Canto CCCXLVIII: Five Days in Philly

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Or: The City of Culinary Love


April 20, 2024

Gentle cabrones:

Sixteen years ago, I phlew into Philadelphia to serve as the emcee for the awards ceremony for what was then known as the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

Had never been to Philly, and loved it. Saw the Rocky Balboa statue, saw a bunch of old buildings (but not Independence Hall), hung out with the late media critic David Carr, and hit up the fabulous Reading Terminal Market. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay…but that was it.

The Former Columna did run in Philadelphia Weekly, but there was no other reason for me to return. I did gain some friends over the years who were from the Philly area, but they were Californians now. A few years later, when I gave a speech at Princeton courtesy of the Tigrillo, I passed through Philly on the way to Manhattan to visit my former book editor…and that was it.

I never imagine I’d return, because of those lack of ties. But then came an invitation from Mike Traud. He runs The Chef Conference, an annual — you guessed it! — conference that gets food folks from around the country to talk about the state of the industry and try Philly food. Big-time thing back East that I had heard about before — but since I had no Philly connections, I didn’t give it too much thought.

Well, Mike asked if I wanted to moderate a panel on Mexican food. For sure! Did I want to go to the whole thing? Sure!

Let’s get you out here for five days.

HWUT.

When I get invited out of state, I usually spend three days max wherever I’m going to end up. Five days in one city is probably the most time I’ve ever spent in one city since the week I made Louisville my base while doing oral histories of Mexican restaurants in Kentucky.

Sixteen years between visiting a place meant things would’ve dramatically changed, I figured. I remember Philly being warm and cool — which runs antithetical to what the city’s national reputation is. When I told my New Yorker friends I was visiting, they cursed the city as if it was Boston.

What would I find? Glad you asked!

Outside the awesome Casa México in South Philly

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Day One

Flew out of John Wayne, which has no direct flights to Philly, which meant I had to connect at O’Hare. When I fly back East, I like to take the red eye so I can have an entire day in my destination instead of land in the evening and basically go to bed. Sadly, the latter happened this time, so I wasn’t able to catch the opening events of the conference.

BUT…I was able to take the SEPTA train from the airport to Penn Med in Center City. Whenever I’m in a city that has a rail public transit system, I use it. I remembered being able to take it in Philly last time around back to the airport, and I remembered the train being as smooth as when I last visited (I had just read an article saying otherwise in the ever-whiny City Journal, and guess what? As usual, the publication was hyperbolic and anti-lib — and wrong).

Went to my room at The Study Hotel, got an Uber to eat a Philly cheesesteak…somewhere. Columna to come…but I can say right now with peace and love that the cheesesteak is the Italian American burrito.

Day Dos

Got up early so I could take an Uber…somewhere. Then took an Uber…somewhere. Columna to come…

I walked back about three miles to The Study Hotel, home base for The Chef Conference. Came late to the conversation between acclaimed food writer-editor Jeff Gordinier and chef legend Alain Ducasse. After that, myself and other food writers went to a media lunch at the James Beard-nominated El Chingón.

Good food! Beautiful opener of a tostada with roasted golden beets, fine guacamole, awesome cocktails made with local vermouth, and mole poblano in a cemita in a presentation that was basically a Mexican Sloppy Joe and as hearty as one. At my table was baker/chef/writer/chingona Lisa Marie Donovan, whom I’ve known for years but whom I’ve never really had a chance to hang out with because she’s based in the South and we only see each other at conferences like these and everyone is pulling her away. For an hour, we caught up on life and food writing and todo eso — let’s see when Lisa can come to Alta Baja!

After that, I went to the opening reception, then I skipped out on it to get back to the hotel. I should’ve gone out to dinner, but I had walked so much that day — and was beyond backtracked on emails — that I was actually tired, which rarely happens. I was so tired I totally forgot about going to the live version of Dan Pashman’s “The Sporkful” podcast — DAMNIT!

My dinner was a to-go order at one of the halal carts across the street from The Study. Massive container of good falafel, better chicken, perfect rice and salad, with a free drink. $10 Man, SoCal needs more halal carts…but Philly could also use more loncheras, you know?

