BASEMENT BAP: Bento Tokyo dishes out serious Korean and Japanese fare in Suburban Station.
Spanning the underground blocks between Arch and Commerce Streets, from City Hall to 18th Street, the subterranean corridors that make up Suburban Station (2 Penn Center) certainly do not live up to the grandeur of the building’s impressive Art Deco facade.
Erected in 1930, this commuter hub connects SEPTA’s regional rail, Market-Frankford El, Broad Street Subway and trolley lines. Thousands of commuters pound its flickering, fluorescent-lit hallways every morning, noon and evening. The vibes in the station are nothing short of Brazil-esque, with hallways that seem to lead to nowhere, seasonal-affective-disorder-
But within this sprawling complex there are no fewer than 16 eateries ready to serve the commuters who begin and end their workdays at the station. Always in search of a hidden dining gem, we ventured into the belly of the beast, looking for a few unexpected winners in what appears to be a sea of monotony.
First off, it’s worth a mention that Suburban Station is home to not one but three Dunkin’ Donuts, plus another one a block away at 15th and Chestnut. Understandable — who doesn’t need the occasional (or maybe daily) red-velvet latte plus a Boston Kreme rush before heading into the office? Less understandably, the Philly Soft Pretzel Factory also has multiple locations in the station — while the demand for morning coffee and donuts is a given, are there really that many folks stocking up on cheesesteak- and buffalo-chicken-filled soft pretzels and cream-cheese dipping sauce in the morning? (Other giant-fast-food-chain options: Taco Bell, Au Bon Pain, Church’s Chicken, the prerequisite Subway, a Rita’s that operates seasonally and a McDonald’s.)
Slices in Suburban come by way of Yunique, a tragically named pizza shop that only redeems itself by serving some topping combos that are, well, unique. How unique? Think slices topped with General Tso’s chicken.
Far more enjoyable (and totally novel in a futuristic way) is the serve-yourself, fro-yo-meets-robot-rolled-
After making our way through many of these underground eateries, we have to say that Bento Tokyo has got them all beat by miles. The warm dining room (yes, there’s a dining room) is paneled with light wood and Japanese curtains. The staff is friendly and the menu is a well-executed amalgamation of Japanese and Korean favorites like bibimbap (sesame-seasoned mixed vegetables over rice), soon doo boo (a soft-tofu-kimchi stew), soba (buckwheat noodles) served warm or cold, katsu (breaded cutlets served with rice and miso soup) and some killer lunch specials that max out at $7.
In a sea of fast-food chains, there are a few more healthful respites in the concourse. The first is Enerjuicer, a smoothie counter that buzzes up green juices and protein-spiked shakes. But the more exciting and commuter-friendly innovation at the station happens on Thursdays from noon to 6:30 p.m., when the Rineer Family Farm of Pequea, Pa., sets up tables brimming with locally grown fruits, vegetables, grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, pork and rainbow trout. Along with gorgeous stalks of Brussels sprouts, green curly kale, red beets and parsnips, the family also sells jars of pickles and preserves canned by owner Darryl Rineer’s mother. They range from salsa and applesauces to sweet and dill pickles and a kale-and-cabbage sauerkraut. Emily Rohrer of Rineer told us that during warmer months, their Saturday stands at outdoor locations like Rittenhouse and Chestnut Hill are plenty busy, but when the weather turns cool, their underground farm stand does a much more brisk business. Along with a solid following of commuter regulars, Rohrer explains, “The rain helps us out a lot. And when it’s cold outside, people prefer to do their shopping indoors.” Of course, there’s something to be said about picking up a haul of locally grown produce, good for the week, minutes before hopping on your nightly train home. Thanksgiving shoppers take note: Rineer will be open on Wednesday, Nov. 27, for all of your holiday vegetable needs.
Oh, and if browsing bunches of dinosaur kale and small-production honey isn’t your preferred way of passing time before getting on the Lansdale/Doylestown train, it’s worth a mention that PC’s Restaurant has a pretty decent selection of beers (think Troeg’s Mad Elf, Victory Storm King and Dogfish Head 60 Minute) available to take out or sip in-house till 6 p.m.
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