Delilah's at the Terminal 12th and Arch Sts., open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Entree, iced tea, and dessert from $10
This first one up is a knockout, serving sensational southern fare in the heart of one of Philly's most fascinating tourist sites: Reading Terminal Market. In continuous operation since 1893, the Market is a must-visit - a sort of edible United Nations, if you will, where the city's numerous ethnic groups meet to turn the proverbial "melting pot" into a brimming stockpot. Within the space of a few feet, you'll see Amish farmers and Thai immigrants, old-world German butchers (Siegfried Maldener with his famed weiss-wurst) and New Age vegetarians. Nearly all the planet's food is represented here: tacos and nachos; brick-oven pizzas; souvlaki; Chinese stir-fry; fast-food sushi; traditional New England specialties such as chowder and fresh oysters; high-priced international gourmet tidbits-and of course, hoagies and cheese steaks galore.
But topping them all is Delilah's, a little nook off a crowded aisle with table service, a counter for take-out, and the best down-home cooking we've had north of Virginia. All the specialties are available in sandwich form ($5.25), but I'd recommend splurging on a platter ($7.50). That way, you get a hunk of Delilah's perfect corn bread (not too sweet, not too gritty) and a choice of seven delectable side dishes, including an uncloying version of candied yams; truly cheesy macaroni and cheese; collard greens without a hint of bitterness; or a bright yellow potato salad crammed with crunchy carrots, onion, and chopped egg. Of the entr,es, the chicken dishes are supreme, especially the crisp and remarkably light fried chicken and the tangy chopped chicken barbecue. Finish your meal here with a section of peach cobbler ($2.50) or mosey down to the Dutch Eating Place on the other side of the Market for a hot apple dumpling ($2.40) served by demure, friendly young Amish women in traditional hair bonnets and Laura Ashley-esque dresses.
Marathon Grill 1339 Chestnut St., 1818 Market St., 1613 JFK Blvd., 121 South 16th St., 19th and Spruce St.s; hours vary by location, more information at marathonrestaurants.com. From $10 for soup, entree, and coffee, tea, or soda
The IKEA of Philadelphia restaurants, Marathon Grill is a group of slick, airy eateries, starkly designed in blond wood, black-and-white formica, and brushed metal. In this sandwich town, where wedging food between pieces of bread seems to be de rigueur in even the nicest restaurants, it's not surprising that many of the options here come between two slices of baguette, sourdough, or "rustique country roll." But there are also oversized salads, dinner platters, and un-Mexican "fajitas" (we'll explain below) to round out the menu.
With a chain of five large restaurants, the key to good food is ingredients and training. Marathon boasts consistently fresh, high-quality produce, fish, and meats; and whoever is teaching the grill chefs their trade is a certified genius. At each location, the grilled selections are cooked to perfection, tender and juicy in the center, the outsides transformed into nice smoky shells. So order at will - we're sure you'll be pleased with the pepper-crusted or Cajun-rubbed tuna steak ($7.95); cowboy-style Cajun chicken ($7.95); the honey-mustard-glazed chicken with provolone and mushrooms ($7.95); or any of the daily specials. Don't make the mistake of ordering a starter salad-each entree comes with a generous helping of caesar salad (and herb-laden rice). Instead, request a bowl-sized cup of their daily-changing, always-winning soups ($3). For dessert, try one of the surprisingly rich fat-free frozen yogurts ($2) or a big chocolate-chip cookie ($1.50). The only dishes we'd avoid are their "urban" fajitas, which are, in truth, wrap sandwiches and tend to be a bit dry.
Samosa 1214 Walnut St., 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. lunch, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. dinner, Saturday and Sunday lunch begins at 12 p.m. $4.95 lunch buffet, $7.95 dinner buffet, both including as many helpings as you can handle of soups, salads, entrees, desserts, and spiced tea
One of us is from New York where the Indian restaurants are cramped and crazy, strung with Christmas lights year-round, festooned with tinsel and elaborately muraled. So we were a bit suspicious when we first came upon Samosa. An austere, near banquet-size restaurant with large plate-glass windows, an abundance of hanging plants, and just a few subdued lights twinkling way in the back, it was almost elegant and soothingly quiet. How good, how authentic could it be? Our worries abated as soon as we took in the crowd with its many sari- and turban-wearing diners, and took our first bites - absolutely delicious.
Although strictly vegetarian, Samosa offers up enough tasty options to seduce even the most confirmed meat-eater. On our last visit, we had the choice of piquant lentil or tomato-cauliflower soup, two satisfying cheese-laden stews (spinach- or pea-based), a mixed lentil dish, fried vegetable pakora, a tasty potato-eggplant curry, naan bread, and a refreshing rice-pistachio pudding (kheer). This came with the fixings for a mighty nice salad. While none of the dishes was particularly spicy, there was an entire section of the buffet devoted to diced jalapenos, hot sauces, peppery pickles, and other condiments for those who prefer a bit of fire with their food. A terrific find, centrally located.
Alyan's 603 South Fourth St., 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Friday and Saturday. A full meal from $9
Off lively South St., from the front Alyan's seems like one of those faded, forgotten restaurants soon to be out of business. Walk inside, though, and you find yourself in an exceedingly pleasant place with Middle Eastern music thrumming softly in the background and a crowd of young customers (not visible through the window) happily devouring generous helpings of grub. The food here is as good as Middle Eastern gets, with an excellent, garlicky baba ghanouj ($3.50), tangy hummus ($3.50), and crisp, nongreasy falafel ($4). For a main course, try the perfectly spiced lamb shwarma platter ($8.50); flaky, aromatic spinach pie ($7.50), or one of the platters that combines the menu's succulent appetizers into a meal-sized dish ($7.50). You might want to treat yourself to a side order of french fries ($2.25), fried with onions and peppers, well-salted and sinfully delicious. For dessert, share a piece of baklava ($1.50) - it's a very rich dish and you'll be served a piece or two of seasonal fruit gratis (in this case, clementines) when your check comes.
By the way, be sure to request the greenhouse room on the first floor. With its glass ceiling, elaborate hanging lanterns, and Arabic rugs and photos, it's a kitschy, fun spot for a meal.
Harmony Vegetarian Restaurant 135 North Ninth St., 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Two courses and tea from $8.50
Don't be put off by the utterly bland appearance of our final choice. It's the chow that counts, and Harmony Vegetarian has some of the most unusual, absolutely delicious Chinese fare we've had anywhere. So what if you're sitting in a mint-green room with pink tablecloths and unconvincing paper flowers? There is a master at work here, able to turn even the most tried-and-true specialties on their heads. He does this, first of all, by substituting soy products in all the classic meat and fish dishes. Results vary, but for the most part, this trompe l'oeil food effectively mimics the texture and taste, if not always the appearance, of the real stuff. But more importantly, the chef uses blends of spices and cuts of vegetables that we've never had before. The hot-and-sour soup ($3.95, for a serving big enough for two), for example, doesn't contain the usual overload of pepper and limp black mushrooms. Instead, the vegetables are julienned and crisp, the taste as much sour as hot. "Chicken" with sweet baby ginger ($6.95) is an intoxicating combination of fresh peppers, faux chicken, and abundant slices of aromatic pickled ginger. And the orange "beef" ($9.95) should be illegal, it's that addictive - we kept filling our chopsticks long after we'd filled our bellies. Also more than worth a try: crispy spring rolls ($2.50), stir-fried noodles Shanghai-style ($5.95), and eggplant Szechwan-style ($6.50).