Next time…but who’s Barry?

I agreed to be part of a brunch event held by The Sisterly Love Collective, held at Independence Beer Garden, which was right across the street from the museum that holds the Liberty Bell, which is right across the street from Independence Hall. No Uber this time — I walked.

The neighborhood I was staying at was Center City, where the touristy melds with the historic melded with the residential. The brunch was at 11, which meant that I didn’t see TOO many people on the three-mile walk over and got to admire all the old, mostly empty churches mostly on my own.

I passed by Philadelphia City Hall, and appreciated the plaques put up by Swedish American and Irish American groups to honor their group’s Philly pioneers. As a city, Philadelphia is great at marking its multicultural history with plaques, and I took all of them in (the first animal shelter was in Philly, and I had forgotten how important the city is in African-American history). Columna ideas all around — and not just for the Times, which means I’ll probably pass some to friends haha.

The Sisterly Love Collective event paired authors with local women chefs who would prepare a dish inspired by said authors’ work. I was teamed up with Jennifer Zavala of Juana Tamale —  true to form, she did a luscious Hatch chile tamale with a subtly spicy chipotle crema and refried beans so silky they were almost like its own crema. We talked about the Mexican food scene in Philly, and I told her while I understood why Philadelphia’s culinary lingua franca was Italian, I was surprised I had seen so few Mexican restaurants in West Philly and Center City.

“You need to go to South Philly!” she suggested, and I vowed to go.

The Sisterly Love event was packed, and I didn’t expect anyone to know who I was given I have no Philly profile. But no! I sold five of my Taco USA books, and other people recognized me from Ugly Delicious and even my Times work. Gave some journalism advice to Drexel students, too. Afterward, I did a quick tour of the Liberty Bell museum, which is wonderful and free and doesn’t require a reservation (Independence Hall does, and you better do it in advance).

After that, I went to the place I visited back in 2008: The Italian Market in South Philadelphia, blocks of stores selling red checkercloth food and Italian pastries and cheesesteaks and pizzas and all that. I remember walking that neighborhood back then and noticing along the way that the Mexican restaurants there seemed to be run by veracruzanos. This time around, the Italian Market was even more Mexican.

They ran the produce stalls, and Mexican restaurants were right in the heart of it. Why there was even a parade of folks from a pueblo in Puebla (Puebladelphia is definitely a suburb of Puebla York) complete with Aztec dancers, chinelos, and a banda (I would’ve missed the parade if it wasn’t for the tuba I heard in the distance and summarily ran back to the Market to track it down). It would’ve been incredible if the parade went straight through the heart of the Italian Market…but it took a right on Washington Avenue complete with police escort.

In a few years, I guess!

¡Pero buena la banda!

I didn’t eat anywhere, because I had to walk over to the opening Chef Conference panels at a theater off Broad Street. One was on sobriety in the industry hosted by Andrew Zimmern; the other was Jeff in conversation with Somebody Feed Phil namesake Phil Rosenthal. The former was confessional and important; the latter was funny and sweet. Packed house, enjoyed by all.

I should’ve gone to dinner yet again, but there was no way I could go to Philly without trying out Wawa, the legendary convenience store I had never tried but had heard much about. There was one near The Study, and I don’t know when I’d return to Philly, so might as well, you know?

I Googled “Best sandwiches at Wawa” to see what would pop up, and right up there in the search results was this article by Philadelphia food critic Jason Sheehan. Sheehan! I hadn’t thought of him in years. Used to be the food critic at Westword in Denver, and we were homies when he was there since Denver was the second-biggest fan base for The Mexican after OC and our respective papers were owned by New Times. We stopped keeping in touch once he left the chain, and my writing life became less about food. That loss is on me, not him.

Was happy to see Sheehan’s writing remained as sharp and hilarious as ever — and his taste remains impeccable. I went with his second-best choice: a classic Italian hoagie, toasted with pepperjack and light on the vinegar and oil, and damnit if it wasn’t a great convenience store sandwich just like Sheehan said it would be. You know you’re in a great phood city when the regional magazine’s critic knows that hailing a fast-food sandwich is as important as writing up the latest high-end hot spot.

