Restaurant Review: Race Street Cafe

The weather in Philly can be kind of manic this time of year—in the 80s and sunny one day, snowing and in the 30s the next—but springtime was definitely here over the weekend! So, the husband and I took advantage of the sun and warm weather on Saturday to hang out in the city for a bit. Even though we live in South Philly, we don’t always make time to go up into Center City just to hang out without a real destination in mind, so it was nice just to spend some time browsing the shops in Olde City, wandering through the historic district, and sitting on a bench in Franklin Square. Incidentally, Franklin Square was a really pleasant surprise to me; before it was renovated a couple of years ago, I don’t think you could have paid anyone to hang out in that sketchy area near the Vine Street Expressway. But now, it was filled with children and families playing mini golf, riding the carousel, and playing on the swings. We decided that we would definitely return to sample burgers and milkshakes (Butterscotch Krimpet flavor?!) at Square Burger, but the weather was starting to turn a little too chilly to sit outside.

We started to brainstorm indoor options for dinner—it came down to three: Continental, which is a sentimental favorite of ours since that’s where we had our very first date (and where I had my bridal shower and ended up more than three sheets to the wind at my bachelorette party), Panini’s, an Italian restaurant on Market Street where the hostess gave us the hard sell as we considered the menu, and the Race Street Café, which we had stumbled upon on our walk.

At some point, we eliminated the Continental and decided to save it for a time closer to our engagea-versery on May 1 (Yes, I made up that word. No, I don’t know if that’s how you would spell it. I enjoy made up observances, okay? Also on this list are our first-date-aversery on March 30 and my half birthday on May 10. Feel free to send a gift). So, it came down to the Italian place and Race Street. We decided to flip a coin—we make many of our important decisions this way. The Italian place won. As we started to walk there, I decided that I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t really feel like that much food and I kind of didn’t like the way that the hostess was trying to talk us into coming in. So, we turned around and went back to the Race Street. It was a good decision.

Image from Race Street Cafe website http://www.racestreetcafe.net

The Race Street Café is tucked near the corner of 2nd and Race, right near the Ben Franklin Bridge. It’s a bit off the beaten path, and seems to be more of a neighborhood haunt than a tourist destination like the restaurants that closer to Chestnut and Market can be. There was an interesting mix of people there—from young, college types, to older, well-dresses retirees. It was small inside, with maybe just over a dozen tables and the bar. At first glance, the dim lighting and dark furniture reminded me of a dive bar, but it definitely didn’t have the sticky floors, stale beer smell, and general grossness of one. This was definitely more of a gastropub, in terms of the menu selections, good service, and the noise level, which was not overwhelming at all.

We started off with the calamari for an appetizer. It was served with as well as two dipping sauces: one was sweet, and almost had an Asian flavor to it, and the other was a chipotle mayonnaise. It was fresh and tender and lightly fried (which always scores points with me). The rings were kind of small though, and without dipping them in the sauces they didn’t have a ton of flavor. It was just okay. The dish was served fried jalapenos and cauliflower. I would eat the latter everyday if I could always have it fried!

Hubby got the Spanish Burger, which featured a combination of ground beef and chorizo, with manchego cheese. His review? “The burger was really good, probably not the best burger ever, but unique because of the combination of meats and flavors.” It reminded us both of some of the food that we sampled during our honeymoon in Spain as opposed to Mexican food—in other words, a bit more garlicky, and lighter on the cumin and chili flavors. The hubby noted that it a little on the dry side, because the meat had to be cooked well done, instead of medium, like he prefers and that the flavor of the manchego was slightly over-powered by the chorizo and the chipotle sauce. The fries that accompanied the burger were smothered in cheese, jalapeno, sautéed onions and the combination of these flavors worked well together.

After debating on several menu items, including macaroni and cheese or grilled cheese (clearly, I have a thing for cheese), I chose the fish taco. The way in which Race Street prepared this dish was different from how I’ve had it before. The fish that was used was Pollack, which had been breaded in cornmeal and served in corn tortillas—I’m used to my fish just being grilled. At first I didn’t think I would like the breading, but it was delicious. It gave the dish a nice crunch, but didn’t make it too greasy. So, it held up well and the tortillas didn’t get soggy. The tacos were paired with standard toppings, like pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, and guacamole, as well as a yummy black bean spread, cheese (which you don’t usually find on fish tacos) and sour cream with the ever present chipotle flavor. The tacos came with fries, which I didn’t really have room for, after inhaling the three tacos. They were good and crunchy, but I think I would have preferred something like a salad or rice along with the tacos.

The verdict: Overall, we enjoyed our meal here—good food, nice atmosphere, and decent service, even though every table was full. Prices were also reasonable, at just under $50 for both of us, including two beers.

A warning: Chipotle seems to be the signature ingredient here, accompanying all three of the dishes that we ordered. It didn’t bother me as much as it usually does—I don’t like the smokiness of it—probably because it was tempered by creamier condiments like sour cream and mayo. The hubby wasn’t really a fan because it overpowered some of the food, and is just a “played out” flavor.

Still, we would definitely return to try some other things on the menu—they also have a nice brunch menu, which I would like to try. Second to dessert, brunch is my favorite meal. Maybe because it is like dessert, with its emphasis on sweets and carbs, and occasionally, ice cream and whipped cream. Hopefully, as the weather gets nicer, we’ll have the chance to wander around and discover more of what the city has to offer.

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