Judging from the yawning young crowds that sauntered up to the line already forming along the sidewalk at East Norris and Tulip Streets one recent Sunday, the smell of huevos rancheros and freshly made creamed chipped beef had wafted from Ida Mae's kitchen through bedroom windows far across Fishtown. A half-hour wait for us at 10 a.m. suddenly seemed like a pretty good deal.
Ida's chef and co-owner, Mary Kate McCaughey, always knew she wanted a "bruncherie" because of the sense of community that morning meal taps. And she's a local, having grown up in Port Richmond and Fishtown, where as a girl she used to buy penny candy at the grocery Ida's eventually replaced.
That corner space, most recently a coffee shop, was transformed by Mary Kate's husband, Feargus McCaughey, into a charmingly cozy cafe, with a bustling counterside grill in front, and a rear dining room that feels like a well-kept parlor, with stained-glass windows, wooden banquettes, arty photos, and granite cafe tables.
Those seats hum to capacity on weekends. And though our mellow mop-topped waiter could have moved with more pep (and remembered the water, o.j., and cutlery), the kitchen works like a well-buttered machine (about a pound of it goes into the creamed chipped beef).
McCaughey knows the magic of brunch, having worked in neo-diners like the original Silk City and Sam's Morning Glory, where the funky brunch really found its South Philly groove. And with a commitment to local ingredients and fresh cooking tinged with a distinct Irish brogue (thanks to Irish-born Feargus), Ida Mae's has crafted itself a menu with a distinct emerald flair that has an appeal all week long.
The fluffy buttermilk pancakes, made with a recipe from Feargus' mom, were all the better with blueberries. And in addition to the authentic meats on the hearty Irish breakfast - the rasher bacon and banger sausage - the soft soda and potato breads were griddled fresh by Feargus, once a baker's apprentice in Belfast.
McCaughey, who has also cooked at Standard Tap and Royal Tavern, doesn't limit her inspiration to Ireland. She turned out a tasty parmesan from grilled chunks of heirloom eggplants grown in Lancaster. Her "black Russian," a cornucopia of fresh sprouts and veggies gratineed beneath Swiss over toasted pumpernickel, is an homage to her Silk City days. McCaughey also makes an excelente huevos rancheros over house-fried tortilla chips, good black beans, and tangy tomatillo salsa streaked with avocado coulis.
I doubt many expected anything streaked with coulis to fly in Fishtown, a traditionally blue-collar neighborhood weaned on the $1.75 breakfast special. But the gentrifying mood has embraced the notion that better ingredients cooked with care could be worth $5 to $10 a plate, for breakfast or lunch.
Whether Fishtown is ready for the more recently opened Ida's at Night, its New American menu running $15 to $25 an entree, is another question altogether. I hope it is. The neighborhood already has a number of other worthy dinner options, from Italians like Bistro Julianna and nearby Modo Mio to Hot Potato Cafe and the Mediterranean tapas bar Johnny Brenda's. But Ida's nighttime chef, Barbara Scott, a New Orleans native and vet of the Miami scene, is cooking Fishtown's most ambitious fare.
Her tuna tartare, with wonton chips and a sriracha aioli, glistens with a soy marinade that rings with ginger, citrus and lemongrass. The mussels are among the best I've eaten recently, splashed with Yards saison ale and lit with cuminy chorizo. The crabcakes are classic, sweet and pure with a red froth of pureed peppers. Her romaine salad, a stack of upturned hearts pooling with fresh buttermilk dressing scattered with apple-smoked bacon and tomatoes, is an artful update on the wedge.
Scott's entrees were the epitome of elegantly updated comforts. A tender pork chop came over bacon-braised greens and a sweet potato-apple cake beneath brandied jus. Griggstown turkey meatloaf gained depth and sweetness from shiitakes and caramelized onions. An incredibly moist chicken breast shouted the zest of cherry peppers and its herby marinade.
There were some let-downs - a mushroom tagliatelle with chewy, stuck-together pasta; an overly acidic shrimp risotto; a dry bread pudding amid a handful of so-so desserts.
But the successes more than compensated. A big slab of tender, spice-rubbed ribeye, with chile-studded polenta and smoked onion mustard cream, was well worth $25. The thick triangles of tempura-fried tofu, meanwhile, were so juicy in their gingered Asian sauce, it was like eating a prime rib of soy.
Considerably more subtle, but equally satisfying, was a Celtic bouillabaisse called "coddle" that brought a generous bowl of seafood steeped in a lightly creamed wine broth with leeks and Irish bacon.
A fitting echo to McCaughey's Irish-themed brunch, it's proof that Ida Mae's is now feeding Fishtown's soul, morning and night.
Next week, restaurant critic Craig LaBan eats at Memdee's Restaurant in Southwest Philadelphia. Contact him at email@example.com.