Philly's Diversity Through Food
by Zoe Schwingel-Sauer
Philadelphia is widely known as a vibrant and diverse big city. I live in Mt. Airy, and went to elementary school in Roxborough. Before high school I did not travel to many other neighborhoods besides the ones surrounding my own. I was living within my own limits.
My parents are and always have been insanely good cooks, and have therefore always appreciated delicious food. Ever since I could eat food that was solid, my parents have integrated cooking into our lives, and we are all foodies. All throughout middle school (and high school, too) my family and I have explored various cuisines. For the longest time this felt like our routine, until I realized the exposure I was getting was not only impeccable food, but also the city’s rich cultural diversity. Through restaurants I experienced different neighborhoods and I felt a sense of true belonging to my city.
Penang -- Chinatown
As I push open the second door to get in, my senses are overwhelmed. I smell distinct spices that I can’t name off of the tip of my tongue. As I glance to the left I see the floor high glass windows that peer onto the street, with tall metal tables, with two seats each. I’d take that seat if I was just there with my dad. Since all of four of us are here, we follow the hostess across the rooms and up the two short stairs. We sit and I pour the complementary tea. I let my gaze rotate around the room and admire the place I’ve been so many times before. The textured walls that are made up of tiny squares, the slightly dimmed lighting, and the open kitchen all contribute to the ambiance. The hostess gives us menus, but we don’t really need them; it’s more of a formality.
Penang is my longest food affair in the city. This restaurant serves mouth watering Malaysian cuisine. My dad works in Center City, and my mom, sister, and I would always pick him up from work on a weekday and park a couple blocks away from the restaurant. We have been going for years, and I even remember seeing the start and finish of the archway in Chinatown. While my family and I are adventurous with food, we have our signature order. Penang Chicken Satay, Home Made Roti Canai, Mee Siam, and we finish with fresh slices of oranges. Inside, the restaurant is noisy, cheery, and fancy all at the same time.
This place houses many memories for me, one in particular being my 16th birthday. I had a small group of friends come and we chatted around the table, ate delicious food, and I reveled in all of the birthday fun that night.
Chabaa Thai -- Manayunk
As soon as you enter Chabaa Thai, you are instantly relaxed yet invigorated at the same time. The pillows, tassels, and calm energy almost entrances you. This is mixed with the lively conversations held by others, and the constant flow of serves coming in and out of the kitchen. The spicy food almost tickles your nose, and taunts you until you have your food in front of you.
My family has been going to Chabba Thai for years and we have witnessed its evolution from a beautiful restaurant on Main St to its temporary location for takeout and now soon back to its newly renovated space. I have experienced Chabba Thai in a multitude of ways because of this. I have been in a booth at Chabaa Thai sitting on comfy pillows surrounded by my family. I have been in the upstairs area that is more secluded. I have driven with my dad to the temporary takeout location. I have eaten it at my table and on the couch. While our order rarely changes, it took awhile to find our perfect combination of noodles spices, and chicken. Right now the order is Crispy Spring Rolls, Penang Curry (my favorite for the heat), Crazy Noodles, Pad Thai Noodles, and if we have the chance of being at the restaurant tasty toffee candies for dessert on the go. I love the spices used in Thai food and this has inspired my family to try stirfry and to experiment with spices unfamiliar to us.
Barbuzzo -- Center City
On a Spring day, the tall windows of Barbuzzo are angled open so that the customers can enjoy the slight breeze and warming sun. I push open the door and walk through the narrow opening with my dad following. The host greets us, and asks if we want to sit at the bar or at a table. The bar has a view of the kitchen, but the chairs have no backs, whereas the rest of the tables are a little cramped. We opt for the bar because it’s hard to resist seeing the amazing food being made. As we sink down onto the cushiony bar stools, the distinct sizzles of meat and sauces dictate how much you can hear, while the mediterranean food notes travel to your nose.
Barbuzzo is in the hub of Philly’s restaurants located at Samson and 13th Street. This area has introduced me to various foods, and it is conveniently around the corner from my dad’s office. Barbuzzo is one of the most recent additions to the Schwingel-Sauer restaurant list, and it has quickly made its way to the very top. I have always enjoyed a lot of different food, but I’m quite picky when it comes to “easy” food. I have never liked pizza, in fact I’ve spent most of my life hating it (I have found out that it is mainly due to the tomato sauce and its mixing with the cheese). The first time I went to Barbuzzo I was afraid that I wouldn’t like it, since pizzas dominated the menu. The unique thing about Barbuzzo’s pizzas is that only one of them is a traditional margherita pizza. The first time I tried a pizza there I got the Pera Pizza. This pizza is made up of “red bartlett pears, secret sauce, gorgonzola dolce, arugula, prosciutto, toasted walnuts, pomegranate molasses.” It was an out of this world experience, and almost every time I go I try to order it. The other coveted item of the menu is the Campanelle Pasta which is incredible for someone who is also not a huge pasta lover.
The famous item off of the menu is a dessert. The dessert is called the Salted Caramel Budino. It is a combination of “dark chocolate crust, vanilla bean caramel and sea salt” and is incredibly decadent. Although my family and I love to go to Barbuzzo a lot, whenever we go it still feels like a treat to not only experience the yummy food, but to be privy to a whole other cultural within Philly.
Paris Bistro -- Chestnut Hill
Paris Bistro is most appreciated when frost is on the ground. In the wintertime, my sister and I will often sprint from the car to the restaurant to avoid the cruel wind, and to hopefully be enveloped in the warmth soon. As soon as you open the door you are met with a curtain that you have to peel back in order to be in the restaurant; a precaution taken to keep the warmth inside. Paris Bistro feels like an authentic Paris restaurant. There is faint jazz music being played, with a rustic feel to the walls, and paintings that contribute to the energy in the room.
It is located on the lively Germantown Ave, with one of a kind stores appearing everywhere. This restaurant popped up a few years ago, and has since been the main food attraction of Chestnut Hill ever since. This is one of the few restaurants where I don’t have a common order. This restaurant doesn’t get as many visits from me as the others do, but I still enjoy it from time to time. They have an amazing French Onion Soup that is perfect on a cold day, and various other dishes that satisfy cravings of Paris.
It’s not hard to experience diversity in Philadelphia if you frequent many neighborhoods. One of the best ways to experience the cultural diversity that Philly has to offer is through the amazing cuisines that are in restaurants everywhere in the city. The Roti Canai sauce from Penang has drawn me time and time again to Chinatown, the spices from Chabaa Thai’s Penang Curry has inspired me to be innovative with my own cooking, Barbuzzo’s Pera Pizza has pushed me to be adventurous with new cultures, and Paris Bistro’s Onion Soup has made me appreciate the art being all of the chefs in Philly. Before going to high school in Center City, the main way I experienced everything Philly has to offer outside of my neighborhoods was through food, and it has contributed to my identity as a Philadelphian.