Monday, February 15, 2010

Kung Hei Fat Choi, Philly Style

Sunday was not only Valentine’s Day but more importantly in our house it was Chinese New Year. We celebrated the year of the Tiger in Philly’s Chinatown where we unexpectedly watched a Lion Dance parade and enjoyed a late afternoon lunch of food that is suppose to provide good luck, wealth and a long life.

Approaching Chinatown we noticed a crowd of people on the corner of 10th and Arch streets, near the China Gate and heard the rhythmic sounds of drums and symbols. Then came a long, loud blast of firecrackers and above the heads of the crowd were large, colorful decorated lion heads bobbing. The parade moved north up 10th Street, made a left at Race Street and then headed north on 11th Street. They stopped several times to dance and light fireworks and visited a few restaurants and bakeries, offering good luck for the year. We followed the parade to 11th and Race streets where we decided to leave to enjoy some good luck food.

More pictures follow:

Good Luck Chinese Food That’s Delicious

It’s a rare restaurant that combines the distinct and unrelated cuisines of Shanghai and Japan. It’s even rarer for a restaurant to do it well. Sakura Mandarin restaurant does it very well. Like most restaurants on Sunday, the green-colored corner space was packed with happy families and friends celebrating the Chinese New Year. The co-owner was able to get us a seat quickly by the window as a Lion Parade went on outside and we began ordering enough food to last us the day, since, as is the tradition for Chinese New Year, we are not suppose to cook or use knives. I’m also going out of the way to take in all the luck I can get in the hopes that 2010 will be much better than 2009 for us.

We began with the Japanese portion of the menu, rock shrimp tempura in a mango-chili sauce (pictured below). Tasty light-battered shrimp and asparagus in an orange-colored, red-flaked sauce that actually tasted like mangos and chili. Though it is a Japanese dish, the dish of seafood and vegetables kept with what should be eaten on Chinese New Year.

The rest of the meal we stayed with the Shanghai portion of the menu. Shanghai spring rolls (pictured below) were wrapped tightly and filled with cabbage, mushrooms and other vegetables. We skipped the sauce that came with the spring rolls and instead used the sweet mango-chili sauce that was left from our shrimp dish. The spring rolls are supposed to represent wealth and prosperity, symbolizing gold bars. They also represent deliciousness.

What came next is the reason this young restaurant will always be near and dear in our hearts: Xiǎolóngbāo (pictured at the top of the story). More commonly known as soup dumpling (the restaurant calls them “juicy buns”), it’s a Shanghai specialty where the broth is inside the dumpling, or more accurately bun. The traditional Shanghai dumpling has pork with the broth. We prefer the pork and crabmeat buns. To make them, the broth is chilled into a gelatin form. Then the filling and broth is placed inside the skin. The skin is made of unleavened flour that is somewhat translucent. It has to be strong enough to hold the liquid inside when it cooks but thin enough to allow the person eating it to easily get at the juicy goodness inside. The buns are steamed, which melts the gelatin into soup, and served in bamboo baskets.

Eating them requires some skill and but the results are worth it. You have to remember that the broth inside is hot so burning oneself is a possibility. It’s a good idea to let them sit for a minute or two when they arrive. They are served with a vinegar-ginger sauce and soup spoons. One way to properly eat the buns, is to place some of the sauce on the soup spoon, place the dumpling onto the spoon and either with chopsticks or teeth cut a tiny hole into the bun. You can allow the broth to run into the spoon and mix with the sauce or just suck the broth out of the bun. Once the broth is gone, just eat the bun and remaining filling as one would normally eat a dumpling. We’re stretching this a bit, but dumplings (even though these are technically buns) symbolize wealth for the coming year. I’ll add that it will never be bad luck to eat these juicy little buns. I took pictures of Maria properly and safely eating a soup dumpling.

With our financial well being in good shape, it was now time to nurture our health. Noodles mean long life so our final dish was seafood pan fried noodles. Shrimp, scallops, squid, a buttery tasting white fish, baby bok choy, carrots, snow peas and bamboo shoots in a clear sauce. Like everything we’ve eaten, despite the crowds, it was fresh, favorable and hot. Service was attentive and personable.

We thought we ordered enough food to have leftovers for the night. But we ate everything then looked at each other in shock. Then we walked home.

