It's a repeating phenomenon that has spawned quite the pub circuit below the Washington Avenue equator, from the pioneering South Philly Tap Room to P.O.P.E. (Pub on Passyunk East) to the new Tap Room on 19th (at Ritner), where the serious crab fries (with actual crab) would make Chickie's cry "uncle."
There is an intimacy and quirky personality to Lucky 13, though, that sets this 55-seater apart. That's due in large measure to affable owner Clark Newman, 44, a chatty veteran bartender who invested two decade's worth of saved tips (Grape Street Pub; Le Bus; Magnolia Cafe) to craft his own cockpit for "good conversations." And this slice of 13th Street just north of East Passyunk has been clearly shaped in his own image, from the vintage Philly baseball memorabilia behind the small front bar to favorite record covers on the wall (Nirvana; Led Zeppelin; David Bowie), the retro Ms. Pacman machine chirping hungrily in the back dining room, and even the bawdy schoolboy pinups in the men's room, now known as "Clark's Happy Place." (A ladies'-room theme, apparently, is in the works.)
It is chef Benjamin Johnson, though, Newman's fedora-topped compadre in the kitchen, who puts Lucky 13 on the map of gastropubs that are worth heading to for dinner. Like the pub's smart beer selection (five taps and 20 bottles), his affordable menu is concise but distinctive, with cheeky twists on familiar flavors, from "deconstructed" meatballs to sausage and peppers gone exotic.
"Punk-rock grandma cooking" is how Johnson characterizes his creative take on comfort classics, which may not be a surprising angle from a chef who grew up at a West Philly commune and whose rebellious streak even extends to the conventional white toques he shuns in favor of "nicer lids" such as a bowler or Panama.
With a background in serious kitchens, from Odeon to TreeTops, Buddakan and Plough & the Stars, Johnson has the skills and palate to back his attitude. The "deconstructed" meatball sandwich was meant to be a parody of one of the more precious culinary trends in recent years. But his version, which brings a bowl of stellar meatballs (sparked with locatelli, garlic, and lots of parsley) bobbing in a bright marinara beside garlic toasts gratineed with fresh Mancuso mozzarella, has become Lucky 13's signature dish, ready to slice and eat bit-by-bit like an open-faced meatball parmesan.
Spicy merguez lamb sausage from Sonny D'Angelo (like all the meats here) simmers in zesty white-wine-and-tomatoes over freshly minted couscous, lending an exotic kick to another South Philly classic. The "hot legs" stay with the Mediterranean theme, with tender chicken thighs (the latest recession-menu darling) in a lemony Greek tomato braise piqued with olives and cinnamon stick.
At no more than $13 a dish, Johnson doesn't have much leeway (nor the urge, frankly) to get fancy. But he does a fine job of getting the most out of his ingredients. The crab cake, for example, uses less-expensive backfin and claw meat instead of lump, but the creamy filling inside this crispy-fried disk has had one of the more-vivid crab flavors I've tasted inside a cake in a while - especially against a chilled Bloody Mary cocktail sauce spiked with both heat and vodka.
Big, sweet Mexican wild shrimp, meanwhile, show some fusion finesse, deftly fried inside an airy tempura batter speckled with two-toned sesame seeds and streaked with sweet-and-tangy orange gastrique. (As I said, this old bar didn't forget to put the gastro in gastropub.)
Johnson, who once worked at an Indian restaurant, even makes an impressive samosa, with a potato-pea filling so vividly seasoned with garlic and whole cumin and coriander seeds inside a delicate homemade crust that he can be forgiven the sacrilege of shaping them as beggar's purses instead of as triangles.
The menu isn't without a few dim spots. The Middle Eastern platter muffed on probably the easiest dishes to make, with a pulpy and bland baba ghanoush and a thin hummus marred by crunchy bits. The "chicken paillard," the open-faced chicken-parmesan equivalent of the deconstructed meatball, wasn't as evenly pounded or as crisply fried as I might have liked. The risotto primavera was also just a bit too thick and busy with colorful veggie add-ins for my taste. But half the pleasure was hearing our lavishly pierced, tattooed, and goth-painted bartendrix/waitress quite deftly describe the risotto's Milan-style saffron flourish: I'd order it again.
Lucky 13's charm is its ability to constantly exceed expectations. I expect Johnson to nail a trendy comfort-food update like mac-and-cheese - and he does, with a crock of penne broiled into an ivory web of molten white cheddar, locatelli, and cream that was destined to be devoured.
But how would Johnson handle a tricky Southern dish like fried catfish with crawfish? Or, perhaps even more doubtful, could he make me actually like a tempeh sandwich?
The well-traveled Johnson, 40, who also spent time in Atlanta working at a vegetarian restaurant (Homage), delivered once again on both counts. The fried catfish was spot-on fresh, its crispy cornmeal crust scattered with spicy sauteed crawfish and dabbed with an exotic tartar sauce herbed with mint and cilantro and tinged yellow with turmeric. The tempeh, meanwhile, which came sandwiched with caramelized onions and sprouts inside a rustic roll, had a deep, savory-sweet intensity to its soy-glazed patty, a surprising moistness and balance of textures that was both meaty and satisfying. It's called the "Ace of Spades," which sounds like a lucky card to land.
At Lucky 13, however, where the craft beers and fun eats are as reliably colorful as the hipster crowd, there's rarely an unlucky dish in the deck.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Fork in Old City. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.