Philadelphia's Chinatown does not have a definitive go-to restaurant. I have now lived an hour from the action, (in South Jersey), for twenty-seven years. The overwhelming majority of my friends, neighbors, co-workers and clientele here are from the greater Philly area. So, I find it interesting that none of them ritually go there.
Their lack of enthusiasm was made clear in 1991. My wife Sue and I decided to include dinner in Chinatown during a planned visit to Philadelphia. When I scoured my connections for recommendations, I found it strange that my Philly peeps didn't have a universal a favorite.
At that time, I was only at my current job for a short time. It was shocking that with so many co-workers being former residents of the city of brotherly love, no one could help me. The one decent suggestion I got directed me to an Asian supervisor named Foo.
Foo and I were strangers because we had never worked directly together. So when I approached this quiet, anemic-looking man, I had no idea what to expect. He was about five years older than me but up close, he looked much older. I could see his unhealthy, frail body and wan complexion made him look like Dracula jonesing to take a bite out of a jugular. The situation became awkward when I noticed that his name tag was spelled P-H-U-C. When he saw me hesitating during my introduction he said, "Just call me Foo."
Through broken English, he was receptive to helping me. On the back of his business card, he scribbled a detailed map. Unfortunately, I soon realized that I inadvertently stumbled onto a code for something different from directions to a restaurant.FOO CONCENTRATED ON RACE STREET BETWEEN 9th AND 10th STREET.
When the map was finished he looked me in the eye and said, "You want *f***y, f***y or drugs?" *(Please note, his exact quote was adding a "y" to the end of the "f" word...twice). I was in shock and said, "Neither. I want to take my wife to dinner." Angrily he said, "Food? You just want f*****g food. It no matter where you eat!" I was disturbed by this verbal exchange and lost my urge to eat there for a long time.
Three years later, my son Andrew was born. When he was four, we started a series of father-son day trips to Philadelphia. We specialized in museums, most notably; the Franklin Institute, The Academy of Natural Sciences and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.WHEN ANDREW WAS NINE, I SHOT A CUTE VIDEO OF HIM RUNNING UP THE ART MUSEUM'S "ROCKY" STEPS AS I HUMMED THE THEME MUSIC.
ESTABLISHED IN 1858, THE MUTTER IS NOW PART OF THE PHILADELPHIA PHYSICIANS COLLEGE. http://www.muttermuseum.com/ IT'S LOCATED IN CENTER CITY AT 19 SOUTH 22nd STREET, NEAR THE OTHER MUSEUMS I CITED ABOVE.
I mentioned the idea of this trip to Andrew and he said, "Okay. But only if I can bring a friend." After the particulars of the outing were ironed-out with TEAROOF, his friend's mom, I had the go ahead.
Both boys were bright and mature for their age. So seeing a collection of skulls, the intestines of the "Human Balloon" and the remains of the "Soap Lady," didn't adversely affect the two youths. To my surprise they also handled seeing the malignant tumor from President Grover Cleveland's palate, tissue from John Wilkes Booth's thorax and a section of Charles J. Guiteau's brain, (President James Garfield's assassin). After ninety minutes, we were close to seeing everything. That's when we entered a long hall that featured the skeleton of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. This display also included tons of present days photos of conjoined twins. It was at that point that Andrew was selected to inform me that he and his buddy had seen enough. He tip-toed around the fact that they were freaked-out by the conjoined twins and concentrated his argument on being bored and hungry. He closed his statement with this quote, "Is it okay if we go now?"
We bought a couple of Mutter souvenirs at the gift shop before leaving. On the way to my car, I had the Siamese twins' skeleton on my mind so I suggested lunch in Chinatown. Both boys agreed. The short drive was punctuated by a prolonged battle for a parking space. It was a beautiful day so the eventual ten block walk was no big deal. When we reached our journey's end, we found several restaurants on every street. We were wandering around when the boys sensed that I still didn't have a clue where to go. That when they pressed their nose against the window of a crumby cheese steak joint.
WITH THE BEN FRANKLIN BRIDGE IN THE BACKGROUND, SOMEWHERE HIDDEN IN THIS SEA OF ORIENTAL RESTAURANTS AND SPECIALTY SHOPS, IS HAPPY HARRY'S HOAGIE HOUSE, (THESE DAYS, WE KIDDINGLY REFER TO IT AS, "HAPPY HARRY'S HORIZONTAL HAMBURGER HUT."
Andrew and his friend ordered meatball subs and French fries. I was tempted to run next door for some traditional Szechuan cuisine but I settled for acutely bad pizza. So that makes Happy Harry's, the best restaurant I have ever eaten in, in Philly's Chinatown...sort of.