Sheehan: We gotta reconnect.

Four

The bulk of The Chef Conference. Most food conference I go to tend to lean toward panels and speakers spread over multiple days. The Chef Conference packed almost all of them in one day. Great problem to have for attendees — too much great stuff, can’t choose them all, so try again next year.

I started with a panel on pastry chefs moderated by Lisa (I was one of two men in a packed room — discuss), then hit up another panel called “The Ethics of Accolades,” which touched on the topic I discussed last week in Canto CCCXLVII. I got to meet my former editor at Thrillist, Khushbu Shah, and legendary New York Times food writer Kim Severson, who quotes me for a piece every couple of years. She introduced me to…someone…as one of the best food writers around, which was beyond kind. The person nodded their head and continued to talk to her.

It happens.

Lunch was a bunch of Philly restaurants, all great (should’ve written some of them down, damnit!) Then, columna duty called. Went back to my room. Came back down and who was in the elevator with me? New Top Chef host Kristen Kish, whom I was too intimidated to tell I was a fan. Couldn’t go to her talk…because that was the time of my panel.

What a lineup! James Beard-winning baker Don Guerra of Barrio Bread in Tucson, whose fabulous loaves I’ve held. Rosio Sanchez, former pastry chef at Noma and proprietor of TWO Mexican restaurants in Copenhagen whom I met years ago (Rosio told me she tunes in every once in a while to “Grítale a Guti”; I apologized). Ana Castro, a Food and Wine Best New Chef and owner-chef at the upcoming Acamaya in New Orleans.

The topic was “Translating Mexican Cuisine,” so all my questions were about the idea of translating, which was maybe too on point — but who cares when the minds before me were so great? I won’t discuss TOO much of what we talked about, because the video is supposed to go up soon and I shall share in my canto when it is, but folks seemed to like what we had to say, and I urged everyone there from Philly to tell the world about Philly’s Mexican food scene. I didn’t catch any more panels, because I was interviewed afterward for a podcast that was ostensibly about food but was probably the most in-depth conversation I’ve had about my journalistic mindset EVER. To be released soon…

After that was a dessert happy hour by local pastry chefs and bakers, and I finally ventured out for a full dinner. The destination: Casa Mexico, by James Beard-winning Chef Cristina Martinez, who’s better known for her South Philly Barbacoa. She served her delicious barbacoa and fundamental consomme during The Chef Conference lunch hour, and I had met her after our panel and promised I would visit.

“I didn’t think you would come!” Cristina said in Spanish as I walked into Casa de Mexico around 5:30 in the afternoon. We started to talk, but the place became packed so Cristina went off to assist her kitchen. My hearty encacahuatada de pollo with handmade corn tortillas and a fire salsa macha spiked with chapulines was perfect.

Cristina and I had met years ago at a conference organized by the essential La Cocina SF. In addition to her spot-on cuisine, she’s an advocate for immigrant rights, since she came to this country without papers and hasn’t seen her children in 15 years. Cristina will be going down to the U.S.-Mexico border in June and cook for folks to bring attention to this country’s border cruelty.

“Diles a todos de los mexicanos en Filadelphia,” Cristina said as we hugged and said our goodbyes. I walked back to The Study. I had walked 18 miles in three days, when I probably barely walk a mile a week in SoCal. My shins were hurting, and my toes started to ache. Could it be…blisters?

When I got back to my room, my bloodied socks were proof of it. Worth every damn drop.

V

Fabulous conference, great talks — until next year!

Left The Study for the airport at 4:45 in the morning. Got an Uber. My Uber drivers over the week: Indian, Liberian, Greek, and now a Jamaican. Each one of them was friendly and talkative. Though none were born in Philly, their city pride radiated with every suggestion they gave me about where I should go next time I was in their town.

