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Best ethnic cuisine in Philly?

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Considering a move to Philadelphia from L.A. and will be visiting this weekend. Never ever been to Pennsylvania. Staying in downtown (Center City West, according to Google maps) and won't have a car. I want to know which ethnic (non-Western European) cuisine Philly does best, and then try the best example of that particular cuisine in the cheap to middle price range.

This is not really about trying just whatever ethnic food is good. I live in the San Gabriel Valley and if someone were to ask me what ethnic food they MUST try here, I'd say the endless number of tasty hole-in-the-wall Chinese places.
I've read many recs on the board. This is not really about trying just whatever ethnic food is good, it's more about learning what Philly's really about in terms of diversity. I've already done research on the best local American and western European in the downtown area. Now I'm just wondering where to focus my search for ethnic cuisine.

At which ethnic cuisine(s) does Philly really excel? Is it Chinese? Cuban? Mexican? Indian?
(Though I may not do Chinese since I have it so much here, but I'd like to know just the same)

Hope you can help and that my question makes sense. And don't forget we won't have a car, so recs should be right in the tourist center. Thanks in advance for your help!

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  1. Being confined to Center City West makes your request a little difficult. You're also requesting to leave out Italian which is one of the places, if not the most where Philadelphia excels.

    I am getting the vibe you are looking for very authentic casual spots off the tourist map.

    The good news about Center City West is that you are surrounded by some of the most
    high-end fabulous restaurants the city has to offer. The negative is that the more hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants are in other areas.

    So here is a list of great ethnic restaurants that aren't necessarily near you:

    Mexican - Taqueria de Puebla
    Vietnamese - Vietnam Restaurant, Nam Phuong
    Chinese - Shiao Lan Kung
    Burmese - Rangoon
    Cornicopia of everything - Reading Terminal Market
    Indian - Ekta or Tiffin

    Recommendations for restaurants in Center City West that are not "ethnic" or "cheap" but are amazing:

    Tria
    Tinto
    Caffe Casta Diva
    Branzino
    Meme
    Le Bec Fin
    Lacroix

    "Cheap" restaurants that aren't "ethnic" in Center City West that are amazing:

    Good Dog
    Pub and Kitchen

    1 Reply
    1. re: saturninus

      Stay away from Chinese in Philly -- it doesn't come close to the west coast. Further west -- Center City west we have a couple of Ethiopian and other African restaurants (near the University of Pennsylvania). But I agree that you should take a look at our Italian restaurants -- in my experience a lot are excellent. Recommend Salento on Walnut Street near 20th -- very good food and BYO, which saves money. Find a state store (a unique experience for someone from LA, and not a good one) and bring your own bottle!

    2. True and not true that West Philly is not best place for ethnic cuisine. Nan on Chestnut is excellent, BYOB last that I knew. Distruto(?sp) is newer Mexcan.....probably not up to West coast mexican, but good, interesting food,although a little pricey for what you get. New Delhi has pretty good Indian food. I also believe there is a Ethiopian restauarant that I've heard about but don't remember the name. Vietnam definitely worth a trip to CC. Was to Salento once, would not say best Itaian in the city, would recommend byob on 16th (near Locust toward South)that name escapes me for the moment!! It's awesome and good price!

      1. Wow, cannot believe I left out Apamate which is on 16th and South....short cab ride or little bit of a hike with South St. bridge being closed. Chef is from small town in Spain and the small plates are the best. Get the special ham from that region....to die for. Ask to meet Ane the chef.......she's awesome and definitely going to go places. It is also a byob.

