Lunch on a Budget in Center City

One of the main things I’ve learned from working downtown – at Broad and Walnut to be exact – over the past year-plus is that the plethora of lunch spots is both a gift and a curse. On one hand, within a few blocks in each direction there are countless food options spanning a wide variety of cuisines (and prices). On the other hand, the costs of dining out can add up quickly, particularly if you splurge on a few $13-15 lunches per week. As such, for the past 14 months I’ve slowly built up an arsenal of nearby lunch deals and cheap eats. Below are quick hits on some of my favorite sub-$10 lunches in downtown Center City.

Double Knot

$7 at Double Knot goes a long way for lunch, where you can mix and match a base (rice, noodles, salad, or banh mi) with a protein (pork, shrimp, tofu, chicken, meatball, steak). My personal favorite is the meatball banh mi. The fixins are fresh, and the cabbage and pickled carrots add a nice crunch to go along with the meatballs.

Federal Donuts

With the fried chicken sandwich costing $7.50, there’s room to add a donut on top and still stay under budget. Sure, it’s not the healthiest option, but there’s always coffee to go along with the donut if you need a post-lunch kick. The pickles, American cheese, and buttermilk ranch seasoning give the sandwich a unique flavor, and the fried chicken itself is well-crisped without being overcooked.

Sahara Grill

If you’re looking for a delicious kabob, look no further than Sahara Grill. My go-tos are the beef shish kabob and the kafta kabob sandwiches ($8).  “Lebanese style” is well worth the extra 50 cents – not only does it add french fries to the wrap, but it also allows the finished wrap to be lightly grilled again right before it’s handed off. With a thin and slightly crispy outer wrap combined with delicious fillings and sauce to boot, this has recently become one of my regular weekly take out options.

Snap Pizza

$8.50 for any sauce, any cheese, any meat, and any toppings. And these aren’t just your standard toppings. Everything from fried egg to apple slices to fresh basil to chili oil can be included. My main go-to is straightforward yet delicious – pepperoni, house made mozzarella cheese, caramelized onions, tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, and basil.

Goldie

At $7 flat, it’s hard to find a better falafel sandwich for a better price in the city. The actual falafel itself has an amazing texture, and avoids the common falafel pitfall of being overly dry. The harissa sauce, which gives the sandwich a little spice, is my personal favorite. If you want to treat yourself, though, add the french fries ($3) and milkshake ($4) for a full combo.

Passero’s

Inconspicuously located in the lobby of the Wanamaker building, Passero’s soups singlehandedly got me through this past winter. With a soup menu that rotates daily, there’s always something new that catches the eye, and at only $6 for a large (plus a roll on the side), it’s a pretty good deal as well. My personal favorites are the Buffalo Chicken (very Buffalo-y, just a warning) and the Tomato Feta.

Old Nelson’s

Nothing fancy, just solid sandwiches at a good price. There is a wide range of paninis if you’re looking for something hot off the grill, but I generally find myself gravitating toward the turkey club hoagie ($8). Great portion size and quality ingredients.

There are too many other good options to name everything here – from hearty breakfast sandwiches at Bill’s and Jean’s to Ellen’s chicken cutlet wraps in the Bellevue food court. Is it cheaper than bringing lunch from home? Probably not. But, it still goes to show that you can enjoy a few extra take out lunches in the city without breaking the bank.

Blue Corn: Mexican Eats in the Italian Market

It was a dreary Saturday evening in the Italian Market, but you wouldn’t know it from inside Blue Corn. The scorching afternoon heat had given way to a torrential downpour, and even as the rain subsided the streets remained sparsely populated. When my wife and I arrived at Blue Corn around 6:30, though, we felt the upbeat and lively atmosphere as soon as we opened the door, and we were lucky enough to snag one of the few available two person tables. Having walked by Blue Corn on several recent morning strolls through the Italian Market, we were both eager to see what the sit-down Mexican restaurant had to offer.

Before we even picked up the menus, we both already had two things in mind – margaritas and chips with guacamole, which we ordered right away. The Margaritas were classic, both in name and in taste, and avoided the pitfall of being overly sweet or sugary. They paired well with the chips (blue corn, of course) and guac, which was also just what we were looking for. There wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary with the guac, but this was by no means a bad thing, and the smooth texture mixed with the crunch of the thick blue corn chip made for a delicious combo.

After sticking with the more traditional options to start, we decided to branch out a bit and try one of the specials – the scallop ceviche. This choice was somewhat biased, I’ll admit,  as I had just read earlier in the morning that Blue Corn was awarded the Best Ceviche as part of the Philadelphia Magazine 2017 Best of Philly edition. Was I really going to go to dinner there the same day and not at least try it? Having minimal outside knowledge of ceviche, we both immediately took to the scallops served with thinly-sliced fried plantain chips and spicy vinegar on the side, which added a nice bite to the dish. After tearing through the chips and guac to start the meal, we found the ceviche to be a perfect complement, and we both finished as bigger fans of ceviche than when we started.

