Philadelphia is a great food city known for its soft pretzels, water ice, and the iconic cheesesteak. If you ever want to start a lively debate between Philadelphians (other than sports), ask the question who makes the best cheesesteak, and you will realize in less than ten minutes how serious we are about our food.
I grew up in Central Jersey and moved to Philadelphia in 1988 to attend Temple University. One of the places that at once became a part of my Philly food adventures was the Reading Terminal Market.
Reading Terminal Market is a public historic market that is well recognized as a Philadelphia culinary destination. More than 100 vendors are offering local and exotic products—bringing flavors to residents and visitors of Philadelphia from around the world together.
Their mission is to preserve historic features while also supplying a diverse range of products (including meat, fish, baked goods, and dairy), as well as other raw and natural materials supplied by farmers, producers, and chefs to a public market in the city center. The market aspires to preserve a climate that recognizes and embraces Philadelphia's diversity, as well as to strengthen the history of rural and urban communities and their mutual reliance. Reading Terminal is the place to go if you want to try different foods that are authentic to the Pennsylvania region while also enjoying world cuisine.
Two things are needed, you must have a lot of free time and an adventurous palate. Another great thing about Reading Terminal is that you don't have to spend a fortune, make a reservation, or get dressed up. All you need is a strong appetite and a positive attitude.
Where does one begin in such a culinary paradise? First, get a sense of the terrain. The terminal provides tourists and newcomers with a map to help them navigate the area. Before I narrow down my options, I, like all foodies, like to see what my choices are and what specials are being offered. This way, I can make an educated decision.
The market is divided into two sections: fresh grocers and prepared foods. I recommend that you focus on the prepared food first, so that you are nourished before you get your goodies. So, let's go on a tasty food adventure with some of my favorite vendors.
We may be in Philadelphia, but we're still in Pennsylvania, which means there can't be a farmer's market without the Amish. Beiler's Doughnuts arrives. They are one of several Amish stands selling goods at the terminal.
Beiler's Doughnuts (and adjacent bakery) has been owned and run by the same Amish family for multiple generations. Using a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch recipe, they offer over 30 different types of hand-rolled doughnuts made fresh daily. The standard flavors (glazed, cinnamon sugar, old fashioned) will always be reliable classics, but it's the specialty flavors (Vanilla Fruity Pebbles, Harvest Apple, Oreo Crème) that take Beiler's to the next level. I also love their pumpkin and cinnamon breads.
Next up on my list of faves is Pearl’s Oyster Bar. If you love seafood, Pearl’s Oyster Bar is a must. Established in 1981, Pearl's Oyster Bar serves both raw and fried oysters alongside fried platters of flounder, clam strips, and shrimp. They also have a delightful brunch menu that includes French toast with bacon and banana, crab cakes benedict, seared scallops with quinoa, oyster sliders, and insanely popular fish tacos.
Because I am Brazilian, the food at Loco Lucho's Latino Kitchen reminds me a lot of home. El Jibaro is a popular item on their menu. This sandwich is made up of giant deep-fried plantain patties that replace a traditional bun to hold layers of pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles together. As a result, the salty-sweet fruit starch, combined with the pork, dairy, and plant flavors, results in a delicious sandwich that is elevated in both taste and presentation.
Because Philadelphia has a sizable Caribbean population, it's only natural that a Caribbean food stand should be present at the market, and Careda's Caribbean Cuisine is a sure bet. Rasta pasta, jerk meatballs, curried crab legs, dumplings, and beef liver are among the newer additions to the menu, which also includes traditional jerk chicken and Mac and cheese.
The Hoagie, which can be found alongside cheesesteaks at Carmen's Famous Italian Hoagies and Cheesesteaks, is another Philadelphia institution. Let's get one thing straight: a Hoagie and a sub are not the same thing. A harder roll is used, and your roll is split rather than separated top to bottom, with your choice of meats and cheese on a mayonnaise base, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper on top. In Philadelphia, calling a hoagie a sub is a sure-fire way to get yelled at. Carmen's Famous Italian Hoagies and Cheesesteaks serves some of the best. I prefer their hoagies, but if you're visiting from out of town, their cheesesteak is adequate. The issue for me is that they offer cheesesteaks with bacon, pepperoni, and even a vegetarian option, which is simply outrageous. A tasty meatball sandwich topped with parmesan cheese is also a good choice.
A haven of tranquility called Lynnette’s tea shop (Tea Leaf) invites you to take a break if you want a relaxing alternative to the crowds of the market. Wooden shelves display containers of tea from all over the world, which you can take home or have brewed for you there. The shop has many different teas to choose from, depending on whether you prefer light and bright or deep and rich. Earl gray, caffeine-free and peach-free ginger, old pu-erh, toasted genmaicha, black tea flavored with passion fruits, and fine scented green tea powder are among the selections. And if you’re feeling daunted by all of the options, the staff is eager to help you narrow it down so you can make an informed decision. There is also a short counter with a few stools to help create a meeting place or an escape.
Herbiary is another peaceful haven. Philadelphia, like many other cities, has a punishing pace. Nothing beats coming home and taking a relaxing bath to wash away the stress or having some oils to help you meditate. Herbiary sells items to help you create your own spa experience. From soap, incense, and bulk teas to essential oils, botanicals, and ointments, you can find all kinds of natural beauty and health goods tucked away in every corner and opening of this urban pharmacy. Check out their book selection for herbal healing, foraging, gardening, and to learn about natural medicines. If you are unsure where to begin, the team is more than willing to assist you.
Last but not least, Reading Terminal Market is an excellent source of fresh produce, cheese, and seafood. Philadelphia, like many other major cities, suffers from food shortages, but the terminal combats this by supplying fresh produce at a reasonable price. John Yi Fish Market, Downtown Cheese, and OK Produce are the three vendors you should visit.
As you read this, you may be wondering if you can get a beer or wine at the terminal. Yes, to both questions. Molly Malloy's is a pub in the back of the market where you can get some pub food, watch a game, and have a cold one. Every day at 4 p.m., they have a happy hour. When it comes to wine and liquor, you have two options. The state-run store (liquor is sold in Pennsylvania at state-run stores) on 12th Street, directly next to the terminal, or one of the newest additions to the terminal, Pennsylvania Libations. They only sell and promote Pennsylvania-produced spirits, wines, ciders, meads, and beers.
There are endless options at Reading Terminal Market, and if you're new to Philly, I recommend making this a part of your food exploration and visiting often. All of the businesses in the market are small businesses and deserving of your support. Stop by if you're on vacation or attending a conference across the street at the Convention Center. Make a lunch date with some friends if you attend one of the city's many universities. I guarantee you will not be sorry.
Reading Terminal Market is unique in that there is always something new to discover. I've lived here for over 20 years, and I don't think I've eaten at every stand, but that's part of the fun of the market. Every time you go, you have a new adventure.
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Kathia Woods is an entertainment journalist specializing in film and television. She is also a business owner and the founder of CupofSoulShow.com. Her website focuses on art created by African Americans, Black people, Latinos, and women. She recently started writing for the Philadelphia Tribune as contributor. She is a member of the Critics’ Choice, AAFCA, and AWFJ organizations. She is a Temple University graduate with a BA in Political Science.