        1 Reply
        1. re: bonappetite

          but i completely agree with the apamate rec....:)

        2. all of these other poster are definitely good rec givers, but i do not completely agree with anything that is up there. while i like/love a lot of their recs, i am not sure that any are exactly what you are looking for. california already has excellent asian and mexican (albeit more mexi-cali than tex-mex), so you will probably want to avoid trying those places out (when you move here though, they will be a great comfort. :D ). one place you have to go (as does everyone else who visits philly in my opinion) is the reading terminal. anyone from philly or who has ever spent a significant amount of their life in philly misses rtm whenever they live somewhere else. there are very few things like it on this planet (mercato centrale in florence comes close though).....

          tiffin and ekta are both excelletn indian restaurants, but a little far away (accesble by p trans though) and only tiffin has a suitable dining area (but i prefer ekta's food, both byo). palace at the ben and king of tandoor are both v good, but not as good, but closer to downtown. we have tons of good ethipian eateries, but none are near where you are (ERA is a good bar with ethiopian food in fairmount, which might be close). alma de cuba is excellent, cuba libre is good, and alma i think may be near your hotel. any of jose garces' places are worth trying, though they are a bit trendy (but you cannot beat his food) - amada (andalusian tapas), tinto (basque tapas), chifa (perucian chinese food) and distrito (mexican, modern). look them up on yelp. paxia (byo) is also v good for modern mexican, but it is always empty and i fear that it won't last. xochitl also falls under the modern umbrella (but it is usually hoppin, and in head house square/newmarket), but again, i am in a food group that you are probably all set with...

          kanella is an excellent cypriot restaurant that everyone is impressed with (byo), little fish is an amazing seafood restaurant that has garnered national attention and praise (byo and TINY!! make reservations now if you are interested), ansill is great for modern american, organs and a french twist, full plate is great for american (a-hole service though), beau monde makes some of the best brittany-style crepes you will ever have, monk's is our gold standard for belgian beer and mussels (though we have a LOT of belgian bars), tria is an excellent fermented-specialist bar (wine, cheese and beer with yummy food and there are two of them), kabul does v good but expensive afghani food and i think i might be just about done. there are tons more places that are worth eating, but they tend to be american and european, so....fin. :)

          1. i recently made a move to philly from boston, so was immediately concerned with the same question. here are my impressions so far (it's only been a few months):

            indian: B. agree that tiffin and ekta are your best bets. still, i've found that indian options in philly are inferior to what's available in boston.

            thai: B. thai chef and noodle fusion on chestnut is new and good. nearly all the other thai in center city is C+ quality at best. again, my impression is strongly colored by my experiences with excellent thai options in boston.

            middle-eastern: A-. mama's vegetarion (low-end falafel) and zahav (high-end israeli) are impressive. i hear there are other falafel places around downtown (on south street near old city, for example) that are good.

            chinese: A-. i don't think it's as bad as others have said here. there's at least one good and creative dim sum place in chinatown. unfortunately, i can't remember the name - i think it was ocean city or ocean harbor. the problem is that i had one other mediocre dim sum experience and i can't remember that name either. anyway, forget all of that and head straight to dim sum garden on 11th between filbert and arch, and order their sublime xiao long bao. the presence of this classic 'hound dive vastly elevates the whole chinese category grade for the city.

            ethiopian: B+. have only been cafe almaz at 20th and walnut, which serves good ethiopian in a super casual cafe setting, so my grade may be unfairly low. i hear there are lots of options

            sandwich shop: F. i haven't found a single one in center city! where's a guy supposed to get a good turkey, swiss and avocado sandwich on toasted sourdough! i've been pretty sad about this.

            mexican: A-. lots of mexican in center city. lots and lots of mexican. and it's good, although mostly sit-down oriented. i haven't seen a taqueria joint (distrito in west philly is supposed to fill this niche, but haven't been yet)

            peruvian, brazilian, argentinian - have not seen any of these types of restaurants. went to chifa and wouldn't really count it (also thought it was the first mis-step amongst garces' other great places)

            to answer your initial question, i'd say that mexican is the supreme non-western cuisine in philly, in terms of range of options and quality.

            9 Replies
            1. re: coookie

              oh, and i would add dmitri's to the greek / cypriot rec of kanella above.