Sakura Mandarin, 1038 Race St., Philadelphia.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Snow Figures in Rittenhouse Square

Within a six-day period, more than 44 inches of snow fell on Philadelphia in two separate storms. With winter just past its halfway point, the city has already recorded more than 70 inches of snow, an all-time record. Most of the snow fell on three occasions. The most recent was Feb. 10-11 when 15.8 inches fell. On Feb. 5-6, 28.5 inches of the white stuff was recorded. This followed a freakish December snowstorm that dropped 23.2 inches on the city.

I’m not a fan of winter but the first two storms were actually enjoyable. The snow was light and fluffy, easy to move. They were followed by relatively warm weather and lots of sunshine so there was quick, sustained melt. Local businesses were open and stocked. It was an excuse to hunker down and enjoy the unusual events while eating comfort food. The third storm though put an end to the enjoyment. It was a heavy wet snow that covered what was left from the prior storm. It was hardened by cold temperatures and cloudy days. This is more typical of the type of snowstorms in the Philadelphia area.

Maria flirting with a snowman on a park bench

Frankly I’m sick of it and was totally through taking pictures the storm or its aftermath. That was until Friday when Maria and I strolled past Rittenhouse Square, the center of daily activity in center city Philadelphia and saw the snow figures. Rabbits, cats on the snow covered grass. Human figures sitting on park benches. There were also traditional snowmen and figures unrecognizable. Some of the figures were well formed while others were in various stages of melt. I don’t know how long they’ve been up or whether they were the result of children, adults, or both. But they were imaginative, clever and fun. It brought a smile on our faces and made an otherwise dreary winter day more enjoyable.

Snow covers all but the head of a frog sculpture

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Giant Colon

It lies in a serpentine position inside a glass case like a creature from an unknown place or something that could only be dreamed up in ancient mythology, like an Ouroboros. Or a giant snake that lived in the depths of the sea or that spent its life burrowed into the deep earth. Its brown skin is paper thin. If stretched out, it measures more than eight feet in length and has a circumference of 27 inches.

It is a human colon, one of the highlights of a trip to the Mütter Museum, which collects and displays anatomy and human medical anomalies and provides an historical context for medical tools and procedures used over the past 150 years. It’s a ghoulish, educational and intriguing collection.
The museum’s exhibits include: The plaster cast of the torso of the world-famous Siamese Twins, Chang & Eng, and their conjoined livers; a cancerous growth removed from President Grover Cleveland; and books that are bound by human skin. Unfortunately, the museum has an extremely strict no pictures and video policy, so most of images are from either the Mütter Museum Web site or other Web sites.

The abnormalities of the human skeletal system are the focus of the tallest skeleton on display in North America, a seven-foot-six-inch person from Kentucky; alongside a three-foot-six-inch dwarf. One notices immediately the oversized, protruding rib cage of the tall skeleton, a common occurrence among unusually large persons.

Famed Austrian anatomist, Joseph Hyrtl, donated a collection of 139 skulls that depict the physical variations among ethnic groups (pictured from
Mütter Museum Web site).

Then there’s the “Soap Lady,” an exhumed body taken to the museum because her body had changed to adipocere, a wax-like organic substance formed by the fat in animal tissue—such as body fat in corpses when buried in a cool, moist environment. In its formation, putrefaction is replaced by a permanent firm cast of fatty tissues, internal organs and the face. Her preserved body is one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. She is believed to be more than 130 years old and is constantly being x-rayed as new imaging technology becomes available to determine, among other things: her age, when she died, and (believe it or not) how she lost her teeth at a young age.

The colon was removed from a man who didn’t quite make it to his 30th birthday and who used his medical condition to earn a living a sideshow performer in Philadelphia, billed at different times as the “Balloon Man” and the “Human Windbag.” He died, not surprisingly, of severe constipation. His colon contained more than 40 pounds of feces at the time of his death. There are pictures of him inside the museum naked with his protruding abdomen and a record of a visit to Hahnemann Hospital, which he was diagnosed as having constipation, and released. He was reported to go up to a month without a bowel movement and suffering severe pain.

Photos of "Balloon Man" and his giant colon at the top of the page are are from

The museum is housed inside the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Founded in 1787, it is the oldest professional medical organization in the country. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is not an academic organization, as the name suggests, but a not-for-profit educational and cultural institution dedicated to advancing the cause of health, and upholding the ideals and heritage of medicine.

The two-story museum itself isn’t very large, but it is filled to the rim with well-organized collections of medical tools, preserved human remains, and models of human remains. About 2,000 objects extracted from people's throats are stored in file draws. There are human and animal fetuses, sliced sections of a human head (pictured from the Mutter Museum Web site), and several exhibits and artifacts of conjoined twins.

