You may be asking yourself what culinary expertise I have to take on this monumental and long-overdue task. Please stop asking. I'm going to do it anyway.
Typical restaurant reviews grade on criteria such as atmosphere, service and taste. For Reading Terminal, that would be a waste of precious time that could be spent eating more food at Reading Terminal.
The place already has the greatest atmosphere in the Northern Hemisphere (only because I have never been to the southern one). Just about every stand will dish out your food in well under 10 minutes. And delicious does not begin to describe any of these restaurants.
To solve the criteria problem, I used a different rating system. If, after the first bite, I exclaimed to the bewildered guy sitting next to me, "This tastes better than heaven!" the restaurant made the top third. If I yelled to a frightened waitress, "This tastes like heaven!" it made the middle third. If I announced to the security guard, "Hmmm . . . tastes like purgatory . . ., " it was in the bottom third.
I also created two categories, one for meals and one for desserts and other stuff. To further distinguish among them, I used my man's intuition - I think that exists.
Bon appétit, which is French for something.
1. Dutch Eating Place
There was a long line on that fateful day, but I was the only solo in line, so the kind waitress in Amish garb quickly found me a spot. Everything on the menu looked like it could fill the soul with happiness, but the chicken pot pie grabbed hold of me and, for the next transcendent half-hour, it did not let go.
It was like thick chicken soup on a plate, so chock-full of veggies and chicken that it almost made me wish I lived in Lancaster. If you can make just one stop between Filbert, Arch, 11th and 12th streets, stop here. As if to tease us, Dutch Eating Place is only open Wednesday through Saturday. Fortunately, lots of the good stuff below is open six or seven days a week.
2. Dinner's Bar-B-Q Chicken
A cruel cartoon at the counter depicts live chickens watching dead ones roasting. The caption reads, "Horror movie." If that makes you want to become a vegan, take a bite of a Dienner's wing. You'll be right back on a healthy and fulfillingly carnivorous path.
The wings are not fried - more like roasted - but they are burnt to such an impossibly tasty crisp in Dienner's super-cool (I mean hot) ovens that they seem fried.
I got a superb Italian hoagie in a town that's known for them, and I couldn't have been happier. The roasted peppers that lined the hoagie soon lined my stomach, and life was good.
I ate this meal at my desk in the Center City office building where I was interning. Within about 10 minutes, a co-worker asked me for Reading Terminal recommendations and another wanted to go there with me. It's something, how popular a hoagie can make you.
4. Down Home Diner
The Down Home Diner has a lot of chutzpah. It dares to be a separate restaurant within the hodgepodge of Reading Terminal. Since the food is so satisfying, it's more than welcome to stay.
Dining alone, I sat at the retro counter. On my left, a guy typed away on a laptop. On my right, a misguided fellow who clearly had no idea where he was ordered a lettuce-and-tomato sandwich.
The menu item called "Big Fat Cheeseburger" matched my twin goals of becoming big and fat. Two burgers with one stone. I became neither big nor fat, but the lettuce, tomato, onion and ketchup-topped burger was superb. The thin, crispy fries were also spectacular. An added bonus: glass Coke bottles. Polar bears sold separately.
5. Herschel's East Side
I stepped off the train at Market East one morning and realized that if I walked west instead of east, I could do breakfast at Reading Terminal. It was a joyous insight, indeed.
I walked to the center of the market and found Herschel's. I was probably one of the first customers of the day. Well, the early bird gets the worm. Or a bagel, nova and cream cheese. Lots of nova, just the way I like it, and one of the best bagels I've ever tried.
P.S. That stands for Pastrami Sandwich, which is also very good here.
6. Pearl's Oyster Bar
I typically chose my daily Reading Terminal restaurant by walking around and listening for the place that called out my name. The guy at Pearl's always screamed the loudest.
A meal at Pearl's Oyster Bar is a lesson in the fine kindergarten art of cooperation. Free bowls of yummy oyster crackers adorn every table, but they must be shared. As I sipped one of my favorite Reading Terminal dishes, Pearl's clam chowder, I reached over the guy next to me for more and more oyster crackers. He was happy to share.
I was just perfecting the art of rudely reaching across this stranger when the waitress noticed and gave me my very own bowl of oyster crackers. Did I say waitress? I meant guardian angel.
