6 of the best places to eat in Philadelphia, according to chef Sam Choy

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Chef Sam Choy is a culinary powerhouse who is widely known for being one of the founders of “Pacific Rim cuisine,” bringing the unique taste of Hawaiian fusion to the U.S. mainland and beyond.

Based in Hawaii, Choy is considered the “godfather of poke,” the distinctively Hawaiian-style dish that features cubed, fresh fish mixed with a variety of rice, vegetables and spices. To celebrate his favorite dish, he recently founded the Kauai Poke Festival in 2019.

I caught up with chef Choy at this annual poke fest, which was highly anticipated since it was postponed due to COVID. It was held at the gorgeous sprawling beachfront destination, Koloa Landing Resort, on the island of Kauai’s sunny Poipu Beach. The 2022 festival featured a culinary competition with 21 contestants – from professional local chefs to home cooks – serving up their own secret recipes and attracting food lovers from across the islands.

An avid traveler, Choy is passionate about exploring the mainland and beyond. In fact, he's a featured chef on American Airlines, where he creates dishes for business and first class on select flights. He also regularly hosts his TV show, “Sam Choy’s In the Kitchen,” and has a restaurant in Lake Tahoe, Incline. When he’s not home on Hawaii’s Big Island, this James Beard Award-winning chef loves visiting the Philadelphia area and enjoying its eclectic food scene.

Choy’s affinity for Philadelphia began in 1998 when he first met acclaimed chef and restauranteur, Kevin Meeker, and his wife, Janet, who currently own Keg and Kitchen restaurant in Westmont, New Jersey and are long-time partners of Philly favorite, The Plough and the Stars.

Choy explained, “Kevin invited me to be a guest chef at his former restaurant, Philadelphia Fish and Company, during the city’s wildly successful annual ‘Book and the Cook' event. This popular event attracted about 100 chef cookbook authors to various city restaurants. For an entire week, the city was alive with a variety of culinary programs and cooking demos, featuring visiting chefs, cookbook authors and foodies from all over.”

Choy says that over the years, the Philadelphia area has come to feel like home. “Kevin and I quickly became fast friends. In the past 20 years, I’ve spent a lot of time in Philly – cooking in restaurants, presenting at lectures and eating in various establishments, large and small, around town. I’m proud to say that today I can walk into some places around Philadelphia – from tiny pizza joints to chef-driven restaurants – and I’m greeted with, ‘Aloha, Sammy!’ and a big hug. It’s the best feeling.”

Here are some of Chef Sam Choy’s favorite Philadelphia-area restaurants.

Keg and Kitchen in Westmont, New Jersey

Located “just over the bridge” from Philadelphia, in the tiny town of Westmont in southern New Jersey, Keg and Kitchen is a friendly, lively traditional craft bar and scratch kitchen with a robust menu featuring an abundance of tasty delights. When visiting the area, chef Choy is often found at this neighborhood favorite.

He says, “Everyone knows this place by the silver kegs lined across the roof. Keg and Kitchen is chef-driven, serving a menu of small, lighter bites and shared plates, as well as creative sandwiches and larger entrees to be paired with their signature cocktails.”

He added, “Some of the popular dishes are the tempura asparagus, Korean cauliflower, vegan black bean nachos, grilled pork al pastor, Szechuan salmon and more.” You’ll also see Sam Choy's authentically Hawaiin specialty, the loco moco, on the menu – and he occasionally hosts special pop-up dinners here, when he’s in town.

Bridget Foy’s in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

A Philadelphia institution, Bridget Foy's is a 40-year-old establishment located on bustling South Street, the city’s famous neighborhood that’s a popular gathering spot for all ages, with plenty of bars, shops and restaurants lining several blocks. (And according to the famous 1963 song by the Orlons, it’s known as the “hippest street in town”). This restaurant’s cozy, comfortable vibe is enjoyed by both locals and visitors alike. In addition to dinner, Bridget Foy’s hosts a great weekend brunch and happy hour specials, too.

