A cheese steak is a long, crusty roll filled with thinly sliced sautéed steak and melted cheese. generally, the cheese of choice is Cheez Whiz, but American and provolone are common substitutions. The art of cheese steak preparation lies in the balance of flavors, textures and what is often referred to as the ‘drip’ factor. Other toppings may include fried onions, sautéed mushrooms, ketchup and hot or sweet peppers.
– About the Philly cheese steak, from the Philly Way
One of the anticipated indulgences – at least for David and me – of family vacation is tasting the local fare. If we have time before our trip, we look up what Top Chef chef owns a local restaurant or we ask for recommendations, which is why I’m writing about our culinary exploits. I’m always game for trying out restaurants by word of mouth, and I hope my reviews are useful for others. We took advantage of the complimentary continental breakfasts at our Lancaster and Baltimore hotels, and the only restaurant chain we allowed ourselves to frequent was Starbucks for breakfast.
Lancaster’s local charm
As I mentioned in my blog post about Amish country, we missed out on staying at the Amish Homestead (Ben and Emma, 231 Turtle Hill Road, Ephrata, PA 17522, 717.859.2403, Ext. 0) and experiencing a home-cooked Amish meal, which greatly pained me. Not that our two dinners in the Lancaster area were terrible, but we lost an opportunity to fully experience and embrace the Amish world and to provide Isabella with memories that would have made her summer vacation one of the best of her life. Despite being in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, one thing that our family did pass on was a slice of shoo-fly pie, as nobody was interested in its main ingredient – molasses.
A downtown antique and vintage mall clerk happily referred us to Aussie and the Fox (38 W. King Street, Lancaster, PA 17603, 717.826.4040) for the first dinner of our vacation. The restaurant, which is celebrating its first anniversary this month, serves a blend of Australian and American cuisine, focusing on local, fresh ingredients and offering vegetarian and vegan options. Wondering about the name? In 2011, Lancaster-native Julia Garber and her Australian-born partner, Colin Morrell, partnered with Frank Fox, to make good on their dream of opening up a restaurant. “By blending the two identities of the playful, modern Aussie and the timeless sophistication of the Fox, a unique dining concept was born,” according to the restaurant. “The Aussie and the Fox embodies these two distinct personalities and their contrast influences every detail.”
The kids loved their appetizers as entrees, which included inkers (fresh calamari, fresno chili butter, basil, and preserved lemon) and peel & eat shrimp (a pile of chilled poached shrimp tossed in seasoning, served with chili remoulade & smoked tomato jam for some dipping). David gave his orecchietta pasta of pork sausage ragout, caramelized leek and arugula pesto, grilled zucchini, sweet peas, and shaved goat pecorino a low score because the pasta came from box. My heirloom grains and fresh veggies from local farmers’ fields was mixed with Thai basil, sprouts, and honey-ginger peanut sauce, giving it a nutty texture and lots of savory flavor. The décor of Aussie and the Fox was a mix of earthy and charming Alice in Wonderland, which is the total opposite of the old-world, Colonial brick, Norman Rockwell kind of vibe downtown Lancaster exudes.
The second night we drove around nearby Strasburg, looking for a small-town, old-fashioned dining experience. We got that at the Strasburg Creamery and Deli, which also includes its Country Store and Candy Kitchen (1 West Main Street, Strasburg, PA 17579, 717.687.0766). The shop sells candy and other gifts – and displays busy bees working in their glass-enclosed honeycomb – while the creamery and deli serve up homemade ice cream and waffle cones, deli sandwiches, and fountain drinks. The place was hopping; long lines of locals strolled in to satisfy their sweet tooth on a warm August evening.
Baltimore: get the blue crab
We didn’t allot ourselves as much time as we’d hoped while in Baltimore. David had spent some time in the area for work several years ago and was looking forward to blue crab. Instead of dining at nearby Inner Harbor, which reminded me of Pier 39 in San Francisco in terms of tourist attraction, we took our crab at Oriole Park in Camden Yards – the Chesapeake crab roll and crab waffle fries for me and the beer-battered soft-shelled crab sandwich for David. We proved that you cannot have too much crab, even if it is expensive.
Philadelphia: cheese steak, Asian influence, farm-to-table, and Cuban
Philadelphia has a growing reputation for culinary excellence and many of its chefs have rung up James Beard Awards nominations. Iron Chef Morimoto’s Morimoto Restaurant (723 Chestnut St, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 215.413.9070) and Iron Chef Jose Garces’s Rosa Blanca (707 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 215.925.5555) are certainly two of the city’s more famous restaurants. But alas, they were out of our price range.