              1. re: coookie

                An F for sandwiches? Philly is the best sandwich town in America. You just need to wrap your head around what a Philly sandwich is.

                For CC, go to Primo's and get an Italian or Nonna's Veggie hoagie.

                1. re: barryg

                  I have to agree about the sandwiches... two great options where you might find what you are looking for are the Amish counter on the 12th st side of the RTM and at Nelson's at 12th & Chestnut

                  I also have to agree about Dim Sum Garden... just had lunch today and have been in a giddy soup dumpling stupor ever since. Ask for the shrimp dumplings off the menu, too!!

                  1. re: barryg

                    alright, i haven't been to primo's because it's never open at night, so i'll try to hit it up some saturday. but a hoagie is totally different from the type of sandwich i mean. i mean, that's like one corner of the sandwich universe. i'm talking about a place that does a killer reuben, a pressed cuban, some chicken salads, etc.

                    and is open past 3pm when i want to grab something quick for dinner.

                    i guess there's di bruno's deli counter, and old nelson looks promising.

                    1. re: coookie

                      and Famous. you get two meals from one sandwich.

                      1. re: coookie

                        don't know of a place you can get all of those, but...

                        reuben: herschel's (in Reading Terminal Market)
                        chicken salad: hymie's (lower merion), more than just ice cream (locust btwn 11th and 12th)
                        cuban: any of the taquerias
                        fancy sandwiches with stuff: marathon grill--come to think of it, they used to have pretty good chicken salad, too...

                        1. re: bananafishes

                          You can get a good Cuban sandwich at Tierra Colombiana on 5th near Wyoming Ave.

                          1. re: bananafishes

                            reuben: Famous
                            chicken salad: Salumeria in the RTM
                            cuban: haven't found a good one here. Had a pretty good one at Kite and Key
                            fancy sandwiches: paesano's? philly's not really into fancy, much less fancy sandwiches.

                          2. re: coookie

                            I would add Honey's Sit and Eat in No Libs and Mezze in the RTM

                      2. Kind of floored that none of the replies so far has mentioned either the Italian market or Washington Ave. Yes, not in Center City West but still reachable either by bus (you'd have to ask around for the bus number, I'm not sure which one it'd be) or by taking Broad St. Line south to Ellsworth/Federal and then going north a couple of blocks and turning right onto Washington. There, you'll encounter a wealth of really excellent Vietnamese restaurants (some serving pretty much exclusively Pho, others serving a wide variety). There's a Vietnamese shopping mall on Washington & 11th and another at Washington & 6th and both offer excellent options. If you do like Pho, some people swear by Pho 75 at 11th although I prefer Pho Ha at the shopping mall at 6th. I'm no expert in Vietnamese cuisine but it might be the secret pearl of Philadelphian ethnic cuisine simply because there are so many restaurants.

                        Philadelphia probably isn't "known" for its Korean but Koreanna, on Chestnut between 39th and 40th St is very tasty Korean. A couple dozen dishes are on offer and it's routinely stuffed full of Korean university students. You can stuff your face twice-over for $10.

                        I think Philly actually does passably well for Chinese food. The Chinatown is well-sized and has plenty of eateries and many of them are pretty good. If you do get a hankering for Chinese, don't miss Zhi Wei Guan, 925 Race St. It's a really excellent dumpling/noodle joint that tries to feature dishes from Beijing and northeast China.

                        9th street is the Italian market, only one Italian restaurant there and nothing very special. The real treats there are the delis and gourmet shops. It's also one of the best places to buy fresh seafood in town. There are Mexican restaurants and shops all along 9th street south of Washington, certainly nothing special coming from CA but still pretty good I think. I have been told by a source that would probably know that the best Mexican food is to be had in northeast Philly, an area that is kind of notorious for being unsafe. The restaurants recommended to me, which I have not made it to, are
                        Freddy and Tony's on 2nd & Allegheny
                        Shining Star on 5th St just south of Cumberland
                        North of that, apparently, there's just one place after another all the way to Roosevelt Boulevard.
                        These neighborhoods are, however, "totally f**ing sketchy" (his exact words).

