Holiday Foodsteps: More Philly

So, in my previous post, I gave you one reason why Philly was one of my favourite stops - I've got three more:

Funnel Cake by the Pier

We caught a whiff of funnel cake being fried as we walked down to the pier and were immediately curious. Were they conventional doughnuts or would they taste more like youtiao, the Chinese version of doughnuts? In pure tourist fashion, we promptly got ourselves some and settled down by the river to dig in. The sugar-topped dough was a hybrid between Western and Eastern doughnuts - on the sweet side like a usual doughnut but crispy like a Chinese one. Like all doughnuts, though, funnel cake makes for a highly addictive snack.

Frozen Custard from Rita's Italian Ice

I know that Rita's is available not just in Philly but in a whole host of other locations around the United States but because we had our first (and only) taste of that delicious frozen custard in Philly, I'll always associate it with the city. We opted to share a cup of vanilla frozen custard and mango ice between the four of us after having had far too much Bassetts ice cream for lunch a few hours before. It was another first for us as none of us had ever had frozen custard before and it's a shame really because it's got such a wonderful, smooth, slightly jelly-like texture that's quite unlike anything we'd ever had. My only regret is that we didn't give any other flavour combinations a go that day and didn't have time to go back for more.

Sunset along Schuylkill River

I know that this isn't a food-related reason but a girl needs her sunsets and this one was the cherry on top of all the funnel cakes and Philly Cheesesteaks. None of us got the name of the river right the first time (why do they spell things not like they're pronounced?) but that didn't matter as we took a slow stroll along the river, recapping the day, enjoying the outdoors and ultimately being in awe of the beauty of the setting sun.

Character - that pretty much sums it up for me. Philadelphia has character.

Holiday Foodsteps: Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia

Philadelphia was in many ways the mid-point of our journey. In the most literal sense, it was truly the halfway mark of our American holiday but more importantly, Philly was where we could take a break from the map-reading and researching because we had the pleasure of staying with a friend who was not just the perfect host but also the perfect tourguide. There are definitely perks to being shown around the city by a local - they know where to go for food. No dodgy I-don't-care-where-we-eat-I'm-just-desperate-for-food stops, no angry Chinese women screaming at you in Chinatown.

There are all sorts of reasons why Philadelphia was one of my favourite cities on our holiday. Reason number one has got to be Reading Terminal Market.

51 North 12th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107-2954, United States

You've got to love a city where there's a food market right in the centre of the city. It's pretty much all under one roof here - fresh produce, hot food, dessert, confectionery and cookbooks. A couple of things not to miss:

Philly Cheesesteaks from Carmen's Famous Italian Hoagies

I've begun to believe that places like these use the tantalising smell of fried onions as a marketing strategy and kudos to them, really, because that's one effective strategy.

As my friends waited in queue for their order, we noticed a little newspaper cutting of President Obama's visit to the stall - let's just say that expectations became pretty high after that. We came away with two huge sandwiches - a traditional steak with cheese whiz combo and a chicken with American provolone one. I always thought that a cheesesteak would really just be a conventional steak with cheese melted on top so it was quite interesting that that's really not what it is at all. The sandwiches were worth the queue, though - indulgent, with tender, juicy, punchy meat, they really delivered. It's no wonder 'Famous' is part of their name.

Po' Boys from Beck's Cajun Cafe

"Trust me, they're even better than the ones I tried in New Orleans. They're a lot cheaper, too"

We were intrigued by the thought that a dish could be better outside its place of origin so with eager anticipation, we placed our orders, deciding to go for a mix of shrimp and oysters.

Like all American sandwiches, these were huge. A generous portion of fried seafood was stuffed into a soft baguette and topped with some lettuce, slices of tomato and mayonnaise, making for a very satisfying sandwich. The shrimp and oysters were deliciously fresh though the grease does take a toll on you after awhile. While I cannot say if these were better than the ones in Louisiana, I say they are definitely worth a try.

Gyros from Olympic Gyro

While this isn't exactly a must try, it's a pretty good option for something a little lighter. My souvlaki was satisfying and had the fresh crunch of vegetables that I had been craving.

Pie, pie and more pie at Beiler's Bakery

There are doesn't of bakery stalls in the market but the one that caught our eye was an Amish one whose counter was just a sea of pies. The sheer amount and variety of pies really makes decision making almost impossible. We came away with some key lime pie which was a creamy, vanilla-lime dessert that reminded me of the (surprise, surprise) vanilla-lime ice cream bars we get in Malaysia.

Bassetts Ice Cream

"Next on our tour, ice cream from America's oldest ice cream company"

Bassetts serves up some good, creamy ice cream with peculiar names for flavours. We narrowed down our choices to the ones on the feature flavours board and came away with a scoop of Gadzooks!, some Guatemalan Experience, a scoop of green tea and a cup-full of the WHYY Experience. Our collective favourite was the green tea which had that lovely, smokey flavour of the tea and not just little hints of it. The WHYY Experience was a little treasure trove of flavours - pockets of saltiness, some caramel bits, crunch here and there. The Guatemalan Experience which had a coffee based flavour was second on my list after green tea.

