed with a perfect texture, fork tender chunks of chorizo sausage tucked inside like a little present. These were excellent and could hold their own with any at the taquerias in South Philly.

An assortment of sides for nibbling.  Some refried beans, fried plantains and black beans going clockwise from top-left.  The plantains were crisp on the outside and tender inside. The deeply flavored beans reflect the care and expertise of Chef Rincon.  A bonus at Tuk Tuk Real, like the Circles restaurants, is that they are BYO. So your meal just got that much cheaper.

The list of tacos here is impressive.  From the al pastor standby, to confit pork belly with kimchi and everything in between. I went for a plate of the pork kaprow tacos - roasted pork, salsa verde, pickled onion, and bits of fried basil scattered on top.  The pork is braised to a lovely crispness and intoxicating aroma. The pickled onion cuts through the succulent meat and the fried basil adds a dimension of brightness, taking the usual place of cilantro. I absolutely loved these.

I do think they could use some polish and refinement on the concept and execution. There's too many dishes that are just standard takes on Mexican dishes.  I can get beef tongue tacos at Taco Riendo or an al pastor burrito at Los Taquitos de Puebla. So I don’t really see the point in just doing standards like quesadillas and fajitas, unless they are executed impeccably. A few dishes were a bit dreary; fish tacos were under-fried and soggy, the nachos could use a better distribution of toppings on the layers underneath, and the salsas were a bit flat and lacked any real heat.

That being said, there's a lot to like on this evolving menu. The Thai/Mexican fusion thing is surprisingly appealing and doesn't feel like a gimmick.  Although the restaurant was fairly empty on Wednesday night in December, they seemed to be doing a brisk takeout business, which seemed encouraging. Looking forward to some return trips to see what twists and turns the menu takes on the road from Mexico to Thailand.

Food Baby Rating:  Twins!

Tuk Tuk Real
429 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147