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.