Manayunk’s restaurants channel their inner artist with these dishes.
By Leo Dillinger
Photography by JPG Photography (jpgphotography.com)
While some artists prefer the palette and canvas, others utilize pots, pans, and cooking utensils to create their masterpieces. Here in Manayunk, local chefs and restaurant owners take pride in their signature dishes as if they were works of art. They focus on flavor profiles, proportions, and presentation in an effort to keep their patrons coming back for more. Here is an inside look at some of their favorite dishes.
Jambalaya (Bourbon Blue)
“The Big Easy” may be more than 1,200 miles away from Manayunk, but according to Brendan McGrew, owner and head chef of Bourbon Blue, one bite of his jambalaya will make you feel like you’re dining on the streets of New Orleans.
“We’ve gotten praise from people who come up from Louisiana as we’re one of the few restaurants that have a New Orleans theme in this city,” Brendan said. “They’ll specifically order it to gauge it against the ‘authentic’ one and 99 times out of 100, people say our jambalaya is on par if not better. It’s a huge point of pride to say and it’s why the recipe will never change. When something’s going well, why change it?”
There has always been jambalaya on the menu at Bourbon Blue, but the current recipe has been in use for the last 11 years. Brendan starts by searing Andouille sausage and Tasso ham, then adding in celery, onions, and peppers. After adding the veggies, he adds their homemade pork stock, shrimp stock, and chicken stock to fill out the dish along with roughly 15 different spices and seasonings. Once the dish is done simmering for one hour, he thickens the dish with a blonde roux. He cooks the jumbo shrimp and rice separately before adding to the dish at the last second to give it the proper texture and flavor. The entire slow-cooking process takes roughly four hours to make and requires a lot of attention, but it’s always a top-selling menu item as the restaurant goes through roughly 10 to 15 gallons of it every week. Whether you’re using a fork or spoon to eat, you’ll still get to taste a little bit of every ingredient in a single bite.
“It’s a really good dish that represents us because it’s a big mix of everything,” Brendan said. “It’s one of our most popular dishes and I think one of the reasons why is that it takes a lot of time to make it. At home when you’re cooking for six or seven people, you don’t want to make something that takes over three hours of active cooking.”
Choo Chee Duck (Chabaa Thai Bistro)
In the same way artists express themselves through their work, Moon Krapugthong, owner and head chef of Chabaa Thai Bistro, uses her cooking talents to give customers a glimpse into her culture. One of her most beloved seasonal dishes is the Choo Chee Duck, which not only tastes delicious but is so beautifully presented that you may feel guilty digging into it.
“The word ‘choo chee’ is a sizzling sound where the name comes from,” Moon said. “The way we cook the duck, there is a sound that Thai people call the approach ‘choo chee.’ The sound makes me think of spring and summer when you’re cooking in the warmer weather. You see the garnish and the vegetables in there so it’s more like a warmth celebration to me. That’s why we added it to the menu.”
Moon prepares the duck breast in two parts for this dish. The first is by dicing the duck and crispy frying it before sautéing it with a homemade Thai sweet chili paste. The other part is a duck confit that is marinated and oven roasted until the order comes in, where the duck is then pan-seared to a medium-rare style. For Moon, the key is to render the fat without overcooking it. Otherwise the dish gets too chewy. Moon then accentuates the duck with kaffir lime leaf, garlic, chili pepper, and cilantro root and serves it with a side of string beans and steamed jasmine rice.
“I love the aroma and how it’s both salty and sweet,” Moon said. “It’s an inspiration from a lot of different cuisines, but we try to preserve the authenticity of the cooking. The flavor is so Thai, but the technique can be anything.”
Des’ Curry Shrimp (The Spicy Belly)
As a fusion chef specializing in Jamaican and Korean cuisine, Jimmy Mills of The Spicy Belly gives his patrons a piece of familial nostalgia with interpretations of the dishes his mom used to make. One of his favorites that’s been on their menu since the first day is their coconut shrimp curry.
“It’s a traditional Jamaican dish, but my mom being Korean and a huge fan of curry put her own spin on it,” Jimmy said. “Normally, the curry shrimp is batched like a big stew. Generally, you would use smaller shrimp and maybe add another starch item like a potato or a yam in there. My mom wanted curry quick. She wanted to make curry and not have it take two or two and a half hours like it normally does for curry chicken or something like that. It was just about getting the gravy right.”
