Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bloggers' Bites: Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll

Bloggers' Bites is a series of posts chronicling the foodie adventures of Penn Appétit's blog staff. On September 20th, Penn Appétit bloggers went to the Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll.

Elliott Brooks: Despite living on Baltimore Avenue, last Thursday was my first ever Dollar Stroll- a recurring summer treat where all the restaurants and markets along the avenue set up side-walk stands selling $1 goodies. I started off my stroll by declaring it to be a "backwards day" and eating dessert first. Milk & Honey Market was giving out generous scoops of Bassetts ice cream which, as always, was pure creamy comfort. Word on the street is that they now sell Lil' Baby's Icecream too.

The next stop was Aksum, where I got two stuffed grape leaves. I have yet to meet a stuffed grape leaf I did not like, however Aksum's were at the lower end of my "grape leaf tastiness" scale. I prefer my grape leaves to be flavorful little pockets of rice, meat and spice goodness. Aksum's grape leaves were vegetarian, so the nice meaty richness was missing.

Down the street from Aksum was my favorite Malaysian-Laotian restaurant- Vientiane Cafe. They were serving out grilled skewers of tender chicken morsels and spring rolls bursting with fresh vegetables and mint. I ate both happily before moving onto my last stop, Atiya Ola's Spirit First Foods. This was my first time at Atiya's, which is located in a side street off Baltimore. They specialize in Caribbean health food, including a lot of vegan and raw options. The smoothie I tried was sweet and refreshing, and tasted like a non-alcoholic pina colada. I can't wait to go back to try their other options- I have a feeling Atiya's might be Baltimore's hidden gem.

Nicole Woon: For a queue that was as long as one you might find for a Disneyland ride, you would think the food waiting at the end would leave your taste buds starstruck. As we learn in Marketing 101, however, satisfaction is based on both our expectations and the perceived performance, and the concept of "disconfirmation" was about to play out in real life. Such was the case at Elena's Soul.

Just to experience a taste of the South, we waited a solid half hour--if not longer--in a line that eked along at a snail's pace. The servers were friendly (at least during our brief interaction), yet inefficient; orders had to be repeated multiple times to multiple people and only one woman was dishing out orders. Elena's could greatly improve this aspect for future Dollar Strolls, especially considering how popular the spot is among the West Philly crowd. In any case, we at last reached the front and for $1 per serving, I picked up a Fried Chicken Wing, Candied Yams, Macaroni and Cheese, and Peach Cobbler.

Elena's leaves the wing tip, a part that is mostly skin and bones, attached to each chicken wing. While the drumette and flat portion of the wing were fairly moist and had a nicely-spiced coating, the thin crust was not crunchy enough. Additionally, the amount of meat present was minimal. The yams were indeed quite sweet, as their moniker suggests, and rather liquidy; it could have easily substituted as a pie filling, if that's your cup of tea. With the countless ways chefs interpret mac and cheese, I was curious to see how Elena's would prepare their version. The mac and cheese served was tasty, but ultimately unremarkable. The side was more creamy than cheesy and lacked the delicious crust that normally develops from baking in the oven. The peach cobbler was happily laden with chunky peaches, but I was disappointed with the dish's cool temperature and lack of flaky crust; I had been expecting a warm dessert with a crisper dough crust.

Fortunately, I was much more pleased with my findings at Desi Village, a spot I discovered at my first Dollar Stroll in October 2010. The pyramidal samosas were plump and crispy, jam-packed with cumin-scented potatoes and peas and dressed with a thin chutney. The show-stopper was the mango lassi, some of the best I've ever had the pleasure of sipping! The Indian yogurt-based drink was so smooth, genuinely fruity, and absolutely refreshing for the palette on a warm summer's night.

Farrel Levenson: If I told even a Penn student there was great food in the Baltimore area, he would probably think I was referring to Baltimore, Maryland. My natural inclination would be to think of Maryland as well, if it wasn’t for the Baltimore Dollar Stroll. Previously, whenever I was looking to vary my cuisine, I gravitated towards the more obvious areas: Old City, Rittenhouse Square, South Philly. Save for a few restaurants near Locust Street in the mid-forties, I was convinced a quality meal was a SEPTA ride away.

However, last Thursday I indulged in a hot, savory samosa, sugary sweet plantains, spicy mushrooms, a peanut butter-chocolate cupcake, a succulent chicken kebab, and a scoop of the famous Basset’s ice cream. All were acquired within a four-block radius, to my surprise, on Baltimore Avenue.
Little did I know, the street I believed to be mostly residential was actually a mini-melting pot of cuisines, offering everything from Ethiopian to Indian to Chinese fare at reasonable prices.

As I participated in the Baltimore Dollar stroll, basking in the perfect 70-degree weather, I marveled at my ignorance. Who knew a street a few blocks from my house had so much to offer? My accompanying friends and I immediately began formulating future dinner plans, eager to explore our new-found options. Penn students often joke about rarely leaving the “Penn Bubble,” and it's unfortunate to think that Baltimore Ave. is often excluded from this realm. Both myself and my taste buds have the Baltimore Stroll to thank for pulling us a few blocks out of the bubble, and into a new slice of Philly.

Jessica Chung: The Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll is a great concept: seven blocks of restaurants selling food for a dollar that you would normally pay up to $5 for! Unfortunately what that also means is a lot of waiting and only a little bit of food. My first stop was Elena’s Soul. Personally, I didn’t think it was worth waiting thirty minutes for a couple dollars’ worth of food. Nevertheless, I was craving good mac and cheese and candied yams, so I chose to stick it out. The mac and cheese was good, but not exceptional. It was very simple with no breadcrumb topping. There was a layer of cheese baked on top, but it didn’t make the dish stand out. And there were some spices mixed in, making the macaroni taste peppery. The candied yams were almost bitter. They sat in a nice amount of glaze, but I think there was too much cinnamon in it, making what could be a sweet spice actually the opposite. I also tried a chicken wing, worried that the other restaurants would be running out of food by the time we got through this line. The chicken was a little dry on the inside, but nice and crisp on the outside. Although it was greasy, it was flavorful. I also tried a samosa from Gojjo. Again, I was not thrilled. The fried shell was thick, but on the verge of being soggy, which is to be expected from sitting outside. The potato and pea filling was lacking in peas, and was a little too spicy for my liking.

However, the night ended on a good note. Desi Village was selling mango lassi’s, which were perfectly sweetened, creamy, and full of mango flavor. I also tried what I believe is called gulab jamun, mini fried doughnut-like balls soaked in a sweet syrup. These were very good too, although a little denser than usual after sitting in the syrup for so long. By the end of the night, I was certainly full. However, many of the restaurants did run out of food before the Dollar Stroll was over. I would have liked to have tried Sweetbox’s cupcakes, Mariposa Co-Op’s banana whips, and Green Line Café’s carrot dogs. Nevertheless, it was a good experience, as it allows you to try a variety of foods for just $1 each. Next time, I think we’ll just have to split up, each of us buying one another a variety of foods from different restaurants so that we can all taste a larger gamut of goods!

*Photo courtesy of University City District

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