Of course, this all built up to the main event, and I eagerly awaited the Blue Corn pastor tacos I ordered, which came with grilled peppers, cilantro, and melted oaxaca cheese. As someone who passionately advocates for corn tortillas over flour tortillas on a regular basis, I was looking forward to raising my tortilla game to another level with the blue corn, and they didn’t disappoint. In terms of the actual filling, the meat was tender without being mushy or stringy, the peppers were juicy, and the cheese was melty, as promised. In addition to cilantro and a lime squeeze, I also topped each taco off with a scoop of salsa verde that arrived separately at our table, which helped bring everything together. At 3 tacos for $12, it was fairly standard from a portions perspective, but the flavor made it well worth it. My wife’s mushroom quesadilla was a hit as well, with a crispy outer shell engulfing what can best be described as cheesy goodness.

At this point, we were all in on Blue Corn, and we decided to finish everything off with a piece of chocolate lava cake for dessert. Did we absolute need it? No. But outside of a slightly slower walk home, neither of us had any reason to regret the delectable treat, which came with vanilla ice cream and strawberries on the side. As we finished off the last of our second round of margaritas (yes, cake and margaritas do go well together under the right circumstances), we also both agreed that this would not be our last time at Blue Corn. While the Italian Market may be best known for its deli meats, cheeses, and, well, Italian food, Blue Corn is a must try for anyone looking to explore some of the other cuisine options in the area.

New Queen Village Eats: Humpty’s Dumplings

I’d been looking forward to trying Humpty’s Dumplings since I first heard it would be opening a Queen Village location – two blocks from my house, nonetheless – back in April. There seemed to be a good deal of hype surrounding it, stemming from its first location in Glenside. More importantly, I can’t resist a fried ball of dough stuffed with some combination of meat, vegetables, and/or cheese. Having just opened last week, I decided Sunday afternoon was the perfect time to check out what I hoped would become part of my regular nearby snacking rotation.

After the arduous two minute trek to 5th and Bainbridge, I walk in and survey the menu. In addition to dumplings, there are also noodles and salads, but my eyes immediately fixate on the list of dumpling options. It’s $7.50 for a box of 5 – my wife is joining as well but isn’t as hungry, and I order us 2 boxes to share so I can try more than just the five “Favorites” on the menu. While I’m waiting for my dumplings (about 5 minutes), I notice the in-house Humpty’s hot sauce. It’s dubbed Murder Sauce, but the employee assures me it’s not quite as intense as its name suggests, so I decide to give it a go as well.

The first dumpling I try is the Honey Chipotle Chicken, and it turns out to be my favorite. The chicken is tender without being mushy and the honey and chipotle sauce combo packs a punch of flavor. It also happens to go perfectly with some heat from the Murder Sauce, which I use for dipping on the side. And although it’s not unique to this one in particular, the actual fried dumpling itself adds a great crunch.

I proceeded to try six more dumplings, covering the entire menu except for the Cheesecake dessert option. Other personal favorites were the Cheesesteak and the Roast Pork. In a city populated by delicious cheesesteaks and roast pork sandwiches, I wondered how the dumpling versions would stack up, but again the meat was tender and juicy, which complemented the outer crunch of the dumpling. The Spinach, Ricotta, and Mozzerella was also delicious – it could’ve used a little more seasoning, but the Murder Sauce helped account for that, and either way it helped balance out some of the heavier meat-filled dumplings. To round things out, the Buffalo Chicken dumpling was solid, although I was expecting more of a blue cheese flavor, while the Cauliflower and Pumpkin Seed (one of the rotating menu Specials) was relatively bland and definitely my least favorite of the dumplings I tried.

I finished everything off with an Apple Pie dumpling (also a rotating Special) coated with brown sugar and cinnamon, which added a little extra sweetness. After seven dumplings, I was definitely full. Given my appetite when I walked in, I think a box of 5 might have left me wanting more, but overall the 5 for $7.50 deal still offers a solid portion size for lunch or a casual dinner – you can always add a salad, as well.  There are certainly some standout options, and I’m already thinking about my next Honey Chipotle Chicken dumpling, but the overall variety of flavors across the menu packed into one box is part of what makes the experience a little different than your average spot. Simply put, Humpty’s Dumplings knows what it is and does it right, and it will certainly be on the short list of places when I need some nearby fried goodness.

Dock Street Brewery Adventures

I’d been looking for an excuse to return to Dock Street since I moved back to Philly a year ago. Living in University City during college, Dock Street was one of the places we ventured out to when we wanted to go somewhere a little different than the usual options on campus. I took my wife there a few months after we first started dating over seven years ago. Shortly after I turned 21, Dock Street was among the first legal beers I purchased at dinner. And of course, the pizza was among the better options in West Philly. When I heard they recently opened a cannery, I decided it was time to make a trip back.