7. Olympic Gyro
I've had very little Greek food in my life, so I may not be the right person to judge a gyro. But the word "Olympic" was right there in the name, so it seemed authentic. It sure tasted good. The gyro contained salad, sauce and very greasy meat, and it was easy to eat on the go. Not that you would want to go.
This one was hard to rank because comparing gyros to, say, clam chowder is like comparing apples and oranges, except that apples and oranges are both fruits. Gyros and clam chowder don't fall into any of the same categories - unless "mmmm" is on the food pyramid.
8. Hatville Deli
After seizing a package of the world's greatest beef jerky, I was ready to declare my meal perfect. Then I realized that there were two sides to Hatville Deli - the deli where I got my beef jerky and the restaurant, which I still needed to conquer.
Two large posters decorated the restaurant side: the menu and a ginormous (welcome to the dictionary, buddy) picture of an allegedly famous corned beef sandwich. Take a guess which one caught my attention faster.
As sure as my name is Reading Terminal, I mean Ben Zauzmer, I ordered that corned beef on rye with Russian dressing. Both the sandwich (yum!) and the side of homemade potato chips (yum, again!) were Heroic And Totally, Veritably, Indescribably Lovely Little Enchantments. (See if you can find the hidden message - it's fun and educational.)
9. Nanee's Kitchen
I only know of one other nanny, and she was "practically perfect in every way." She was only practically perfect because she did not make awesome Indian-Pakistani food. My Nanee does, and lots of it.
I boldly walked up to the unassuming Nanee's Kitchen, with its four seats and one worker, presumably Nanee herself. I know about as much about Indian food as most people know about math and science, according to the latest statistics. So I asked Nanee which of the three types of kabobs was best. She scooped up a bit of each on a plate for me. I pointed to the one I wanted, with rice, juicy chicken and various spicy sauces. It was perfect in every way.
10. Franks A-Lot
I trust Wikipedia almost as much as I do Albus Dumbledore. So I was horrified to read on the Web site that the term "hot dog" may have come from sausage makers using cheap dog meat instead of beef.
Fortunately, I learned this after I ate at Franks A-Lot. I took a large bite of a ketchup-, mustard-, relish- and onion-topped hot dog, and it rocked. I can assure you that man's best friend was not in my dog. But if my fun Wikipedia fact scared you, there is a lot of other food to try at Franks.
For those of you 21 and older, Franks is right next to the Beer Garden, where I assume alcoholic beverages grow on shrubs.
11. Coastal Cave
I know what it's like to run a marathon. "But Ben," my gym teacher would protest, "there is no way you've run a marathon." Sadly, my gym teacher would be correct. I have not mastered 26 miles, but I have eaten at 40 Reading Terminal Market places - over a marathon and a half.
Philadelphians, celebrate with me however you like to celebrate, whether it's playing the "Rocky" theme, high-fiving the Phillie Phanatic, or bribing a corrupt public official.
Coastal Cave, with its delicious Cajun fishcake and mouthwatering New England clam chowder, was the last restaurant I visited to complete my eating marathon. I ordered a cup of soup; it tasted like victory.
12. Golden Bowl
My dad doesn't eat to live, he lives to eat. I was delighted to have him come along for my Chinese Food Day at Reading Terminal. This was our first stop. We got the garlic shrimp with rice, veggies and a zesty mystery sauce that raised this meal to greater heights and made my day.
The chopsticks brought that shrimp to my mouth as quickly as bees swarm to a flower. Except, shrimp do not sting, and I do not have petals.
13. Sang Kee Peking Duck
I asked the woman at the counter how much Peking duck was enough for lunch. Following her sage advice, I ordered a half-pound, along with a cup of wonton soup. The soup was unreal, flavored with some spice I couldn't pronounce even if I took courses. Man, was it good.
The duck was cut to order. That is, as the words "half-pound" left my mouth, a big man with a bigger knife slashed off exactly one half-pound of duck. If I could weigh things with my eyes like he did, I couldn't think of a higher calling than chopping this tender, succulent duck. Something tells me that other vendors at Reading Terminal don't get this fellow mad.
14. Little Thai Market
Say the following sentence 1,000 times, as fast as your tongue allows: "What do you want to order?" Congratulations, you have completed your training to work at Little Thai Market.
The woman who has that job speaks so quickly that her mouth doesn't move, it merely blurs. Once I understood what she was asking me, I randomly selected the pork loin entrée, topped off with a blueberry soda that I was delighted to learn existed. The pork had a melt-in-your-mouth quality. I am so proud of myself for resisting the urge to joke about eating loin.
