With Korean kimchi and karaoke complexes in Olney, the piroshki parlors of Port Richmond, storefronts on Fifth Street serving up comida criolla, pho palaces on Washington and Ethiopian eateries in Cedar Park, our fair city has no shortage of exotic enclaves for enticing ethnic eats.
Deep South Philly — once exclusively the land of red-gravy joints and hoagie havens — is shaping up to be one of Philly’s most fascinating dining destinations, with loads of offerings from the large immigrant communities from Southeast Asian locales like Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia. By now most of us are well versed in the ways of banh mi (the Vietnamese hoagie) and goi cuon (summer rolls), so this brief tour covers some of the less familiar cuisines found south of Washington.
On an unassuming Point Breeze corner sits Hardena/Waroeng Surabaya (1754 S. Hicks St.), a turquoise, marigold and lime steam-table restaurant serving Indonesian food like no other place in town. In this family-run spot, $7 gets you a rice plate piled high with three options from a rotating selection. This often includes tender, coconut-milk-braised collard greens; a gamey (in the best possible way) lamb-and-goat stew; and kering kentang, a texturally intriguing mix of deep-fried shoestring potatoes and teeny-tiny, super-crunchy anchovies, all served with a fiery side of sambal. Other equally appealing options include shatteringly crisp ginger fried chicken and rujak cing, a peanut-sauced fruit salad topped with airy shrimp crackers. The women behind the counter at Hardena inevitably greet guests with a sincere smile and are more than willing to walk the uninitiated through the menu.
Right around the corner is Cafe Pendawa Lima (1529 Morris St.), which is not a cafe at all. The sign out front reads “MoneyGram,” and while you might be able to transfer funds here, the real draw is a vibrant selection of takeout Indonesian fare. A long table running through the center of the shop is loaded with golden fritters of corn and baby shrimp and samosa-like pockets stuffed with peas, carrots and egg. Venture a bit further back and you’re met with stacks of ready-to-go meals in plastic containers. If you’re not fluent in Indonesian, the item descriptions aren’t going to help much, but a recent trip turned up a colorful jewel box of nasi campur (mixed rice) with sweet braised pork, chili-tossed diced potatoes and a soy-boiled egg.
Head east on Morris and you’ll hit Khmer Kitchen (1700 S. Sixth St.), Inquirer critic Craig LaBan’s recent Cambodian darling. Try one of the complex stews like sah-law ka-koe, a deep-yellow mix of pumpkin, papaya and pork belly. The more adventurous can ask about off-the-menu options, which on a recent visit turned up a dish of beautifully stir-fried eggplant and ground pork. And if you happen to have an affinity for flavors that are, let’s say, out there, go for the nyum sahdau, a salad of bitter melon leaves, toasted peanuts, chicken, cucumber, mint and tamarind.