Last weekend, my wife and I headed out Saturday afternoon to catch the El at 5th and Market before switching to the Trolley at 30th St and heading up Baltimore. There’s definitely an element of West Philly nostalgia as we drive past houses with expansive front porches and wooden columns that start to pop up once you cross over the Schuylkill. The first stop is the cannery – it’s a lounge space open to the street, and at 80 degrees and sunny, the weather can’t be much better. We grab a beer and some pretzels with cheese dip for an appetizer, but this is just a warmup for the main brewery.

At the brewery, I grab a flight (not available at the cannery) to sample all the options. It’s a good range of beer, from the light and slightly sweet Summer Haze pale ale to the classic Rye IPA. In order to maximize pizza coverage as well, my wife and I order three small pies – a classic Margherita, the Sicilian (tomato sauce, black olives, capers, walnuts, roasted garlic, sundried tomatoes, mozzarella) and the Brie (mozzarella, sliced pears, toasted walnuts, brie). My personal favorite was the Brie, with a great crunch from the walnuts and creaminess from the brie. It turned out to be the perfect counterpart for the Sicilian and the Margherita as well. The Sicilian also packed an interesting texture with the olives and the walnuts, and the sauce on the Sicilian and the plum tomatoes on the Margherita both tasted fresh. Just all around great wood fired pizza with a lot of flavor in each bite without being too fancy.

After one last beer to wash everything down, we catch the bus and wind back through West Philly and Grays Ferry until we hit Washington en route to home. Sure, there are closer places to get wood fired pizza that don’t require a 25 minute Uber ride or a 35 minute bus ride, but there was something about heading back into West Philly to grab a few freshly-brewed beers and a couple thin crust pizzas that made the experience even more worthwhile. Let’s just say it will be less than seven years before I’m back again.

Rittenhouse Eats Revisited

A look back at my favorite spots while living in Rittenhouse for the last nine months.

It’s been a month and a half since I moved from Rittenhouse to Queen Village. Queen Village certainly has a lot to offer, and having just scratched the food surface I’m already excited for the local spots, but I also think it’s appropriate to give credit to some of the Rittenhouse places that served me well over my first nine months back in Philly:

Pizza – At Mama Palma’s, the Caramelized Onions & Proscuiotto was one of my go-to options when I needed a quick takeout personal pizza. The Celina (sausage and spinach) pizza is also one of my favorite sausage pizzas in the city. When I needed a simple Margherita or Pepperoni pizza, though, Pietro’s never failed – can’t recommend the pizza enough. Something about it that just hit home every time.

BYOs – One of my favorite BYOs was Seafood Unlimited, a low-key but not-to-be-overlooked spot on 20th St. Sure, being one block from my apartment helped, but this is the type of place I’d make the trip back to Rittenhouse for now. The Sauteed Scallops & Mushrooms over Rice entree is a must-try, and that doesn’t do it nearly enough justice for how flavorful it is. One of those dishes where you know two weeks in advance you’re gonna order it, and it never disappoints. Also, $3 fish tacos at Taco Tuesday was a good mid-week deal. For Italian BYOs, I always had a good dinner at Melagrano’s. More unique pasta dishes than what you might find at other Italian BYOs and also some delicious risotto.

Mexican – El Rey had the combo of pineapple margarita, chips and salsa, and tacos or enchiladas that I needed, and for a decent price as well. The chip, thick, and the salsa, smooth. For more casual Mexican food, Revolution Taco served me well – I’m a sucker for any place that offers a salsa bar to-go.

Sushi – Machi Sushi had a 3 rolls for $13 deal that was hard to pass up – solid roll options and two blocks from my apartment. Pretty much sums it up.

Breakfast – The long lines at Spread Bagelry were always worth it – a sesame bagel toasted with cream cheese got me through countless mornings. If I wanted something sweeter, though, the Bakeshop on 20th always hit the spot. The scones are honestly the best I’ve ever had, and the other pastries are definitely worth trying as well.

Burgers – Do I need to even mention Village Whiskey, given that it was named the best burger in Philadelphia last year? Obviously a delicious burger. Where I found myself most, though, was Shake Shack. A good fast food-esque burger needs to be had sometimes, and although I’m normally a Five Guys loyalist, I had too many burgers and cheese fries at the Shake Shack on 20th not to shout it out.

Other Shout-outs

  • Yogorino – great fro-yo, plus Two-Punch Tuesdays for extra loyalty points
  • Food & Friends – so many snacks, and beer sold until midnight
  • Poi Dog – I ate here for the first time the week before I moved, and this easily would’ve been a go-to option had it been around 6 months earlier
  • Joe’s Coffee – great dirty chai, great location right on the park