I was minding my own business, happily eating my gigantic pulled-pork sandwich, when the lady on my left turned toward me. Let's call her "Bobbie," because that was her name.
Bobbie asked me if I had ever been to DiNic's before and was so shocked when I told her I hadn't. A minute later, just as I was wondering how they made the pork taste so delectable, Bobbie read my mind. "You know," she said, "they make the meat the day before and let it marinate overnight." Wow, I thought, she must know everything.
After Bobbie left, a young man wearing all black, even black gloves, took her spot next to me. "Where are you from?" he asked. "Montgomery County," I said. "That's my least favorite county," he replied.
After a long, awkward pause, my curiosity got the better of me. "Why?" I asked.
"I was locked up there for two years," he responded.
It was time for me to go.
16. The Rib Stand
After having so much success at Dutch Eating Place and Dienner's, I was thrilled to go to yet another Amish spot. There are two meals to order at the Rib Stand: the sandwich or the ribs. I asked the woman behind the counter which one was better. "Well," she said, "do you want a sandwich or do you want ribs?" It's questions like these that keep me up at night.
Along with a pretty good sandwich, lunch included standard macaroni and cheese and awesome potato wedges. I also enjoyed watching four kids have a food fight right at my table. Some days you just get lucky.
17. By George! Pizza, Pasta & Cheesesteaks
I wonder if there is a connection between the phrases "brick-oven pizza" and "getting hit over the head with a ton of bricks." Because, when I first tasted By George's brick-oven pizza with thick, spicy tomato sauce, that's how I felt. It was that powerful.
18. Shanghai Gourmet
Part two of Chinese Food Day with Dad. To complement the shrimp from Golden Bowl, we ordered something with beef here. Let's call this combo "Western Pacific Ocean Surf-n-Turf." OK, maybe that doesn't have such a great ring to it, but the turf dish was scrumptious.
It featured a mystery sauce even more mystifying, though less tasty than Golden Bowl's. The crunchy, sauce-covered veggies were spectacular, and that's coming from a typical, vegetable-hating kid. Typical, that is, until I anointed myself a food critic.
19. Carmen's Famous Italian Hoagies & Cheese-steaks
This was Sandwich Day with Dad. I was glad on the few occasions he joined me at the Terminal, because I knew he would finish anything I couldn't and still have plenty of room for a chocolate dessert.
We stood in a long line at Carmen's, watching the workers make the cheesesteaks, then the hoagies. To our horror, the hoagie maker threw away a good chunk of bread at the end of each hoagie.
Slice and trash, slice and trash, like clockwork. Such a waste of precious resources.
Carmen's saved enough bread to make an above-average Italian hoagie with plenty of meat, cheese and extras. As if to authenticate the Italiano-ness (that's Italian for "Italian") of the Italian hoagie, an Italian couple started talking to the Italian-American worker right before our eyes.
Rome wasn't built in a day, but Spataro's makes many cheesesteaks and hoagies in a day. Which is more impressive? Regardless, when I went to Spataro's, I came, I saw, and I conquered a cheesesteak.
This happened to be one of the days when my Dad came along, so I tried some of his hoagie. For only the third time in my life (but who's counting?), I had ordered wrong. The hoagie was better than Carmen's, but the cheese-steak was only so-so.
They placed slices of cheese, not Cheez Whiz, on top of the meat, so the cheese and steak never really mixed. I would like to rename Spataro's cheesesteak the cheese-and-steak. Now I just have to find a break-in artist who has a talent for menu graffiti.
21. The Original Turkey
Let's all pretend it's the first Thanksgiving. We, the settlers, haven't started attacking Native Americans en masse. We're eating things like deer with guys named Squanto and Massasoit. We have no idea that 200-plus years down the road, a bunch of turkey farmers will selfishly and falsely declare that turkey was in fact the main course at our meal.
But we don't really care, because after eating at Original Turkey, if we live to be 400 years old, we will love turkey so much that we will ignore that little white lie.
22. Wan's Seafood
Wan's cooks know that you can't wait for their fried seafood, so they give you a choice of cole slaw or macaroni salad to eat while the minutes pass. I asked for macaroni salad. They gave me cole slaw. As I ate and waited, I watched the cooking process with amazement.
