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The lowdown on cheap eats in University City

11 mins read
Sugar Philly parks right in the middle of UPenn, serving up sweets like macarons and créme brulee. (Courtesy of www.bridgesburgersbeer.com)

Center City Restaurant Week wraps up tomorrow. If you went, hopefully, you had a great high-class dining experience in the company of good friends. It still cost you at least $42 — the fixed price of the meal, plus a 15% tip. If you ordered a drink, it was more.

Restaurant Week sates the appetite for fine dining, but not necessarily for eating out in Philly. If you find yourself cash poor but still hungry for an alternative to the dining hall, the snack bar and the Swarthmore borough’s offerings, head to University City for Philadelphia’s best collection of cheap eats.

The University City District is defined as the area bounded on to the east by 29th Street/the Schuykill River and to the west by 50th Street. Spring Garden Street, Powelton Avenue and Market Street create the northern edge, while Civic Center Boulevard, University Avenue and Woodland Avenue form the southern one.

The area has gentrified significantly during the past 20 years as a result of University of Pennsylvania’s purchase and renovation of residential buildings to offer as student housing. Increased police and Penn security presence and the University’s push to make this area of West Philly into its student and faculty population hub have caused real estate prices to rise markedly, pressing the University City neighborhood’s boundary from 38th Street out to 50th. Many of the area’s original residents have been forced to relocate to less expensive areas of the city as this part of West Philly has become more affluent.

University City is an area in transition. It is an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse neighborhood rich in low-price, high-spice restaurants that appeal to students, recent immigrants and longtime residents alike. Many of the best places to eat here are hardly restaurants: Penn is ringed by a legion of food carts whose offerings range from crummy hot dogs to de-licious soul food, from kimchi to crème brulee.

Sugar Philly parks right in the middle of UPenn, serving up sweets like macarons and créme brulee. (Courtesy of www.bridgesburgersbeer.com)

Actually, the kimchi and crème brulee food trucks — KoJa and Sugar Philly, respectively — park right next to each other just north of Walnut and 38th Street, on the west side of the drive. They are both highly recommended — go there and get a great dinner and great dessert for less than $10 total. Unlike these two, which stay open for dinner, most food carts in the area get the bulk of their business from the university and hospital lunch crowd and call it a day at or before 5 p.m. The best bet for finding a good street food vendor near Penn is to go to 38th Street — University Avenue — and look for a cart with a few people waiting to eat there.

The other category of places to eat that doesn’t quite rise to the level of restaurants is the ethnic grocery stores, particularly those on Walnut and Chestnut between 40th and 46th Streets. International Food & Spice on 42nd and Walnut carries primarily Indian and Pakistani foods but also stocks some Thai, African, and Middle Eastern specialty ingredients. It’s reliable, but not a mecca, and its prices are in line with the rest of the neighborhood. International Foods stands out for the prepared foods in the front case, particularly its samosas. They’re $1.50 each, big, soft, and warmly spiced inside. If you’re really impressed, you can order them in bulk for your next event.

International Food & Spice market. (Courtesy of www.midtownlunch.com)

Down the block is Makkah Market (4249 Walnut St.), which stocks both West African and Middle Eastern groceries. It has prepared foods in the front case, like International Food and Spice, and seating in the back. Makkah is no neighborhood secret; it’s particularly popular with the Penn student crowd for being open late. Where else are you going to find falafel for $2.50 after midnight?

Like Makkah, Rice & Spice market (also known as Dana Mandi; 4205 Chestnut Street) looks like a hole in the wall. Makkah is small, but it has electric signs in the window to catch your eye. Rice & Spice does not. From the outside, it looks more like a dim warehouse unfortunate enough to have front windows that betray the clutter lying beyond the front door. Inside, it’s chaotic and cramped like a claustrophobic labyrinth. Walk straight past the front counter, try to ignore the stimulus of the colorful, precarious bags of chaat mix and look for an opening in the back wall — you’ll notice that it’s only a set of shelves dividing the grocery from a casual dining area.

The menu is on the wall: salt, sweet, and mango lassis for $3; “half” palak paneer for $4.50, “full” for $8. Most of the menu items are the familiar north Indian dishes that most Indian restaurants carry but don’t expect a lunch buffet. The regular clientele does not prefer to speak English here.

If you want chicken korma but the rest of your party wants resham kabob, you are in the right place: on the corner of 42nd & Chestnut, offset from the street, is Kabobeesh (4201 Chestnut St.), a local favorite for Pakistani food (and kabobs, in particular). Both Rice & Spice and Kabobeesh do take out orders.

There are a number of Indian buffet restaurants in University City that cater to Penn students with butter chicken and kheer. You can get those things at Rice & Spice, but not in the same format. Down on Baltimore Avenue, Desi Chaat House (501 S. 42nd St.) mostly ignores those dishes, but it’s still extremely popular with students. The restaurant does mostly takeout, and specializes in Indian chaats — roughly “snacks,” but more accurately a particular style of street food that blends textures and flavors to create a distinctly delicious style of food. The special chaats are $5.99; they’re meal sized, but not big enough to share. Pair one with a mango lassi ($3) and you’ll be happy that you did.

Look for the line is the golden rule of street food exploration; look for the cabbies or the old, traditionally dressed grandfathers is the equivalent for exploring unfamiliar “ethnic” restaurants. Kilimandjaro Restaurant (4317 Chestnut St.) fits this criterion. It is not a Kenyan restaurant, as the name suggests, but an excellent halal Senegalese restaurant. Senegalese food employs rice as its starch and includes some fierce chilies in many of its dishes. (A word to the wise: If it looks like there’s a tomato in your stew, make darn sure that it is a tomato before you eat it whole.) If you want du bon yassa, go to Kilimandjaro.

University City boasts more Ethiopian restaurants than any other area of the city, but not all of them are cheap. The Philadelphia guidebook darling Dahlak on 47th and Baltimore has a nice ambiance and a good bar in back, but it charges for the romantic lighting. Abyssinia and Ethio Café & Restaurant, both on 45th and Locust, are a much better value. Abyssinia is the neighborhood favorite in large part because of the bar upstairs, but if you’re hungry, don’t go with a group during peak dinner hours. The kitchen is not particularly efficient during the off peak times, either. Abyssinia is a little bit cheaper than its next door neighbor Ethio Café, but you can get free extra helpings of any of the veggie dishes at Ethio Café should you run out, and they offer some of the less common delicacies that are worth trying once you graduate from doro wat and collard greens.

For more information about train tickets, maps and directions, as well as more recommendations of places to eat, shop and explore, please visit In-Town, Off-campus on The Phoenix website at swarthmorephoenix.com.

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