Northeast Philly makes up a huge swath of the city: Between 300,000 and 400,000 people live in that pocket, an area that runs from just north of Kensington to the bottom border of Bensalem. But because of its distance from Center City, Northeast is often overlooked, even though it’s home to some of the city’s most delicious and interesting dining options. Georgian restaurants, Korean spots, regional Vietnamese restaurants serving delicious soups and stews — they’re all here. To get a head start on dining, you’ll need a little expert advice, so we tapped three Philadelphians with deep knowledge of the area.
Debora Charmelus, cultural producer
Raised in Northeast Philly, Debora Charmelus is a true Philadelphian. Charmelus works as a digital strategist with small businesses to help them contextualize their mission and vision.
Why she loves Northeast Philly
I am proud to be from Northeast Philly. I’m from a neighborhood called Oxford Circle — on the border of Oxford Circle and Castor Gardens. And those neighborhoods are really diverse neighborhoods. Outside of South Philadelphia, this particular area is probably one of the most immigrant-forward regions in the city. So I just absolutely loved growing up in a place where there were people from all over. My parents were first-generation Haitian American, so that played a huge role in my growing up. But there were a lot of Russian immigrants, Italian immigrants. And a lot of Latinx immigrants, as well. But also there’s a lot of Jamaicans and a lot of East Asian representation as well. So really, that’s what I love the most about Northeast Philadelphia: how diverse it is.
Sweet Lucy’s Barbecue is really tucked away in a park between a highway and, like, nothing. I know a ton of people who come from the city to go to Sweet Lucy’s because it’s so good. And it’s close to one of my favorite parts of Fairmount Park — a lot of people don’t know that there’s a part of Fairmount Park [in the Northeast]. But there’s this little strip by the Delaware River that has this nature preserve. So it’s just always nice to get barbecue from Sweet Lucy’s and then head there. When I go, I usually get ribs, sweet potatoes, and cornbread.
Picanha is just so good. They opened in Center City but the first location is a few blocks from where I live. I always get the sausage there, but they have an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for $20 and I always get the plantains. You go to the back and it’s just a wall of meat. It’s really, really good.
It’s a Haitian restaurant, and they have a ton of different Haitian food but really you go there for fritay, which is a style of fried food. It’s kind of a style of eating and cooking — basically that idea of frying a ton of food. I always get the plantains, and then I get griot, which is fried pork chunks, and I always get a side of pikliz, which is a spicy, fermented coleslaw.
I like Guardhouse Cafe because it’s located right off of 95 at the Arsenal and is a great spot for a solid brunch. They also have a beautiful coffee shop, which serves as a quiet place to get work done throughout the day.
There are a ton of places called Pho Saigon but the one on Bustleton Avenue has $5 banh mi. It’s honestly my favorite banh mi in the city, with all the toppings. They just wrap it up in wax paper and a rubber band and send you on your way. I always end up getting a Vietnamese iced coffee and a banh mi. It’s less than $10 and that’s my lunch a lot of days.
Thu Pham, owner of Caphe Roasters
Thu Pham is the owner and founder of Caphe Roasters, the Vietnamese coffee roaster, cafe, and restaurant that all of Philadelphia fell in love with this year. Pham grew up in Northeast Philly and has spent most of her life working in and around the region. While she doesn’t live in the area anymore, she still spends plenty of time there visiting family and eating really well.
Why she loves Northeast Philly
My experience growing up in Northeast Philly was pretty transformational. It was filled with a lot of vibrancy and diversity. The street that I grew up on, where my parents still live, is just filled with immigrants. These days when I go back home to visit my parents, the same families still live there. The parents are still there, for a lot of Vietnamese families, and even Korean families that live on my street. There’s grandparents who live in those homes, too. All the kids and grandchildren have either moved out, or the grandkids that live there are being watched by the grandparents. But it’s just really cool to see that they’ve kept this tradition and the family roots in this neighborhood of ours.
I always tell people to go to the restaurant inside the supermarket on Adams Avenue. It used to be called the Hong Kong Supermarket but I think it’s called Farmer’s Best Supermarket now [Editor’s note: It’s Farmer’s Best]. When you go into that supermarket, right when you walk into the entrance on the very right side, there’s this restaurant called Nam Vang, and it’s a family-owned restaurant. They serve a lot of traditional Vietnamese drinks and foods, but the one thing that my parents have always gotten, and a lot of people their age have gotten since they were young, is this dish called hu tieu. You can get it with broth or with the broth on the side. It’s really thin rice noodles and you can get it with peeled shrimp or thinly sliced steamed pork belly. If you get the special version, it also comes with liver and heart that’s thinly sliced. It’s like one of the more underrated or unhighlighted [Vietnamese] dishes.
Cafe Saigon is easy to miss, but it’s a family-owned restaurant that’s been there for 25 years. I grew up eating banh mi from there. I know there are so many places to get banh mi, but this is where I grew up eating it. It’s so affordable and traditional. They just do it right. They also do a soup dish that I don’t really see anywhere in Philly called banh canh cua, which is a kind of like a Vietnamese tapioca noodle, and the soup base is on the thicker end, a crab and tomato base. You get it with all the fresh herbs. The best part about eating there is that when you get any of these soup dishes, they give you, literally, a full, full, full plate of herbs and veggies.
I grew up going to Ben City Supermarket on Whitaker Avenue, and whenever anyone asks me where the best place in the city to get Asian groceries is, people always mention H Mart or any of the Washington Avenue supermarkets. But Ben City has been around for 35 years and they have so many things that you can’t find at the other supermarkets, especially fruits and veggies, so that’s where I recommend going.
Jared Solomon, state representative for the 202nd District
Representative Jared Solomon is a lifelong resident of Northeast Philly, which he will happily tell you. He grew up in Castor Gardens and is a Democratic State Representative for 202nd District of Pennsylvania, which includes Lawndale and Oxford Circle.
Why he loves the Northeast
I’m just a champion and booster of all things Northeast Philly. We are the most diverse community in the state of Pennsylvania, and that diversity is reflected in our amazing business corridors, where you see some of the best food in Philadelphia, provided by the best folks in Philadelphia.
On Charcoal is a Colombian restaurant, and in my opinion they have the best soup. It’s this traditional Colombian soup called ajiaco. It’s the best soup in the city. I could eat it all day long. It could be 120 degrees out and I would eat this soup. It’s got chicken, potatoes, and corn on the cob. The restaurant also has an incredible breakfast of traditional beans and rice.
Tio Pepe is a Portuguese restaurant. If you’re here, you have to get the paella. That is a last meal for me. People tell me that the chorizo asado is also amazing, though I don’t eat pork.
If you’re looking for old-school Northeast, the kind of thing that was popular in the ’80s and ’90s, you should start at lunch and go to Prince of Steaks, which is the best cheesesteak in the city. It has the freshest rolls [and] real cheese — not something out of a can or out of a squeeze bottle, it’s real cheese. And the strip steak that they actually make, it’s really quality meat.
For dinner when you’re trying to see the old-school Northeast, you have to go to Rib Rack. Although you can’t see anyone and you can barely see your food because it’s so dark [inside], at the same time, it’s just remarkable food. Best ribs in the city. Best chicken in the city. They accompany the dishes with a great little square of cornbread, which you just savor.
Correction, Tuesday, December 22, 4:50 p.m.: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that Debora Charmelus was born in Philadelphia.