About half the fish in the ocean lay on the counter, coated in flour. When I asked for a crab-cake sandwich - they forgot the sandwich part - two beautiful-looking crab cakes were thrown into the fryer. They gave me no silverware, so I dove right into my ambrosial crab cakes with the original utensils: hands.
23. Tokyo Sushi Bar
What's black and white and red all over? My white-and-red sushi at Tokyo Sushi Bar, by the time I was done with it. While there were directions on the chopsticks, there were none on the soy sauce. I got the salty stuff all over myself and the counter before I realized that I shouldn't have taken off the cap.
My troubles didn't stop there. Have you ever thought to yourself, "Self, why don't I shove a lot of that green gook into my mouth and digest it until it becomes a part of who I am?" I put a huge chunk of wasabi in my mouth, probably on the taste bud that is most sensitive to spicy foods.
I spent the next 10 seconds shivering, sweating and searching unsuccessfully for my drink. To be fair to the Tokyo Sushi Bar, the sushi and other raw fish were appetizing, but by the time I learned that, I could barely taste anything.
24. 12th Street Cantina
The guys at 12th Street have a pretty good gig: They operate the only Mexican place in Reading Terminal. It's an honor and a burden. A point of pride and a point of despair. A taco and a fajita.
I ordered a steak taco that came in a soft shell that was as capable of holding the tasty brown sauce as I am of holding a cloud. It was a small taco, which was a good thing, since this was the day I did By George's and Franks A-Lot. To answer your question, yes, I can be a bottomless pit if I so choose. And I so chose.
25. Kamal's Middle
When I picture a falafel, something I do daily, I picture a sandwich held together by a pita. Kamal's made me think again. The falafel came in a vat of salad, falafel balls and hummus, with the pitas on the side. It was the customer's job to assemble it, and let me tell you, this falafel was hard work. But well worth it.
The salad, falafel, humus and pita blended in my mouth as perfectly as the words "Reading," "Terminal" and "Market" do in my ear. Did someone just say "Reading Terminal Market"? Excuse me, I'm a little hungry.
26. Delilah's at the
Hey there Delilah's, what's it like eating some soul food? You have a thousand-mile-long line. I really don't mean to be rude. Yes, it's true. Hey there, Delilah's, chicken fried. I'm wide-eyed . . .
I was in a hurry at Delilah's, since I had only two places left to eat at the Terminal with just 20 minutes to spare. Unfortunately, I spent 18 of those precious minutes in line at Delilah's. The last place - Coastal Cave - would have to wait.
When I finally sat down for my two-minute feast of fried chicken, cornbread and homemade strawberry lemonade, it was not bad at all. As the descendant of Tennesseans, I can tell you that it did not compare to meals I have enjoyed made by Southerners, but if I were in the South, I wouldn't be at Reading Terminal. A fair trade-off.
27. Tootsie's Salad Express Hot & Cold Buffet
Tootsie's consists of three buffet stands in the middle of a seating area, because this place knows that the only thing better than variety is having strangers stare you down while you decide what to eat. I'm not sure why, but we will proceed in rhyme:
The rice was kinda nice. The potatoes, fat and small, were in the shape of a ball. The mashed potatoes, if you like creamy, were relatively dreamy. The mac and cheese was gooey and unfortunately chewy. Fried chicken and fried fish - neither was a favorite dish. According to my tummy, the beef ribs were very yummy. Not to be cross, but only humdrum penne with sauce. The banana- split cake may have been fake, but boy can Tootsie's bake. With a green salad I completed my feast, last but not least. Finished it all, no excuse, so here's to Dr. Seuss.
I feel awful putting these guys in last, because it wasn't bad. It's just that feta cheese on top of thick bruschetta is an acquired taste, and I have not acquired it. Next semester, I'm hoping to take a class on how to enjoy feta cheese with bruschetta. And to think they say that junior year is hard.
1. Profi's Creperie
My new favorite holiday is Free Crepe Day at Profi's Creperie. On the owner's birthday, July 29, everybody gets a free crepe. I missed out this year, but unlike Feb. 29, July 29 comes every year. If I live for 105 more years that's 105 free crepes ahead. The future looks sunny and French.
2. Beiler's Bakery
When you meet the love of your life, the world stops spinning, the birds stop singing and the burger flippers stop flipping. I know, because when I went to the counter at Beiler's Bakery, I met her. I named her "Cinnamon Bun."
