Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Travels with Blondie and Brownie: Food Cart Hunting in Philly

Lunch cart Philadelphia 20th and Market

A couple weeks ago we visited Philadelphia to meet with our editor at Running Press. While we were there we couldn't pass up the opportunity to try out one of the city's food carts and our editor took us a popular nearby spot on 20th and Market. We knew things looked promising when we saw a 20 person long line already queued at noon not to mention the cart was festooned with heads, yes, heads of elephant garlic. How could that not be a good sign...?

Unlike the trendy trucks that have been hitting the streets here of late, this cart was everything but branded. Besides the hanging garlic there were full heads of garlic as decorations along with pots of herbs and a big vase of lilies. Nowhere was the name or even a menu. As far as I could tell he had the platter of the day ($9) and that was it.

Falafel Lunch Plate from Philly

I won't be the first to make the comparison to the Al Yeganeh, former proprietor of Soup Kitchen International (most famous for his fictional Seinfeld counterpart the "Soup Nazi). While I've heard that the owner, Gus, from Christo's Cart can have a temper, we certainly didn't witness it. He was pleasant, engaging and charming. He reminded me of Yeganeh in a good way. In the way that I treasure my memories of the few times I had lunch at the original Soup Kitchen International where the soups were always changing and the accompaniements had been specially curated to perfectly complement the soups. For an intern in college $8 for a soup lunch was a staggering sum, but one that I was willing to pay because it wasn't just a bowl of soup. It was soup and good bread, a little side dish, a special fruit picked just for your soup and a piece of excellent dark chocolate. It was that sort of attention to detail that I loved about visiting Christo's cart and that would bring me back to Philly for another lunch platter in a heartbeat.

Our lunch consisted of garlic-loaded hummus (those garlic heads weren't just for decoration), an ample helping of juicy chunks of grilled chicken, a watercress salad, some kind of other salad that involved cracked wheat and tomato, falafel, and two types of bread--a piece of challah and a piece of multigrain. The garlicky hummus, which incidentally, I could eat by the vat, was studded with red and green seedless grapes that Christos plopped on top. A nice sweet contrast to the sharpness of the garlic. The falafel, was slightly grainy, ├╝ber-garlicky and perfectly crisp. The portion was huge. If I hadn't been so hungry and it hadn't been sooo good, it easily could have been two meals worth of food.

Gus takes his time preparing the food (hence the epic line) and he prepares limited quantities, so the early bird gets the lunch. I've read via Queens' own Jeffrey Tastes that Gus is actually from Astoria though he's been vending in Philly for over twenty years. Anytime he wants to come back, this is a lunch that I'd definitely welcome in my regular rotation.

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