I love Han Dynasty just as much as the next girl, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes it’s nice to take a break from Asian meals where you can’t leave the house for the next four hours because of severe indigestion and inevitable immobilization. We’ve all had a bad fried rice in our day, but for some odd and slightly sadistic reason we come running back to Chinese cuisine, no matter how many times we recall our previous negative experience. Enter Susanna Foo, saving one Penn adolescent from fatal gastronomic turmoil at a time. Susanna Foo, beloved Philadelphia chef, recently opened a high end Asian emporium in Center City she seductively named “SUGA.” At first look, you read the title and picture a side restaurant at a strip club with a creepy buffet table. Or at least I did until I was greeted with the rich aromas of soy, dumpling dough and sesame upon my arrival at the new establishment. Aka, my kind of “strip club.”
I put on my “I’m over 12 years old” voice and was promptly seated at a sleek wooden table surrounded by modern glass light fixtures and bamboo–like wall hangings. The décor was certainly Asian inspired but subtle, unlike the ostentatious paper lanterns and breathing dragons that can be found at P.F. Changs or Square on Square. As we sat, the lights dimmed right on cue. I quickly had to remind myself that I wasn’t on a romantic date. And thank god I wasn’t, because I was fully prepared to eat upwards of eight handcrafted dumplings–in my past experience this doesn’t go over very well when at dinner with the opposite sex. I immediately knew I could trust this establishment when the waitress opened up with “and what cocktail can I get you tonight?” Unfortunately my wallet screamed “No!” to the fifteen dollar glass of wine, but I eye–fucked every specialty beverage that exited the bar and was not displeased in the slightest (anything that doesn’t come out of a plastic bag and a cardboard box is like caviar these days.)
There are so few high–end Chinese establishments in the Philadelphia area, so I was very unfamiliar with the menu options. Where was the Sesame Chicken and the General Tso? Where was the creepy tea that Beijing usually brought out before the meal? This was uncharted territory. Luckily SUGA made it easier on me by including a simple Dumpling Sampler ($22) for the amateurs. The words “For Two” were included kindly next to the title of the dish, but I never trust that suggestion. However, this sampler was definitely for two. The assortment came with dumplings filled with either chicken, wild mushroom, shrimp, lamb or fresh vegetables, all fried uniquely and with complimentary sauces: mushroom, curry and ginger soy. The dumplings were crunchy on the outside and warm and welcoming on the inside–like biting into a hug. But word to the wise, BYOS (bring your own salt.) You are probably asking yourself, “But Elena, how on earth did you not have a panic attack choosing which dumpling to dip in which sauce?” I asked myself the same question as well, my friends. But to every problem there is a solution: make sure to triple dip your dumpling. It’s the only way to get the full experience. This also prevents you from shoving the whole thing into your mouth at once.
The next courses arrived in the middle of my conversation with the photographer about “the man who ate 418 cheddar biscuits at Red Lobster.” I was beginning to relate to this man’s urge to do such a thing, but with dumplings, so thank god they forced me to move on when they did. Per the waitress’s suggestion, we ordered the Shaking Beef ($19) as our next entrée, along with the Shanxi Cat Ear Pasta ($16) with Jamison Farm Lamb Ragu ($21). Yes, the terms “shaking beef” and “cat ear” on a Chinese menu seem ominous but I assure you, both dishes will make you want to kiss Susanna Foo on the mouth (was dangerously close to doing so when she asked us how the dishes were… yes we met the goddess herself.)
The beef was succulent with a strong Asian flavor portfolio. It was all too simple to fork it onto my plate–the moistness was not for the faint of heart. The pasta dish reminded me of tiny little floating carb clouds, but lightly coated in a “China meets Italy” lamb Bolognese. Those two regions should get together more often, why is Foo the first one to realize this? The meats in both dishes were cooked to perfection, and from my experience in the Radian kitchen, that is harder to do than an Engineering problem set when you’re in Wharton. You may be skeptical of an Italian inspired pasta dish at a Chinese restaurant... well, stop it. New life motto: Have Faith in Foo.
We had one more impromptu order coming to balance out the experience: the Chinese eggplant with shishito pepper and Thai curry ($10). All I can say is there’s never an instance where you shouldn’t add Thai curry to something. The dish was bursting with the flavors of the curry and the already perfect equilibrium of bite and softness that only a good purple eggplant can have. Four for you, eggplant. You go eggplant. I dipped the “not really meant to eat” garnish into the remains of the curry, and asked the rest of the table to just not look at me as I did so.
We had one more order of business. For some odd and yet not so odd reason, I couldn’t leave the restaurant without ordering the chocolate mousse. And dear God did Foo deliver on that wish. This decadent dessert was a layered mousse cake with a cacao nib shortbread on the bottom and vanilla crème anglaise on top, paired with a Chantilly ice cream. It was like a chocolate covered cylinder that held the secret to world peace within it. For full effect, have the love of your life feed this to you while you bathe in bath salts, sip champagne and watch The Proposal.
Anyways, If you care about world peace, go eat at SUGA with a loose budget and a craving for Chinese Bolognese. Or if you’re in the mood to be the happiest person alive. Either one works.
TL;DR: Um, it’s gourmet Chinese food less than 2 miles from your bed, I don’t know what else to say. You shouldn’t know what else to say.
Don’t Miss: The Diet Coke with lime. Best lime wedge in the Philadelphia Metropolitan Area. Also Susanna Foo’s cute little face.
Skip: The $30 budget. Stop buying $12 salads from Sweet Green for a week and save up for something that will fill you up for more than 45 seconds.
When to go: Monday through Friday from 5–7 p.m. (or Friday-Saturday from 10 p.m.–1 a.m.): $7 cocktails and wine, $4 draft beers and snacks. In short, there really isn’t a time NOT to go.
Location: 1720 Sansom St.
Price range: Including the inevitable cocktail (or 2) - $$$$