3. Miller's Twist
"Let's twist again, like we did last summer!" The soft pretzel is simply a buttery piece of nirvana. As I walked through Market East chomping away, I accidentally dropped a piece the size of a quarter on the ground. I considered shedding the awful tears I felt inside, but I knew that I had to be brave for the pretzel.
4. Pennsylvania General Store
This place is tourist heaven. It sells lots of Pennsylvania stuff, from postcards of Boathouse Row to Amish quilts. If you're like me, you go straight for the food, like Hope's Cookies, which may have inspired President Obama's campaign slogan.
I can just picture our president sitting in Reading Terminal munching on a delicious cookie and thinking to himself, "Everybody needs some Hope."
5. Chocolate by Mueller
Mueller is like your favorite great-aunt's cousin-in-law. You feel a special bond even though you can't quite figure out how you're related.
I ordered a chocolate- and peanut-butter-covered pretzel, and I'm still debating which was better, the chocolate or peanut butter half. I would like to suggest this topic to the National Forensics League for its 2010 Lincoln-Douglas debate. The prize should go to whichever side gives the judges more food.
6. Bee Natural
One of the more disappointing features of a straw is its lack of substance. It only starts to bring sweet tastes to your mouth once it is placed in a drink. The kind folks at Bee Natural have found a solution to this conundrum: the honey straw - half straw, half honey.
For just 25 cents, the price of your average gumball back when I was a kid, you can have a honey straw all your own. Once you bite it open, which is no easy task, large amounts of pure honey come oozing into your mouth. Winnie the Pooh would go crazy.
7. Bassetts Ice Cream
Many consider Bassetts to be the classic end to a Reading Terminal story. Personally, I thought it was just ordinary ice cream that cost about double what should be legal.
8. Sweet as Fudge Candy Shoppe
At first I was annoyed that Sweet as Fudge spelled "Shop" with two completely unnecessary letters. Then I peeked through the window and saw the world's most impressive collection of random, packaged candies. The olde English spelling was forgiven. A hint for smart people: If you smile and ask nicely, they'll give you free fudge samples.
9. The Famous 4th Street Cookie Co.
An unprepared tourist - that is, someone who hasn't read this article - might see the word "famous" and think this was the best spot. It's not. Although I may be contradicting many food experts, 4th Street was just fair.
The chocolate chip cookie was gooey and tasteless, like in commercials where the 5-year-old breaks her cookie apart ever so slowly before eating it just to stare at the melted chocolate. I don't know about you, but when I was 5, if someone handed me a cookie fresh out of the oven, I ate it. No questions asked.
10. Flying Monkey
I was a little frightened of Flying Monkey Patisserie, because the last time I saw flying monkeys, they were helping the Wicked Witch of the West kidnap Dorothy. I was greatly relieved to see from afar that the store was run by fellow humans, and I thought my fears were over. But as I approached the counter, I saw more desserts to choose from than could possibly be chosen.
I argued with myself to the point of exhaustion. (I'm a pretty good debater, but I was no match for myself.) Then the baker put out some fresh blueberry cupcakes. Problem solved.
The cupcake was a little bland, with blueberry icing but no blueberries in the cupcake. Still, there's no place like Reading Terminal. There's no place like Reading Terminal. There's no place like Reading Terminal.
11. Termini Brothers
True Philadelphians will be furious at me for my placement of the home of those tough desserts called cannolis. But Reading Terminal Market serves up tough competition, I'm a tough judge, and those cannoli shells were even tougher. I also tried a free chocolate chip cookie, and there was a reason it was free.
My Dad, who has more of a sweet tooth than I do, loved that pasty, creamy cannoli, pronouncing it "perfection."
12. LeBus Bakery
LeBus Bakery might be first-rate at 11 a.m., when the bread is fresh and the birds are chirping. But I got my baguette at 5:30 p.m. I love any bread, be it toast, pasta, bagel or my personal favorite, stale matzah, but I just couldn't justify ranking LeBus any higher.
Ben Zauzmer, 16, is a freelance writer and a food lover. In his spare time, he also is a junior at Upper Dublin High School. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reading Terminal Market, 12th and Arch streets, 215-922-2317, www.readingterminalmarket.org. Open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday (some restaurants close at 4 p.m.), 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Pennsylvania Dutch vendors open 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday, till 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, closed Sunday.