36 Hours in Philadelphia

I recently visited my dear friend Kate in Philadelphia. I had such a good time, that I thought I should share what I did there.

I arrived in Philadelphia (trip 2 for me) on the Bolt bus- at $10.50, a steal. Had I brought my computer I could have spent the entire ride plugged in and surfing the Internet (actually, my version of Internet usage is more like slavery these days where I type furiously, sprinkling my activity with pauses of pressing Send. Which is to say I did not take advantage of this feature, but instead read an old fashioned book.)

Upon my arrival to Philadelphia, it was still scorching hot- 90 degrees, and my wonderful host, Kate took us immediately for dinner and celebratory/medicinal drinks (celebratory for me, medicinal for her after a long day of work). Johnny Brenda’s is a local watering hole-seemingly THE premiere destination for happy hour decompression. Upon being seated, our table expanded over the course of the night to include 10+ friends of friends. These friendly folk- amongst them computer programmers, artists, DJs- provided delightful re-tellings of strange Philadelphia characters and personalities- a great introduction to Philly mythologies and subculture.

Considering that Philadelphia is such a bike-driven town, Kate made sure I got to partake in at least the smallest bit of cross town bike riding. Her in a very tall bike, me in a slightly less tall Peugot bike with massive wheels, meandered a few blocks to El Cafeito, a Cuban coffee shop. Breakfast selection was amazing with both options of pastries and hot-pressed sandwiches. We opted to split a Quesito (cheese pastry), a cherry pastry and a cubano sandwich to round out all those sweets. The pastries melted in your mouth as did this cubano – a perfect primer for the day ahead.

After dropping our bikes at home and a short break to watch an episode of My So-Called Life, we ventured out for our major trip of the day: Bartram Gardens. Located in west Philly, Bartram Gardens, once host to elite gatherings of Philadelphia’s founding fathers such as Ben Franklin himself, now lies smack in the middle of the projects. In ironic contrast, the walk up to the gardens features foliage strewn with various debris and trash. Bartrams, however, is a classic example of an old explorer-come-botanist retreat. Overgrown with various species of eastern native plants, the grounds boast some of the oldest specimens of Tennessee Yellowwood and Ginko trees. For me, the highlight of this place was the cider press, which had been carved out of the property’s bedrock on the river’s edge. Cool!

Kate insisted that we get a sweet treat at Capogiro Gelato– I paired the rose petal gelato (“roses donated from a 200 year old rose bush”) with the chocolate malt. We then ate this very delicious gelato in Rittenhouse Square while watching small children frolic with stump footed pigeons. Very endearing.

We met our friend, TC outside his show All Right-Still! at Fleischer Ollman Gallery. The show has a number of new works, some of which I was privy to see in mid-completion last fall in LA while TC was semi-invalid with a broken leg and coloring furiously beautiful animal-scapes.

Today, TC was cane-less and eagerly led us around his exhibit and into the depths of the Fleischer Ollman stockpiles of strange outsider art clay headdresses and Garden of Eden sculptures. It’s always a treat to get to explore the flat files of any art space, and this was no exception, especially due to the wonderful back story provided by a very knowledgeable TC.

After a brief interlude to shower, eat some smiley fries (mashed potatoes formed into the shape of smiley faces and then baked for a crisp outer shell), and watch one and a half episodes of My So-Called Life, we headed out to what I will now refer to as the best Chinese dinner I have ever eaten. To preface, I historically don’t actually like Chinese food. But this has all changed largely due to this adorable little spot called Han Dynasty.

The first great thing about Han Dynasty (and Philly in general) is that it is BYOB, which significantly reduces the bill while infinitely expanding your dining experience with the exact beverage of your choice and lots of it, as you see fit. A group of 8 people, we ordered family style, a series of increasingly delicious dishes, starting with Dumplings in Chili Oil, Wonton in Chili Oil (preferred), and the most amazing, and from what I know, not traditionally served in Chinese restaurants: Fried Taiwanese Sausage. Highlights of the family’s orders were Dry Pot Style Pork, which was spicy, vegetable-y and porky all at the same time; Pickled Chili Style Fish, something I would never order, but was to die for- it was the first of all dishes to be finished. The Kung Pao Chicken was exceptional and well worth seconds- likewise something I would never order due to its- in my book- uniform/boring taste. We also ordered Cumin Lamb, which was very good, but more a dish you would eat in small doses, with lots of rice. Everything was then balanced with Kate’s sage choice of Pea Leaves with Garlic and some other less remarkable but equally tasty dishes. As I mentioned, it was a feast, and if you were ever in Philly, I would suggest this as the place to go out for dinner.

The last part of Philadelphia that I have always heard about but never had the opportunity to really appreciate is the cheap real estate.  Rumors abound about the amazing spaces one can find, and finally I was witness to one such place. Kate’s boyfriend, Robert, owns a building that he is in the process of renovating.  It has been years in the making, but the product that is emerging is one to be envious of.  The various floors are in different states of renovation, but the main concepts that I came away with are:

1. you can own property in Philadelphia without being rich
2. renovating a huge house looks like a lot of hard work, but so completely worth it
3. having lots of space gives people room to be imaginative and create

Life lessons, learned in Philly, folks. I would urge anyone desiring an east coast residence to check out this amazing city, that, as you can see, is brimming with wonders that I only scratched the surface of in this brief 36 hour visit.

This blog post is dedicated to the always disappointing 36 Hours in _________ articles regularly published in the NY Times that I tend to read despite never being impressed or inspired. Thank you Kate, Robert, Marina, and TC for an lovely, lovely visit.

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