There's no better way to enjoy some good dessert than with some downtime at the little square opposite the market. We settled down on a bench with our cups of ice cream to enjoy some live music and (clearly) animated conversation.

Cookies from the Famous 4th Street Cookie Company

The cookies were so good, I didn't get a chance to photograph them. Seriously. We picked a cinnamon raisin walnut cookie and a simpler butter almond one and fell hopelessly in love with each bite. The cookies had a fluffy, almost cake-like texture that's rather unconventional and neither one was too sweet.

Holiday Foodsteps: The other bits of NYC

There's food everywhere in New York City - hotdog stands and gyro trucks at every corner, little cafes, huge barbeque eateries. For me, they were all part of the experience, like pieces of a big puzzle. While they don't warrant a post each, these little snippets are still part of the story. So what you're going to get is a summary, in a way, of what else I was up to in the city.

Dinner in Little Italy

I remember how beautiful the weather was as we took a walk through Chinatown and into Little Italy. The sun was still out when we decided to settle down in one of the many restaurants in the area for dinner - we dined al fresco, enjoying the slight breeze and the atmosphere in Little Italy. Lobster pasta in pink cream sauce, a seafood salad and sunset - it seemed like the perfect end to the day.

Saying hello to (a different sort of) Lady Liberty

M&M's World
1600 Broadway
New York, NY 10019-7413, United States

We were taking in the view in Times Square on our first night in New York City when we spotted M&M's World, tucked in one of the corners of the square. I loved how you smell chocolate as soon as you walk in, how there is a wall with rows and rows of M&M's in any colour you can think of and how you just feel like squeezing those adorable M&M cushions.

Sharing a humongous ice cream float over a barbecue lunch

Famous Dave's BBQ
171 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036-1503, United States

One thing's for certain - in America, food portions are huge. At Famous Dave's BBQ, it really was no different. For one, the ice cream float came with its own jug (yes, I kid you not) of rootbeer and my serving of Dave's Sassy BBQ Salad with Georgia Chopped Pork was so big that I had to have it over two meals. The tender, flavourful, chopped pork and crispy shoestring potatoes made them two very good meals, though. I have to admit, after catching a glimpse at how much people on other tables were wolfing down, the fact that I had to take away more than half my salad made me feel a tiny bit like a wuss.

Lunch at a German Pub

Hallo Berlin
744 9th Avenue
New York, NY 10019, United States

We had close to a whole day to kill before our flight back to London and after checking out, we wanted to grab a bite some place close. We stumbled upon this quiet German pub with a little beer garden at the back and thought that we might as well enjoy some sunshine out in the beer garden while we dug into lunch. Food turned out to be surprisingly good - for me, a lunch special of a currywurst, german fries, red wine cabbage and a roll and for my two travel buddies, rollmops with similar sides. I fell in love with the German fries and red wine cabbage almost immediately - those delicious little morsels of potato that taste like they had been cooked with a dash of curry powder and the soft, slightly sweet cabbage made a good pairing. While I opted for a tall glass of cold cranberry juice to wash down my lunch, the other two decided to give one of the recommended beers a go and judging by their reactions, it was a pretty good recommendation.

There we go - the other little bits of my New York City adventure. Ahh, New York, New York.

Holiday Foodsteps: Ben's Kosher Delicatessen, NYC

Paying a visit to a New York Deli was pretty high up on the list for us - what with all the constant references to them on TV (The Nanny!). Turning once again to our free guide, we picked the deli located closest to where we were staying.

Ben's Kosher Delicatessen
209 West 38th Street
New York, NY 10018, United States

The size of the place really caught me by surprise. Whilst I'd been expecting a tiny outlet quite like the kebab shops in London, Ben's Deli is really a full-fledged restaurant with a deli counter on one side and a spacious dine-in area on the other.

You know you're in completely foreign territory when you look at the menu and realise that you have never heard (and can barely pronounce the names) of most things. What do you do when you have absolutely no idea what to order? You go for a mixed platter, Ronnie's Mixed Platter to be precise. The huge platter of a stuffed cabbage, a slice of derma, meatballs and some chicken posed quite a challenge, even shared between two people. While the chicken and meatballs were fairly conventional, the stuffed cabbage and derma (beef casing stuffed with matzo meal or flour) were a different story altogether. For some reason, perhaps having had far too much sauerkraut over the exam season, I was expecting the cabbage to be on the sour side so to say that the sweet cabbage caught me off-guard is a bit of an understatement. The derma left us a bit intrigued as we spent most of the meal trying to figure out what it was - the stuffing tasted a lot like chickpea flour but when we asked our waiter what it was stuffed with, he just gave us a shrug and told us that if we knew, we probably wouldn't eat it. Upon returning to London and consulting our dear friend Google, it seems that we weren't so off the mark afterall.

