Tuesday, March 10, 2009

ROAD TRIP: Philadelphia: City Food Tours

Written & Photographed by Ellen McGlynn

Compared even with the Sky Bike at the Franklin Institute, City Food Tours’ “Flavors of Philly” tour proves to be a contender among the most entertaining educational experiences that Philadelphia has to offer. While it may not be housed under the roof of a spectacular piece of architecture or presented via an elaborate laser light show, it is a rather tasty success story of our nation’s hard-working immigrants and how their ingenuity spawned a cuisine. Stretching from the Shops at Liberty Place at Chestnut & 16th Streets to Reading Terminal Market at Arch & 12th, this tour is not only a lesson in local food but a masterpiece in multi-tasking (note to teachers seeking a good field trip): exercise, sightseeing, and a local history lesson all rolled into a two-hour lunch session.

Peppering our group with questions about the town and its most popular foods, our knowledgeable and friendly tour guide, Michelle Freeman, offered locally-made candy treats in exchange for correct answers to not-so-easy questions and even tested our local-food vocabulary at the end to make sure we were all paying attention. The grand prize? FOOD, of course! Local food. We found ourselves entirely stuffed by the end of our tour and were thankful for the chance to walk off those carbs between venues.  But make no mistake about it, we have no regrets, and neither will you.

Without giving too much of the tour’s secrets away, it all starts innocently enough with a slice of tomato pie and a few hungry first-timers making the dangerous mistake of reaching for seconds too early in the game. Then, according to our kid meter, the tour crescendoes with an authentic Philly cheesesteak and matching cheese fries (though for me it was the warm, heavy pretzel reminiscent of my working days in the city), and finishes off with a velvety smooth chocolate chip cookie hot out of the oven, but not before sampling one of the freshest hoagies you’re likely to eat in your lifetime. But there are many more layers to this Dagwood of a tour, and you would do well to bring a small bag to carry your leftovers.

The unique beauty of the “Flavors of Philly” experience is that while we have all sampled knockoffs of Philly fare in our lifetimes, City Food Tours takes its band of faithful food followers to the places that give this famous street cuisine its worldwide reputation, making it a suitable tour even for city natives who may have come to take for granted what a great food town Philadelphia really is (note, stick close to the natives on your tour—they know all the answers to the history questions). Even as a former 15-year resident of Philadelphia who frequently dined out (and clearly still do), I had never before patronized the well-respected traditional family establishments along this tour, making it as much a treat for me as it was for the youngest converts in our taste-testing cartel. Most of the excitement for me, in fact, was not knowing exactly where we were going, so for that matter, I will not ruin the surprise for you either.

All that being said, trust your tour guide. She knows where she’s going, and she has an expert eye for keeping a group together in a crowded market—and crowds are exactly what you’ll find at the Reading Terminal Market, which is the final stop on this tour. Even in the light of day, Reading Terminal has the instant feel of a busy nightlife with its glowing neon signs, lighted showcases, and the beehive buzz of frenzied anticipation. Here you will sample a number of sweet chocolate treats before bidding farewell to your foodie friends, but do try to avoid making a hasty exit no matter how little time you have left to squeeze in one more museum. Linger for a while at the Terminal even after your tour to muse over culinary sights you’re likely never to catch at your local supermarket and will probably remember forever.

If you are planning a trip to Philadelphia in the near future, check out City Food Tours’ website at www.cityfoodtours.com to book your tour online. With offerings also in New York City, this is one touring agency that Epicurean Family plans to sample again on its trip to the Big Apple.

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