With many of its top restaurants receiving national acclaim, Philly has become a real foodie town. But when you’re in need of a quick bite, it’s hard to beat the longtime culinary classics that are as iconic to Philly as the Liberty Bell. Be sure to try all of the following at least once while you’re here.
Most locals would argue that hoagies, loosely translated as Philly’s version of the “hero” or “sub,” are in a league of their own in the sandwich family. Exactly why hoagies are better than other sandwiches is debatable, but the bread certainly plays a large part. Many use Amoroso’s rolls (a Philly institution since 1904) or their own gourmet bread, but never airy, tasteless rolls. A few spots to try are: Sarcone’s (734 S. 9th St., 215/922-1717), Shank’s Original Uptown (120 S. 15th St., 215/629-1093), and Koch’s Deli (4309 Locust St., 215/222-8662).
With a history dating to early German settlers to the area, the soft pretzel remains a strong local tradition. Indulge in a perfectly browned soft pretzel, topped with rock salt and smothered with yellow mustard. It should be chewy—not hard or soggy—and is always best fresh out of the oven. Try Center City Pretzel Co. (816 Washington Ave., 215/463-5949) or the Philly Pretzel Factory (1532 Sansom St., 215/569-3988), a mostly local chain with multiple locations.
Pronounced locally as “wooder ice,” water ice is an essential part of summer in the city. Vastly superior to the supermarket variety of Italian ice or snow cones (syrup drizzled over ice), a proper water ice has a perfectly smooth, creamy consistency—often blended with real bits of fruit. Try John’s Water Ice (701 Christian St., 215/925-6955) or Rita’s (239 South St., 215/629-3910), a Philly-born chain that’s spreading real water ice throughout the country. Most places are open from late spring through early fall, which is fine, because no one wants to eat anything with the word “ice” in it in winter.
Food Truck Fare
Those small, sparkling-metal mini-kitchens-on-wheels throughout the city often serve surprisingly good food at prices that cannot be beat. Frequented by everyone from students to the white-collar elite, food trucks can be found in the downtown business district, near the universities, and in areas with lots of nightlife like Fishtown. With seasoned professionals and impossibly hot grills, food trucks churn out meals in a jiffy, so even the longest lines usually move fast. Choose from bagels, egg-and-cheese sandwiches, cheesesteaks, pizza, and hoagies to practically every ethnic food under the sun—even sushi.
Aside from the standard greasy fare, there are healthy options at some trucks, from affordable fresh fruit to the Magic Carpet, a University City favorite with two locations (34th and Walnut Sts.; 36th and Spruce Sts.) that serves up delicious vegetarian and vegan cuisine. A good rule of thumb when choosing a food truck is to join the longest lines; they not only serve the best-tasting fare, but you can rest assured that the hygiene levels are satisfactory if locals keep coming back.