The platter came with a choice of two side dishes. Our waiter strongly recommended a serving of fries but we decided to be a little more adventurous by getting egg barley and mushrooms as well as serving of Kashe Varnishkas (buckwheat groats with bowtie pasta). Both side dishes were rather bland and dry, leaving us somewhat disappointed. As the meal progressed, I was beginning to think that there was a reason why our waiter was so adamant about us ordering fries.

Something that seemed quite obvious from the menu was the fact that meat is pretty high on the priority list at these delis. There were still some vegetarian options, though, and the pescatarian among us decided to go for a simple Fresh Veggie Omelette served with potato pancakes and apple sauce.

I have to admit that no other meal has left me quite as perplexed as this one - I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about the food. Some of the flavours were completely new to us and while we enjoyed quite a bit of it, some of the dishes left much to be desired. Perhaps it was more a case of the deli letting us down and not giving us a good representation of what the cuisine is really like. A part of me wishes we had a little more time in the city for a stop at a different deli, just to put things into perspective.

I suppose that's what travelling is all about - new and sometimes perplexing experiences. Also, if you do ever happen to be at Ben's, be sure to look out for the joke that runs along the top of the wall, just for a little laugh.

Holiday Foodsteps: Dylan's Candy Bar, NYC

So you've managed to get your name on the waiting list at Serendipity 3 and have a bit of time to kill before your time slot, you could head to Bloomingdales or you could be like us and head to Dylan's Candy Bar instead.

Dylan's Candy Bar
1011 3rd Avenue
New York, NY 10021.
United States

If Willy Wonka had a Chocolate Factory in this day and age, I'd expect it to look a bit like Dylan's Candy Bar. Just a stone's throw away from Serendipity 3, it's the perfect place to get warmed up for all the desserts that you're bound to have at the restaurant.

It's every kid's dream really - three floors of confectionery, some conventional and some just a little bit quirkier. The interior is fun and whimsical, just the sort of thing you'd want a candy store to look like.

For the people who absolutely cannot live without their meat, I suppose. Probably best paired with the bacon flavoured chocolate.

These are what some dreams are made off - a bathtub full of gumballs.

If fudge is more your style, there's a fudge bar on the lowest floor which has something for everyone. Trust me, those swirly, colourful chunks of fudge are pretty difficult to resist.

The top floor houses a little cafe which serves up cakes, ice cream and other little desserts.

The candy bar doesn't just carry store-brand confectionery but a whole host of other brands as well so it does take awhile to get through the store (not that there are any complaints there, of course). I think there'll always be a kid in everyone of us, no matter how old we get and if you take a look around Dylan's Candy Bar you'd see how true that really is.

Holiday Foodsteps: Serendipity 3, NYC

If you have a sweet tooth, there's a street in New York City just for you. Armed with a trusty little (free) city guide, decided to spend our very last day in the city going on a bit of a food hunt. We'd all watched Serendipity at some point in our lives so we thought it would be a shame not to pay the iconic little restaurant a visit. To say that it is popular is a bit of an understatement - trying to get into Serendipity 3 involves a registration process in which you queue to get your name put down on the waiting list after which you are assigned a time (ours involved a wait of an hour and a half) to come back. The restaurant is surprisingly tiny and trying to get onto the right queue in the narrow space at the entrance involves some maneuvering.

Serendipity 3
225 East 60th Street
NYC 10022

The place has a bit of an eclectic feel to it - funky lampshades, an assortment of picture frames and other little quirky knick knacks make up the interior. The menus are playful as well, with their little illustrations and larger-than-normal sizes. On hindsight, the huge menus should have been the first clue to how big the portions at Serendipity 3 are.

We knew that we absolutely had to have their signature drink, the oxymoronic Frrrozen Hot Chocolate. This is one serving of (frozen) hot chocolate that comes not in a mug but in a bowl and is really more of a dessert than a drink.

After taking a quick look around at the other tables, we made the (wise, wise) choice of ordering just one other thing to be shared. We couldn't decide on whether we wanted pie or ice cream so we did the best thing we could - we ordered one of their sundaes, a huge serving of ice cream, fruits and delicious lemon box pie.

There's a type of warmth that comes from quirky little dessert places like these - they provide little pockets of happiness in your day. There are probably a couple of things worth keeping in mind when visiting Serendipity 3, though:

  1. There's probably always going to be a queue so go a little earlier to get your name registered for a time slot (or just make a booking)
  2. Don't bother with dinner if you want to have dessert. (Who says you can't have just dessert for dinner, anyway?)
  3. Share, share, share.

On the whole, Serendipity 3 is a lot of fun. The keyword here seems to be indulgence - it's probably not the type of place you'd want to go to on a daily basis but it's definitely good for when you want to just let yourself go and be a kid again.