Meanwhile at the Lariat … we look at the do’s and don’t’s of eating in Philly

By Paula Ann Solis
City editor

Visiting a new city can be an exciting experience, but it can also be a nerve-racking one. There is so much that a hopeful visitor often wants to do in what tends to be a relatively short amount of time. So how can you do it all?

The unfortunate truth is that you can’t. What some travelers resort to is either doing the most basic, touristy things imaginable (hello, Liberty Bell) or sticking with a safe known because of a fear for the unfamiliar (hello, McDonalds around every corner).

This past weekend I took a trip to Philadelphia for the ACP/CMA National College Media Convention, I felt determined to see as much of the city as I could – yes, Liberty Bell and all – but I didn’t want to stop there. I wanted to be sure and venture out of my comfort bubble by trying local eateries that I could only experience on my East Coast excursion.

To prepare, I asked people who had visited the city in the past what the “couldn’t miss” spots were for dining only to later find that I couldn’t have disagreed more with their suggestion. Thankfully, each miss on my culinary tour of Philly was rectified with visits to other locales.

To be sure that another visitor to the city of brotherly love does not repeat my suffering, I’ve laid out three big do’s and don’ts for people to consider before planning their trip that will hopefully save their time and taste buds from the unfortunate experiences I had.

No. 1: Don’t Eat Macaroni and Cheese Prepared at a Convenient Store

I know, I know – this should have been a given. However, a friend of mine raved about the wonders of mac and cheese from a store that, to not completely throw under the bus, I will only describe as a place named after the Native American word for a Canada Goose. I ordered this “to die for” mac and cheese and for the first time in my life I described mac and cheese as hairy. There was something so terribly off about the texture that it made me question its origins. Now, I must admit, I ate the whole serving. It was almost 40 degrees outside and the warm dish was all I had to keep me warm outside before I made it to my next stop. But let me assure you, it is not a mistake I will make again.

No. 2: Do Eat Fried Mac and Cheese Balls at Beck’s Cajun Café Inside the Reading Terminal

On my last day in the city, right when I was about to lose all hope that Philadelphia residents knew what real mac and cheese was supposed to taste like, I was shown the a brighter side. I stumbled upon a small shop inside the popular Reading Terminal Market in Downtown Philadelphia. With dozens of shops and counter restaurants inside, it can be hard to decide where to have a meal. Feeling nostalgic for southern food, I tried this Cajun café. I knew when I saw the word “fried” I was in the right spot. Never having tried fried mac and cheese balls, I wasn’t sure what to expect, then again, I knew it couldn’t be worse that the mac and cheese that wore a toupee. To my delight, it was on another level completely. The crunchy, delicious shell only masked the great (hairless) pasta inside that was soft and covered in just the right amount of cheese. The only downside was that they were served in sets of three, but they were certainly worth the price of ordering extra.

No. 3: Don’t Bother Trying to Find the Best Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich in the Land

OK, I’m prepared to get a lot of negative feedback on this one, but I honestly don’t understand all the hype surrounding Philly cheesesteaks. Before my trip I had never eaten one and I thought, hey, if you’re going to try something new it might as well be where it supposedly originated. Well, that was a miss. A friend of mine swore by the deliciousness of a sandwich at Geno’s Steaks, a corner restaurant in South Philadelphia. I made the two-mile trek in the rain, ruining a pair of shoes along the way, and ordered a sandwich in what I was told was the right way to eat a cheesesteak – which was cheese wiz all the way. It actually didn’t sound like the worst thing to try and it was less than $10. Then, I ate it. I won’t say anything against the store or the way the meal was prepared, I just think my taste buds were so excited from all the hype my friend had sold me and from reviews I read online that the let down was too much to take. I walked back to my hotel, wet shoes and all, disappointed that my favorite flats were going to be trashed and all because of a less than spectacular sandwich.

No. 4: Do Eat a Gyro Sandwich

Once again, the wonderful Reading Terminal comes to the rescue. One day while looking for a spot for a quick lunch I sat at the counter of Olympic Gyro. Now, I’ve had Greek sandwiches in the past so my mind was prepared for the usual spices and flavors. And maybe it was the friendly atmosphere or seeing the sandwich prepared before my eyes by the chef, but that sandwich blew the Philly cheesesteak out of the water. I knew after my first bite that if I was going to visit Philadelphia again I would pass on the cheesesteak and raise my hand for another gyro. Sure, they didn’t sell Dr Pepper to go along with it, but we can’t all be perfect.

OK, so maybe it sounds like I’m being picky and moreover, I’m not a professional food critic, so what do I know really? But even after all that I’ve said about the less-than spectacular cheesesteak sandwich and the mac and cheese that made me questions all I know about pasta, I can’t actually say I regret my choices to visit these spots.

While at Geno’s, waiting for my sandwich to be made, I saw a father explain to his small son the “right way” to eat a cheesesteak sandwich and it was the most heartwarming thing I had seen that morning. While at the convenient store – well, actually, nothing heartwarming happened there. But I did get to return to Waco and tell my friend she should have her taste buds examined by a doctor, so there’s that.

In the end, bad food and all, I had a real Philadelphia experience because I wasn’t afraid to try things based on recommendations and adventures of my own. That is the best “do” I can think to put on my list.