Jimmy starts by sautéing his veggies (onions, bell peppers, scotch bonnet peppers, potatoes, carrots) and seasons them with curry powder. Once the veggies are halfway cooked, he adds the jumbo shrimp with some more curry powder. As the shrimp is nearly finished cooking, Jimmy deglazes the dish with a little bit of water, adds in coconut milk, and lets it boil for three to four minutes. Once the sauce is reduced by a third, the dish is ready to be served.
“It’s one of the items on our menu that has stood the tests of time,” Jimmy said. “It was always the same general recipe. As long as your flavor profiles are there, your veggies and shrimp are cooked, it’s not overwhelmingly spicy, and your gravy is thick enough, that’s what you’re looking for. You can always elevate your spice level or subtle it down.”
Crab Cakes (Jake’s & Cooper’s Wine Bar)
After more than three decades of business on Main Street, owner and chef Bruce Cooper of Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar believes the one dish that has kept so many customers coming back is his signature crab cake.
“I haven’t changed it in years,” Bruce said. “In the beginning we had a Maryland-style, which is more of a butter breadcrumb inside. Then we had a mousse filling, which is very French. We’ve even covered them with potatoes. But the current recipe comes from the gentleman who invented pasta primavera at Le Cirque. I’d say this version of the crab cake has been around for almost 20 years at Jake’s.”
Bruce keeps his process simple and uses just enough filler to hold the crab cakes together without making it too heavy. He takes his mix of jumbo and colossal crabmeat, heavy cream, and special seasonings and dredges it in Japanese breadcrumbs. The crab cake is fried until it turns golden brown and served with seasonal vegetables, spinach, beurre blanc butter sauce, and tarragon pickle sauce. Bruce’s current iteration of the recipe can be challenging to execute properly because the cakes are so delicate, but it makes for a delicious small plate that will keep you coming back to his restaurant for more.
“It’s probably the one thing we’re known for,” Bruce said. “Some restaurants don’t want to serve them because they are too common, but I have customers who have been coming for 30 years. I can’t worry about being too common.”
Pork Tacos (The Goat’s Beard)
Since the purchase their 84-inch Offset Lang Smoker last year, Executive Chef Joel Romano and his culinary team at The Goat’s Beard have been having quite a bit of fun experimenting with new menu items. Out of the smoker, Joel created pork tacos with a spin on the massively popular flavor combo from his home country of Australia.
“The dish itself is a play on a very classic combination of my childhood favorite: ham and pineapple,” Joel said. “The ham is being substituted with a baby-back rib that we simply season with sugar and salt and nothing else. It’s smoked on hardwood for 10 hours, and the meat is then shredded from the bone. It’s amazing; probably the best thing we have in both restaurants.”
Joel’s sugar-to-salt ratio renders the pork to give it a ham-like quality. The pineapple aspect of the dish comes from their “mostarda”, which is an Italian condiment made with pineapple, sugar, vinegar, and mustard seeds. The tacos are served on fresh tortillas that are pressed and grilled in-house every day at both locations and topped with bourbon and honey pickled jalapeños, shaved red onion, ranch dressing, and cilantro.
“Ham and pineapple is massive in Australia on pizzas. It’s a very classic combination and you don’t really have to do much with it. The true secret is the tortilla, which we make here, and obviously the fact that we simply season a high quality pork rib that we smoke in-house with post oak,” Joel said.
Blue Colorado Salad (Winnie’s Manayunk)
Not all kitchen masterpieces come predetermined. At Winnie’s, one of their top-selling dishes came out of pure spontaneity.
“It’s been on the menu for about six years now, but it was kind of by accident,” Winnie’s manager Jessica Richards said. “The chefs made an ancho chile steak as a special and everybody kept asking for it. So we figured let’s try it with chicken. We tried it and it’s been a staple on our menu ever since. People can’t go without it.”
The chefs at Winnie’s roast the ancho chile peppers and turn them into a glaze. They paint the ancho chile glaze on the chicken before grilling to give it a light char and mesquite flavor. The chicken is gently stacked alongside poached asparagus atop a tossed salad of mixed greens, grape tomatoes, grilled corn salsa, bleu cheese, and red wine vinaigrette. Jessica noted the key factors to this best-selling dish.
“I think there are two things that we do that makes it so unique,” Jessica said. “The first is the grilled corn salsa that adds a lot of dimension to it. And the other is the chicken. Just the mesquite flavor of it with the crispness of the salad goes so well together.”