We checked out the posted menu for Farmicia Food and Tonics (15 S. 3rd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 215.627.6274), which is in Old City District, so within walking distance of many of our destination points. Farmicia’s concept is to “capture the pleasures of simply crafted food and excellent beverages served in a relaxed yet lively environment. The emphasis is on great tasting food and beverages crafted from local, organic, and artisanal producers.” Isabella was content with a BLT with French fries, while Jacob ordered the rosemary-roasted lamb tenderloin with green beans (he gave a thumbs up), roasted root vegetables, and yogurt-lemon sauce. David struck out with a dry duck breast with crisped skin, wild rice pilaf, sugar snap peas, and tart cherry glaze. I lucked out with the yellow fin tuna grilled in lemon/olive oil and served with tarragon-caper aioli with green beans and red potatoes. Our overall impression was lukewarm. Sending back a dish that is not prepared correctly, however, should enhance one’s dining experience.
We had to try the Philly cheese steak, and we did so at two different places – the National Constitution Center café and the Independence Mall Café. The version at the former was too salty, although the meat itself was tender, while the version at the latter café was dry but well seasoned. A little history of the cheese steak is in order: The cheese steak made its official debut in 1930. Pat Olivieri was a South Philadelphia hot dog vendor who decided to put some beef from the butcher on his grill. A taxicab driver noticed the aroma and asked for his own steak sandwich. The next day, as the story goes, rumor of the delicious lunch had spread, and cabbies around the city came to Olivieri demanding steak sandwiches. Soon after, Olivieri opened up a shop on 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue, Pat’s King of Steaks, to sell his new creation. Eventually, according to legend, he added cheese to the recipe. Today, Pat’s grills, which I learned about after our trip, are “sizzling 24 hours a day.”
On our first day in Philadelphia, we had time to go to the Visitors Center to become familiar with the area before heading out to Citizens Bank Ballpark for the Phillies game. We knew our dinner was going to be ballpark food, of course, so we tried to hold off eating. While in the Old City District, we stumbled upon Old City Frozen Yogurt and Crepes (229 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 215.625.0500). I’ve become quite the frozen yogurt fiend, and since they had my favorite flavor and combo, Euro tart with fresh strawberries, I couldn’t resist. We were famished and for under eight bucks each, we indulged in their crepes, favoring savory over sweet with smoked Salmon, fresh tomatoes, cream cheese, capers, dill and lemon, and slow-cooked turkey, honey mustard and toasted almonds. That satisfied us at the time, but the frozen yogurt shop lured us back every evening for dessert for the rest of our trip.
When David accompanied me on a business trip to New York in the fall of 2008, we ventured to Buddakan, a family-style, modern Asian cuisine restaurant, and I can still say that I had the best meal of my life there. When we discovered that Buddakan (325 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 215.574.9440) was also in Philadelphia, we immediately made reservations. We ordered Asian Cesar salad with spicy cashews, pork pot stickers with Chinese red vinegar dipping sauce, lobster fried rice with saffron and Thai basil, wasabi mashed potatoes with wasabi crème fraiche and chives, barbecue pork tenderloin with Chinese broccoli and giant panko onion rings, and miso black cod with bok choy, shitake musrooms, and unagi sauce. Our experience in New York, unfortunately, was not replicated in Philadelphia. The lobster fried rice and miso black cod – tender and melted in our mouths – were memorable on the palate, but everything else was just okay. Still, it might be a matter of making curated selections in order to meet our high expectations.
Happily, on our last night in Philadelphia we celebrated our great family vacation with a wonderfully flavorful dinner. The Sugarcube shop owner recommended Continental, but it didn’t seem like a family-friendly restaurant. We walked around that part of Old City District and came upon Cuba Libre Restaurant & Bar (10 South 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 215.627.0666), which is billed as being dedicated to a “continued exploration of Cuban heritage, art, music, flavors, and traditions.” The tropical décor was complemented by upbeat Latin music, and concept chef/partner, Guillermo Pernot, created a savory menu of “Nuevo Cubano” dishes or tapas.
Everything looked great and we knew any tapas we ordered would deliver an explosion of flavor. We opted for crispy plantain chips dipped into the Guacamole Cubano (avocado, grilled golden pineapple, roasted jalapeños, fresh lime juice, and extra virgin olive oil). Isabella’s favorite was the steamed Prince Edward Island mussels poached in lobster broth and roasted garlic. The Berkshire pork belly, which was slow roasted in a honey-soy glaze for 12 hours, was nestled in caramelized onions, steamed kale, and slow-roasted tomatoes. The popular Cuban staple, yuca root, not a favorite among us, was prepared as yuca fries with cilantro-caper aioli. The guava-glazed BBQ ribs came with jicama-sambal slaw. Our waiter recommended Mama Amelia’s empanadas of hand-chopped chicken, corn, and Jack cheese with aji-sour cream dipping sauce, which did not disappoint. We adults washed the food down with red sangria, a hearty mix of Porton Pisco, Malbec, blood orange puree, and seasonal fruit. I’ll be trying out Cuban cuisine in my backyard, now that I know how good it can be.
The food we eat on our vacation is an part of our experience and memories. It connects us to the places we want to learn about and embrace. If you ever stop by one of these restaurants, let me know what you thought – and pass it on.