Chewy wasabi rice cakes at Cheu Fishtown

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If you thought Fishtown was hot before, just wait till this weekend. On Friday, July 21, Shawn Darragh and Ben Puchowitz open their third standalone restaurant, and it promises to be just as fun, creative and delicious as their previous endeavors.

Cheu Fishtown, which makes its home in a former stable at 1416 Frankford Ave. (at the corner of Belgrade), is a spinoff of the partners’ Wash West joint of the same name. But it just might be even better than the original.

34 seats are spread across a row of tables and a long bar Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

There’s a similar menu — dishes are inspired by Japanese and other Asian cuisines, then tweaked into something entirely unique with unorthodox ingredients or spices — but the new spot sports a brighter, more airy interior. There’s also a much bigger food prep area, which means just about everything can be made in house, from kimchi to steamed buns. Puchowitz was also able to bring in some cool new kitchen equipment there just wasn’t room for at Cheu No. 1 or Bing Bing Dim Sum on East Passyunk.

“We’ve been wanting to do BBQ duck forever,” Darragh said. “Now we can.”

Puchowitz worked with head chef Justin Bacharach, a longtime Cheu cook, to create the menu, which incorporates a few all-time favorites from each of the partners’ other restaurants plus plenty of new items. Prices range from $7 for dumplings to $28 for a char sui brisket dish meant for sharing.

Build your own pancakes with the shareable char sui brisket Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

With four storefronts if you count the Cheu Noodle Bar outpost inside the Callowhill Whole Foods, the company that started off as two buddies’ pop-up whim is now getting semi-corporate. (In Darragh’s words: “Hipster corporate, maybe?”) There’s even a director of operations, veteran Cheu staffer Rachael Smith.

But the zany vibe hasn’t been stifled — if anything, the feel at this latest project is more eclectic than ever.

Soybean falafel and pork belly buns Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Two versions of steamed buns are on the opening menu (here). One is a relative classic: Pork belly plus Korean BBQ sauce and crunchy pickles. The other is whatever the opposite of classic is: Soybean falafel — “I swapped soybeans for the usual chickpeas,” explained Bacharach — plus a ginger-yogurt sauce. Each comes two for $8.

Other intriguing small plates include miso-truffle corn ($8) and green curry chicken wontons ($7). Sous chefs Bryan Donovan and Patrick Myers round out the kitchen leadership.

Spread the yolk to enhance the sauce on the gnocchi-like wasabi rice cakes Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Wasabi rice cakes are what Darragh refers to as “the sleeper hit of the menu.” Bacharach worked hard on getting the right consistency for these half-noodles, half-dumplings, which ends up being like an extra-chewy gnocchi, in the best way. They’re spicy already, then kicked up with furikake seasoning, but soothed by the fresh crunch of snap peas and the oozing umami of a soft egg yolk broken over the top. You won’t be able to stop spooning them up, and at $13, the big bowl is a good deal.

Cheu’s popular coconut curry noodles may make a Fishtown appearance soon, Darragh said, and other faves on offer are cold peanut noodles, miso ramen and brisket ramen ($14).

Char sui brisket Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

The star entree is a large helping of brisket done in the style of char sui — aka the Japanese BBQ method usually applied to pork. Here, the beef slices are served with a garnish of house dill pickles, a beet BBQ sauce, spicy house mustard and moo shoo pancakes to wrap them all up. Meant to serve two to four people (depending on what else you order), the $28 dish is the most expensive thing on the menu.

Frosted mugs are Darragh’s fave Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Like everything else, the bar area at the Frankford Avenue location is bigger than any of the duo’s other venues, so Darragh can implement something he personally loves: Frosted mugs for beer. A half-dozen rotating taps feature mostly lighter brews — think lagers and pilsners — though beverage director Coleman Yunger said he’s planning to sneak in some stouts and porters come wintertime.

Once you have a sake daiquiri, you’ll never go back Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Along with GM Ben Palubinsky (a Billy Penn Who’s Nexter), Yunger also came up with the concise cocktail list, of which a standout is the sake daquiri he calls “Sneak A-Daq.” It’s bright and refreshing, but dry instead of sweet — what Ernest Hemingway would no doubt have sipped if he’d set up in the Ogasawara islands instead of Cuba.

A custom mural by Yok & Sheryo Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

This is the first interior that Darragh and Puchowitz brought in outside designers for instead of doing it themselves, but Katie Rohe of Rohe Creative was able to channel their zeitgeist well. The 34 seats include tables along an oak banquet custom-fashioned to evoke chopsticks, backed by a giant mural of an octopus (possibly dubbed “Herbert”) by internationally-known artists (and self-declared “professional spraycationers“) Yok & Shero.

Can’t miss the beer list Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

There’s a semi-private dining area, where groups up to 12 people can order “pretty much the whole menu” for $28 per person. To set that space apart, Rohe crafted wallpaper made from a slew of old ramen wrappers, and there’s also red lighting for an intimate glow.

Sit at the bar and you’re sitting on art Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Each bar stool is adorned with an illustration by Jon Billett, who also does all the Cheu menu designs and also did the “happy dumpling” wallpaper at Bing Bing.

Lighting fixtures are by Zach Puchowitz, Ben’s brother Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Puchowtiz’s brother, Zach, is a well-regarded glass artist (check his Instagram here). He created the lighting fixtures for all the restaurants so far, including this one, which has some new shapes.

Who knew a bathroom could be sexy? Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Possibly Darragh’s most pressing question for after he opens: “Who’s gonna be the first to Instagram themselves on a toilet?” Considering what it looks like, yeah, it’s gonna happen.

The space on the left will become outdoor patio seating Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

The Cheu partners also snapped up the space just to the south of their new spot, and they’ve got big plans for it. Called Nunu, it will serve an izakaya-like menu of sticks and skewers, and have a large open window with an indoor-outdoor bar. That bar opens into what will be a shared patio between the two restaurants, where you’ll be able to order food and drink from either of the two kitchens.

Shawn Darragh and Ben Puchowitz (center), surrounded by the Cheu Fishtown team: Rachael Smith, Coleman Yunger, Bryan Donovan, Kelly Brophy, Ben Palubinsky, Patrick Myers and Justin Bacharach Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Monday through Friday, Cheu Fishtown will be open 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 5 to 11 p.m. for dinner. Weekends follow the same pattern as the partners’ other spots: All-day dining from noon through close.

Fishtown represent Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...