My flight was 35 minutes late, which means I was thisclose to missing my connecting flight at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Like, really: You know how the doors close 10 minutes before takeoff? I made it with one minute to spare after being at the back of the airplane in my Philly flight, ending up at one end of SeaTac, then taking one train then ANOTHER train to get to the other end, then running up one short set of escalators, then a tall set, then running to my gate — all while swinging my laptop bag and my travel bag like drive rods on an old locomotive. All those miles of walking I had done the days before got me there in time.

Philly was as awesome as I remember it — the biggest critique I could give of what I saw was what I heard at the airport: bunch of soul music, but no productions by Thom Bell or Gamble and Huff! But the Chef Conference was a smash — go if you can. Let’s hope I come back to Philly before that — even better than I remember it.

Filadelphia: Gracias. Get more Mexican restaurants in Center City, wontcha?

Landed in OC. NelCYN was going to pick me up (NELcyn had dropped me off five days earlier), but my flight came in too early so I told her it was all good. My Uber drive was a guy in a Tesla. He didn’t say a word.

**

Enough rambling. This was the semana that was:

FUUUUUCK…

IMAGE OF THE WEEK: Banana Fosters bread pudding and Manhattan at Memphis Café in Costa Mexico. My go-to order for 20 years — to 4,000 years more!

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The sooner the corpse is buried, the sooner we can get around to the far more taxing and rewarding problems of integration, or what King calls community, and what I think of as the achievement of nationhood, or, more simply and cruelly, the growing up of this dangerously adolescent country.” — James Baldwin, on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fight against racism, for Harper’s Magazine in 1961.

LISTENING: Love, or Let Me be Lonely,” The Friends of Distinction. Have always loved this song — alternately wistful and rushed, soaring and soulful and jazzy. This groups should’ve had more chances, because the few hits they had all nail it. Those jagged piano breaks!

READING: “‘How Finland Survived Stalin’ by Kimmo Rentola review”: Back when newsstands exist, I always used to pick up the latest edition of History Today, a British magazine that tackled topics big and not in a style that was plainspoken yet erudite as only the Brits can. That style makes anything interesting, including a book review about Finland’s resistance to the USSR, a topic I vaguely knew about and now I’m curious to know more about — the epitome of all great writing.

BUY MY NEW CO-BOOK! People’s Guide to Orange County tells an alternative history of OC through the scholarship and reporting of myself, Elaine Lewinnek, and Thuy Vo Dang. There’ll be signings all year — in meanwhile, buy your copy TODAY. And, yes: I’ll autograph it!

Gustavo Events  

April 21 aka TOMORROW: I’m going to be at the L.A. Times Festival of Books at USC— for sure in conversation with author Hector Tobar, but probably more events as well. Attendance is FREE, but you gotta make reservations for at least Hector — details next week!

Gustavo in the News

The rise and fall of 99 Cents Only”: An L.A. Times newsletter you should subscribe to shouts out my columna.

Hope for 99 Cents Only Stores?”: A columna of mine gets a shoutout.

Gustavo Stories 

Grítale a Guti”: Latest edition of my Tuesday night IG Live free-for-all.

“TKTK”: My latest KCRW “Orange County Line” commentary hasn’t been put up online…yet.

L.A.’s ultimate heartbreak industry isn’t Hollywood. It’s local journalism”: My latest L.A. Times columna talks about the journalism crisis happening in Southern California media right now. KEY QUOTE: “To paraphrase what the late A. Bartlett Giamatti said about baseball, it’s designed to break the hearts of those who work it.”

What’s behind those ‘Shame on you’ billboards in the Coachella Valley?”: My next latest L.A. Times columna talks about those orange things you see alongside the 10 near Indio and the beginning of Palm Springs. KEY QUOTE: “The hundreds of thousands of concertgoers who’ll pass by most likely won’t give the billboards a second thought. But they tell a story of a political brawl that has consumed the Coachella Valley.”

You made it this far down? Gracias! Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram while you’re down here by clicking on their logos down below. Don’t forget to forward this newsletter to your compadres y comadres! You can’t get me tacos anymore, but you sure as hell can give them — and more — to the O.C. Catholic Worker!