The retail corridor at the eastern end of South Street is always in flux, but one constant for the past 40 years is that there have been plenty of places to eat. There are almost too many cafes, pubs, dessert shops, snack joints and restaurants to keep track of, and they come and go with frequency.
Everyone knows the iconic spots — Lorenzo’s, Jim’s, Ishkabibble’s, etc. — and plenty of words are written about several others, from chef-driven destinations like Serpico and Percy Street Barbecue to longtime faves like South Street Souvlaki and Bridget Foy’s. But there’s another layer of food options tucked into the corridor’s eclectic facades that goes mostly unnoticed. Some of these are tourist traps, for sure. Others, however, are definitely worthy of more attention.
A recent eating tour along the strip revealed three hidden standouts. So next time you’re in the area, or are showing off the city to a friend from out of town, consider one of these under-the-radar restaurants.
248 South St.
There was a small bit of notice when this taco shop-plus took over the narrow former Maoz space across from Rita’s two years ago. But the food here deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the best South Philly taquerias. That’s thanks to chef and co-owner Nora Portugal, who with husband Luis Lorenzo also runs a taco cart on Penn’s campus.
Everything but the tortillas is made in house, which seems impossible for the tiny, counter-service joint until you discover there’s a full kitchen downstairs. Portugal is a master of salsa, and each of her various styles — warm verde, sweet mole, creamy chipotle — is complex enough to be spooned up like soup. Tip: The unlisted salsa that comes with an order of house-fried chips is the best of the bunch.
Options for tacos and burritos are not expansive, but do have all the classics plus a great veg choice full of smoky zucchini and corn (calabacitas). Chicken fans are the real winners here, though. The grilled chicken with rice, which comes piled high on an oval plate with a hefty helping of beans and a fresh salad, is just $7, making it one of the best value meals in the entire city. For dessert, there’s fried-to-order churros with vanilla cream for dipping, and a changing selection of agua frescas (horchata, jicama, hibiscus) are available for cool refreshment.
Per Lorenzo, an expanded menu will be introduced before the end of summer. Expect lots more entrees, including seafood platters and enchiladas, plus additional small plates.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 12 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Golden Empress Garden
618 South St.
Two generations and three decades of experience make this unassuming restaurant something more than just a run-of-the-mill delivery spot. Before it moved to this address five years ago, chef Rui Zhen Lin and her husband Jian Xin Shi spent 20 years running a similar operation just two blocks away. At the new location, they’re joined by son Yu Shi, who does everything from cook to manage to coordinate phone orders.
The best part about the gigantic menu is definitely not its uniqueness. The list includes all the American Chinese food standards, plus a repeat of just about all of them in “vegetarian” versions (made with faux chicken, beef or pork). It’s the preparation that really stands out — all dishes are made with fresh ingredients and minimal greasiness. Even better, the quality is consistent. The pork dumplings, for example, could be held up as archetypal.
Although the majority of business is takeout or delivery, the interior seating area is pleasant, with stacked stone walls and soft lighting. Plus, dining in scores you the bonus of free hot tea (less bitter than usual) and bowl of crispy noodles. You won’t really need the gratis snacks if you go for lunch, because the midday deal brings a tremendous amount of food: $6 or $7 for a full-sized entree, rice, and an egg roll or soup. The total check for everything in the pic above? $15.12, including tax.
11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
1124 South St.
In 1997, Jamaica native Perceval Cruckshank came down from his home in NYC to visit a friend in Philadelphia. He expected to stay a week. Twenty-two years later, he’s still here, and so is the restaurant he bought when he realized he was staying in town. The spot had been open a year or so when he took over, he said, and the bright underwater-themed murals made for an attractive dining area, “but the food wasn’t very good.” Thanks to his mother, Cruckshank was an expert in island-style cooking, so he set out to improve the situation.
His efforts were rewarded early on, when he won a Best of Philly accolade in 1999. At the time, South Street was hopping, and he was almost busier than he could handle, with the one customer complaint being that the crowds sometimes made service slow. That’s no longer the case — business has dipped as the corridor’s destination status ebbed — but Cruckshank still puts the same effort into his Caribbean menu.
A charcoal grill out back is used to smoke his most popular dish, the jerk chicken, which comes topped with a housemade sauce that’s earthy, fruity, spicy and tangy all at once. That same sauce is even better over a silken piece of salmon — with the downside being that while the chicken is available on its own for $6, the fish only comes in a $16 platter. If you’re looking for a full meal, it’s still a good value, because any of the two sides that come with are excellent, especially the cabbage.
This is also a spot to duck into if you’re thirsty and want to try something different, since the cooler is stocked with drinks from Jamaica. Yes, Ting, but also Kola Champagne, Vita Malt, Magnum Tonic Wine and more.
12 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 12 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 12 to 8 p.m. Sunday