Just outside the building, there’s an attractive, quiet medical garden—which contains more than fifty kinds of herbs with detailed explanations of their historical medicinal value and their value in contemporary medical therapy.

The Mütter Museum, 19 South 22nd Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19103.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Philadelphia Launches Ambitious International Arts Festival

The City of Philadelphia announced plans to host an international arts festival next year throughout the city that will include music, dance, fashion, fine arts, poetry and cuisine.

Representatives of the newly formed Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts held a press conference February 2 announcing the event but provided few details on the more than 100 local and international performances (including unusual collaborations) it plans to host during the three-week extravaganza, from April 7 to May 1, 2011.

Instead the organization released its logo, a cube balancing on its point (pictured above), along with a performance of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat in a mash-up collaboration with two local DJs, Dave P and DJ Statik (shown below). Coverage of the press conference can be found here.

While it will be a citywide event, the official host is the Kimmel Center, the city’s performing arts center that serves as the home of eight city performance arts organizations, including The Philadelphia Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia,
and Peter Nero and the Philly Pops.

Collaboration, creativity and innovation are the themes of the festival. While the full PIFA program will be announced April 7, exactly one year before the start of the festival, organizers did release some program highlights, including the first-ever major collaboration between The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Pennsylvania Ballet; and Philadelphia-based hip hop band, The Roots, in concert with a French chanteuse to be announced.

The inspiration for the event is the Paris arts explosion from 1910-1920—a period of time that reshaped and redefined art through collaborations of talented artists from all over the world in all genres of artistic expression. This movement helped to define and interpret art for the rest of the 20th Century.

The festival director is Edward Cambron, a 20-year Philadelphia Orchestra Association veteran. The program will be guided by artistic producer Barbara Silverstein. The festival idea originally was hatched by Kimmel Center president and chief executive Anne Ewers about three years ago.

The festival is being financed with the help of a $10 million grant from the late Leonore Annenberg.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I’ll have the Half-Smoke ‘All the Way’

It’s a Washington, D.C. institution that has nothing to do with monuments, museums or government buildings. It has fed the stomachs and souls of the folks in the nation’s capital and from around the world for more than 50 years. It’s Ben’s Chili Bowl.

It’s a place as friendly and unpretentious as it gets despite its amazing success, which we noticed as soon as we walked up from the Metro stop at 2: 30 p.m. and looked across the street at the line of people outside of the small white building whose façade was covered with yellow and red signage. Bill Cosby thrust Ben’s into the national spotlight in 1985 when he held a press conference there to celebrate his number one show. In 2004, Ben’s received the Gallo of Sonoma “America's Classics” Restaurant Award from the James Beard Foundation. The place has been spotlighted by every news, travel and food show imaginable.
(Photo from Ben's Chili Bowl Web site.)

The line weaved inside the building (a former silent movie theater) that looked every bit its 100 years of age but it moved fast with loud, friendly workers shouting encouragement.
Ben's is proud of it's African-American roots and on its walls are pictures of black entertainers and leaders of the Civil Rights movement who are customers. A sign near the door proclaims "We Love Our Customers. You Are The Best." The menu is above the grill behind the counter. Other signs above the counter direct customers about food and service: "Our Sandwiches Are Made to Order," "Tipping is Permitted For Good Service, and "All Sandwiches Wrapped In Aluminum Foil To Preserve Heat And Freshness."
At Ben’s the line leads to a cashier where you order first then head for a table in the back where you are served your food, unless you skip the line and head for the white, Formica counter in front of the food station, which we did.

There, a large smiling man with a beard and long-braided hair tied back wearing a cook’s white shirt loudly referred to me as “Mr. Tony” and my wife as “Mrs. Tony,” took our order and then quickly moved, and I swear, disappeared, into the swarm of cooks, servers and cashiers working behind the counter.

Our server/cook in the center.

I had the half-smoke “all the way” (pictured above) and Maria ordered the chili dog. A half-smoke is unique to the Washington D.C. area. It is essentially a plumper version of a hot dog with a little more spice and smoke flavor. All the way, means it comes with mustard, onions and chili. Maria’s chili dog looked sad by comparison.

The half-smoke tasted like it looked: meat covered in meat sauce with lots of spice and hints of mustard and onion. There’s nothing subtle about the flavor. It’s good, hearty, fun food, which was perfect to sooth our hunger and feed our souls on a cold late December day.

Ben’s Chile Bowl, 1213 U St., N.W., Washington D.C. Across from the U Street/African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Metro stop, (Green Line).