Philadelphia

Pat's cheesesteak

Seeing as how the Eagles won the Super Bowl, it’s high time for me to finally do a post on Philly. We spent a few days there before New Year’s, planning our travel around two concerts by Dark Star Orchestra, a Grateful Dead cover band, at Electric Factory–a very cool venue (more on that in a bit).

I can’t write about Philly and not mention cheesesteaks. When we rolled into town with our trusty red Jeep, we went straight to the feuding corridor of Pat’s and Geno’s. (The streets, by the way, are ridiculously narrow in this part of town, so you’ll need luck and patience finding parking.) These two rivals for “best Philly cheesesteak” have snaking lines even at off-meal hours. I think we showed up around 2:30 p.m. and chose the one that had the shortest line because we were hungry and wanted the least wait time. Pat’s won out, and right when we got into line, more and more people started trailing us. Mind you, it was below freezing out, so you really had to want a cheesesteak to be standing out there (and the only seating is outside), but there we were with the other folks who had to have a celebrated bite of Philly. Luckily, we only waited a few minutes because the people behind the counter are efficient. Our cheesesteaks were ready quickly, and we partook of the spicy, sour peppers at the fixings bar. We walked away with our cheesesteaks and drove to our hotel, where we ate our cheesesteaks in the dining room while waiting for our room to be prepared.

As for how the cheesesteak tasted, this might be sacrilegious, but I didn’t think they were that great. There’s more hype than flavor, it seems to me. I chowed mine down because I was hungry–but I wanted more cheese and more steak!

Philadelphia Independence Hall

Philadelphia holds a lot of U.S. history, so you’ve got to visit the venerable sites of the founding fathers. We saw the excellent HBO series “John Adams,” so I felt more connected to the place having this story in mind. You can tour Independence Hall where the founding fathers hashed out the foundation of a new nation. The Liberty Bell is right across the street. It was another freezing day, with snow, when we were there, yet there was a long line to get into the museum. You’ve got to see the one and only Liberty Bell, though, so try to be patient. There are a lot of museums around Independence Hall. We ended up wandering into a sort of carpenters museum, where they showed old tools and furniture that was made during the time of the Revolution.

Liberty Bell

After visiting the Independence Hall area, we walked to Reading Terminal Market, by the Convention Center. Initially, I was excited. Our first stop was a cheesemonger, where we tasted and bought some local cheeses. You really can taste when an animal is grass fed from the cheese it produces. There’s a wonderful herbaceousness to the flavor. Our plan had been to eat lunch at Reading, but it was too crowded to be comfortable. The cheesemonger said the crowd was relatively light for the day, but it was too much for us, so we walked a few blocks to Chinatown. The restaurant we settled on, as is typical of Chinatown restaurants around the world, was grungy looking, but the meal was impressive. We ordered crispy duck that was tender, with a skin that had a beautiful crunch and all that delicious duck fat layered beneath. The duck was served with a big plate of large, pillowy baos to make little sandwiches. Yum.

Electric Factory Philadelphia

In the evenings, we walked to Electric Factory, a venue that reminded me of a high-school gym, crossed with a theater. I love the design of this venue. It’s in a quiet part of town, and it looks like a warehouse from the outside, and when you walk in, there are a few vendors, including a local coffee company that I hit up to try to stay awake during the performance. Bordering the back of the mosh pit are tiers of bleacher seating, where we sat. There’s also balcony seating, and there are bars on both levels. There are cool electric blue lights hanging from the ceiling, and the venue is big enough to feel like it’s a party, but small enough to feel intimate.

I didn’t know what to expect from Dark Star Orchestra. I’ve become a Grateful Dead fan, but I’d never seen Dark Orchestra play before, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be bored or entertained. Fortunately, I found the experience to be the latter. These guys are technically proficient, and they put on a good show. They don’t skimp you either–the shows ran at least 3 hours the two nights we showed up. The band plays specific set lists from past Grateful Dead concerts, so you can really geek out if you’re into the Dead. Dark Star Orchestra played a rousing rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” the second night, which really got me going. These guys can play. I always like to focus on the guitarists because I play guitar, and the lead guitarist has undeniable chops. I recommend seeing this band. If you can catch them at Electric Factory, even better; a psychedelic Ben Franklin stares at you from the side of the building as you approach the entrance, part ironic hipster and part historic icon.