While food is an integral part of not just my own travel experience, but most people’s, I’m guilty of not always considering it when I travel, especially in the US. Unless I’m traveling to a known foodie destination, like New Orleans, then the food culture of US cities isn’t something I normally consider, a problem I guess as a domestic tourist. Philadelphia is different though, but I didn’t realize just how much so until I re-visited the city on a recent trip.
Local knowledge is everything when we travel, which is why I was so happy to work with The Logan Hotel, part of Curio – A Collection by Hilton. The Logan is one of those rare examples of a great luxury hotel that hasn’t just thoroughly embraced its city, but the fierce love of Philadelphia can be found throughout the property. Nowhere was this more true than in the service and hospitality and so when they recommended that I spend some time exploring the Reading Terminal Market, I was intrigued. I visit many food markets when I travel, they’re usually fun, offer good food and honestly as a photographer, they can also provide fantastic visuals. So it was with somewhat benign expectations that I made the short walk to the market, expecting the normal experience found in almost any major city. As soon as I walked through the front doors though, I knew that Reading Terminal is not your average market.
First opening its doors in the 1890s, the Reading Terminal Market looks like any great market with its fin de siècle design and delicate arches, but it’s what’s under that elaborately designed roof that really matters. Every type of food purveyor imaginable calls the Reading Terminal Market home and I was on a mission to try out some true Philadelphia classics. Knowing where and even how to start was the problem. I was quickly overwhelmed by choice and the crowds of office workers all descending on Reading for their lunchtime meal. Luckily, insider knowledge came to my aid yet again and I had a list in hand of what to try and where to get it.
An entire corner of the market is devoted to Amish merchants from Lancaster County who bring their freshly made products and delicious prepared dishes to the Market four days a week. As luck would have it, I was there on one of those four days and I knew exactly what I wanted to try. I have a sweet tooth and in particular I love pastries, with doughnuts and fritters being my top choice. I’ve become somewhat obsessive over the years of trying doughnuts wherever I find them, to try something different on my quest to discover the best ones in the world. Walking by the stand I could barely contain my excitement when I saw a massive file of freshly glazed fritters, cooling and waiting to be eagerly consumed by the many people standing in line. The wait was well worth it though, after my first bite into the still-warm apple fritter I was in love and knew I had found the best one I’ve ever tried. My only regret was that I couldn’t eat more of them, but I knew it was just the first stop of many that afternoon.
Roast Pork Sandwiches
I like to think that I’m a connoisseur of great comfort food, which is why I was fairly surprised that this iconic Philadelphia dish hadn’t yet made it onto my radar. We all know the great Philadelphia cheesesteak, but the roast pork sandwich may be even more beloved by Philadelphia residents. The sandwich itself has decidedly Italian immigrant influence, like so many of Philly’s great bites, and also like any great comfort food dish it’s incredibly simple. The sandwich itself consists of wet, thinly sliced roast pork on a hoagie roll that is served with provolone cheese and greens, normally broccoli rabe.
As a Southerner, I’m well practiced in consuming pork in any number of ways, but after my first bite into this massive sandwich I was surprised. I’m definitely used to pulled pork being smothered in BBQ sauce and while at first the sandwich seemed a little bland, I quickly began to appreciate the juicy taste of the pork itself. It may have been my favorite bite during my time in Philadelphia, and watching the pros at DiNic’s carve up the meat to order was almost as joyful as the sandwich itself.
The Famous Cheesesteak
Of course I couldn’t ignore Philly’s most famous sandwich, the classic cheesesteak. Like any great comfort food, the Philly cheesesteak has somewhat fuzzy beginnings, but most agree that it came about in the 1930s entirely by accident, but quickly became popular. Today it’s probably the food best identified with the city and while I’ve enjoyed them in Philly before, I couldn’t wait to enjoy another expertly prepared sandwich. There’s no lack of choice in Philadelphia when it comes to cheesesteaks, and naturally everyone has their own opinions, so at the Reading Terminal Market I simply choose the stand that looked best to me and went with it. While those who live in the City of Brotherly Love may be nitpicky about the sandwiches, as an outsider most are delicious, which was definitely the case for me. Chomping down into the massive sandwich, I instantly appreciated its simplicity, just like the roast pork sandwich. Thinly sliced pieces of beefsteak with melted cheese and some chopped (and fried) onions thrown in for good measure, a smile crept over my face instantly. It brought back memories of visiting Philadelphia as a young kid, of attending Phillies games and enjoying time in the city. I love when food does that, when it takes you back to another place and time and for me, that was almost as good as the sandwich itself.
Like many cities along the East Coast, Philadelphia has a long history of Italian immigrants settling in the city all looking for work. This naturally also changed the food scenes in those cities, and nowhere is that more true than in Philadelphia. Along with those savory dishes we all know and love, they also brought their proud dessert traditions with them, which is how Termini Brothers Bakery originally started. While they make a wide variety of classic cakes, cookies and pastries, it’s the cannoli for which they’re perhaps the most famous. And watching them prepare the delicate sweets to order, I understood why.
Cannoli are a traditional Sicilian dessert made of fried pastry dough that is rolled and then filled with a sweet, creamy filling. They’re also delicious, and throughout my time in Philadelphia I enjoyed them on more than one occasion, including at The Logan Hotel who thoughtfully left a do-it-yourself cannoli plate in my room one evening. At Termini Brothers though, it’s their most acclaimed dessert and thousands of people visit for major holidays and family gatherings to stock up on these iconic treats.
Like any great city, Philadelphia is still welcoming people from around the world and just as with those early Italians, they too are bringing their own traditions. Reading Terminal Market definitely reflects this newer wave of immigration, which is why alongside those cheesesteaks and fritters I also found plenty of other choices from Thai, Chinese, Middle Eastern and more, the variety of choice definitely surprised me, but was great to see. By that point in my exploration I had already overdone the food tasting experiment, but I know it won’t be my last time visiting and now I know where to start my next adventure into the best of Philly food.
Local Advice Matters
My lunchtime crash course in the best of Philly food was one of the highlights of my brief time in the city, and I may not have found it without the help of the great folks at The Logan Hotel. We all have limited time when we travel, and learning what to see and experience from the point of view of a local matters. It can be challenging sometimes to get that insider knowledge, but that’s what The Logan is all about. They call themselves Philadelphia’s Hotel and it’s an ethos that is ingrained into every facet of the hotel experience. I’m thankful for their passion, because enjoying Philadelphia through the taste buds isn’t just fun, it’s also the best way to understand this sometimes misunderstood city.
By: Matt Long