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Deathalicious

                          Paxia is closed. You can't compare Philly Chinese food to what's available on the West coast. Probably can't compare Mexican either. What we do best is Italian and I second all the recommendations for our Italian restaurants, especially Salento and all the good BYOs. The Ethiopian restaurants are also a plus. Zahav is in a class by itself -- Solomonov is a really talented chef -- I don't rememberany food in Israel tasting so good!

                          1. re: Deathalicious

                            Korean---go to Koreatown (Olney)...easily accessible by the MFL

                            1. re: Deathalicious

                              koreana is between chestnut and market in the parking lot just west of 38th street. their kimchi chigae gets me through the winter.....

                            2. for good ethnic food you're going to have to travel a little. Not far, just out of Center city. When they open an "ethnic" restaurant in CC they always jazz it up too much.

                              Vietnamese: the area known to some as LIttle Vietnam is on Washington Ave. between....I'd say 8th and 12th. You can take the 47 bus down 8th street to Washington. Would take you about 10 minutes from Market Street. There are also great Mexican places on Washington Ave. Then after you wander around and eat Vietnamese, you can walk up 9th street through the Italian Market back to CC.
                              For Indian, Thai, Ethiopian, Laotian, you gotta go to West Philly. Some are walkable from CC West, but kind of a long walk. You can take the 21 or the 42 bus on Walnut street, or the Market Frankfurt subway line to 40th street station. This is like a 10 minute bus ride at most. From there you'll be close to Pattaya, Singha House, Distrito, New Delhi, Sitar India. Or take the 34 trolley from 30th street station down Baltimore Ave to find Vietnam Cafe, Vientiane, Absynnia, Dalak, Gojjo.
                              Or head to Chinatown. There are a lot of good places there, not just chinese but Vietnamese, Malaysian, japanese, etc.

                              If you only eat in Center City, you'll be disappointed. Besides, you should get out of Center city anyway to get a real view of Philadelphia.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: hollyd

                                My response to the OP's question would be: Chinese, Mexican and Vietnamese.

                                I agree with hollyd and saturninus, there are very solid cheap ethnic places here in Phili, you just have to travel a bit. I live in CC west and don't have a car, but have had not much problem getting to these ethnic gems.

                                Chinese: I would recommend hitting Chinatown for Nanzhou Noodle House, Dimsum Garden, and Heung Fa Chun. I've also heard 4 Rivers, Sang Kee Duck and Shiao Lan Kung are good, but have yet to try them. In the CC west area, I just found that A-Mandarin on 21st/Chestnut serves not only the standard Americanized drock, but also decent more authentic stuff if you know what to order.

                                Mexican: I second what hollyd said. Take a bus or cab it to 9th/Washington Ave for Taqueria Veracruzana, Lalupe, or Taqueria de puebla. Different than cali style mexican, but still fresh, authentic and good nonetheless.

                                Vietnamese: Ditto on 8th/washington. There are also some decent banh mi recs if you search the boards.

                                I also want to 3rd/4th(?) the rec for reading terminal market. While the ethnic stands there are okay to decent, I absolutely adore some of the Amish stands, Hershel's and Dinic's.

                              2. I know it's not center city and I am not sure how to get there by bus, but I want to put a plug in for A Taste of Portugal in Northeast Philly. Great authentic Portugese food and staff.

                                1. best ethnic food in philly: philly cheese steak

                                  1. My husband and I loved Rangoon! Thanks for the recommendations everyone made! My hubby loves Thai and Indian, but not Chinese. So I wasn't sure if he would like it. We ordered the Basil Noodle, Chicken Satay, Golden Triangles and Kung Pao Tofu. Everything was delicious! Not as spicey as I would like, but we are definite fans.