Choy says, “The menu here is awesome and features creative American dishes as well as a mighty fine burger.” A few bestselling menu items include sausage and pepper rigatoni, roasted Atlantic salmon and a blackened catfish sandwich.

He added, “Customers love the extensive cocktail menu and the covered outdoor space, which is open in nice weather. And if you’re a sports fan, know that Bridget Foy’s bar is absolutely ‘the’ place to watch the big game.”

Crybaby Pasta & Wine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Perched on a corner in South Philadelphia, Crybaby is a small neighborhood Italian restaurant that serves up a wide array of seasonal classics, including pastas, pastries and breads – which are all homemade daily. House favorites include an incredible pasta selection, and the offerings change frequently. A few popular dishes are rigatoni, spaghetti, tagliatelle, warm asparagus salad, grilled branzino, spicy artichoke and much more.

Chef Choy explains that the food is consistently delicious here. He says, “This restaurant’s chill vibe is set to a rock ‘n' roll beat that’s really fun and lively – and I think it’s a neighborhood treasure. Their wine menu is incredible, too, with an extensive list of wines by the glass – the perfect accompaniment for a plate of their delicious pasta.”

Caribou Café in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

A taste of France can be found at the Caribou Café in the heart of Philadelphia’s Center City district – it’s an ideal destination for exceptional French cuisine any time of the day. Chef/owner Olivier Desaintmartin honed his culinary skills in France and was a winner on the Food Network’s TV show, “Chopped.”

Choy explains, “This French-Parisian style bistro has had critics raving about it for years. Their stunning Art Deco bar with selections of French wines goes perfectly with master French chef Olivier’s classic cuisine. This restaurant’s Center City location and outside patio really makes you feel like you are in Paris.”

A few of their top menu items include onion soup, escargots and shitake in puff pastry, beef bourguignon with mushrooms and onions, and seafood cassolette with scallops, salmon and shrimp. Not surprisingly, the bar features a wide array of French-inspired aperitifs and cocktails as well.

The Caribou Café is a favorite local spot for lunch and dinner (and especially busy pre-theater times). Chef Choy loves to stop by early in the day for brunch or lunch, sit near the front windows or on the open-air patio and people-watch. He especially loves their homemade pastries, particularly their cakes, which he calls a true delight.

The Plough and the Stars in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Located in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood, The Plough and the Stars is large and airy, with award-winning traditional pub food. Choy says, “It’s the perfect place for the perfect pint. When you enter this Irish pub, renowned for its friendly staff and patrons, you’ll see right away it’s great atmosphere and highly acclaimed food. Several staff members are from Ireland and the owners strive to make this restaurant as authentic as any pub on the Emerald Isle.”

Choy says, “The food here is described as Western European with a strong Irish influence. I especially love the delicious Irish breads and scones made in house. In the warmer months, there are plenty of tables outside on the sidewalk, and it’s an optimal spot for people-watching along the busy Second Street.”

He offers one tip: “Just don't try to get in on St. Patrick’s week as it is crazy busy.”

Lorenzo Pizza in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

A South Street legend, Lorenzo and Sons Pizza is a tiny, hole-in-the-wall pizza place with a giant reputation that keeps loyalists coming back for decades. The menu is very short and straightforward, and the pizza pies are generously sized. It’s a favorite among residents, tourists and especially late-night partiers along the city’s famous South Street.

Choy says, “I included this tiny pizza place because it’s a true Philly tradition. After any long night behind the line working in a kitchen, you are in the mood for food – and when in Philly, it's either cheesesteaks or pizza. I’ve been there for a bite at 2:00 in the morning with some restaurant friends after cooking all day. It’s always a fun experience.”

He cautioned to bring your patience along when you head to this pizzeria. According to Choy, “Whenever you go, count on waiting in line, but I think it’s worth the wait. They are known for big slices and delicious pizza. A whole pie is 28 inches, and the slices are huge – and the sauce-to-cheese ratio is just perfect.”

10Best is a part of the USA TODAY Network — providing an authentically local point of view on destinations around the world — in addition to travel and lifestyle advice.

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