One of the best things about moving to a big city is getting to try new, tasty, and experimental foods. When I knew I was coming to Philly, my biggest goal—aside from, you know, getting good grades at Penn—was to eat great food as often as I could. After a year, I’d made the journey to Chinatown, South Street, and Rittenhouse, so you can imagine my surprise when I found out that there’s an entire food market in Philly I’ve never heard about.
Even FDR Park doesn’t advertise the Cambodian food market that’s hidden among the venue’s fishing spots, tennis courts, and skate park. Despite its secret nature, the market is thriving with vendors selling meat fresh off the grill, fried Southeast Asian delicacies, mango and papaya salads, and flavorful desserts.
A blue summer sky blankets the market on the Saturday that I visit. There aren’t set hours for the vendors, but they usually set up beneath white stalls late on weekend mornings, preparing food more or less until sunset. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed: families make conversation among the different booths as their young children run through the grass.
The strong smell of savory cooking draws me to the grills. There are lots of foods for meat lovers to enjoy at the park: stuffed chicken wings, shrimp egg rolls—and for the more daring foodies—chicken gizzards and hearts. But what stands out the most to me are the smoky beef skewers that sit on top of every grill in the market. The beef is well–charred but still tender, and each bite is surprisingly juicy considering the thinness of the meat. The blend of spices isn’t something I’ve experienced before, but it almost reminds me of the taste of lamb. It’s difficult not to ask for a second—or even a third skewer—especially since each is only $1.
Beside the grills are huge woks boiling with frying oil. There are a plethora of fried foods to try here. Fried bananas make an appearance in a number of stalls and are a common Southeastern Asian snack. They’re usually made from Thai bananas, which are starchier and a little less sweet than their American counterparts. Biting into one leads to a satisfying crunch, which quickly gives way to a soft, warm center. The bananas are pretty dense and fill you up fast, so I wouldn’t recommend ordering more than a few—especially if you’re looking to get a taste of everything.
There’s also an abundance of cooler options at the market that are perfect for beating the summer heat. If you’re looking for something that’s unique and fun to eat, the sticky coconut rice should be your go–to. The dessert is made from glutinous rice, coconut milk, black beans, and sugar. The vendor I visit shapes the rice inside of a hollowed-out bamboo shoot before she comes to the market. She cuts open the bamboo tubing in front of me with a knife, revealing the treat inside. I eat the dessert with my hands, enjoying the chewy texture of the rice in my mouth.
I finish my visit with a drink. There’s nothing more Asian-fusion than a brightly–colored snow cone served in a cup with palm seeds, basil seeds, and grass jelly, all topped with sweetened condensed milk. The ice quickly melts until I’m left with a milky, fruity mixture that tastes like a familiar cousin of boba. The sweetened condensed milk flavor is pretty strong, so I’d only get it if you have a big sweet tooth like me.
The Cambodian market in FDR Park has an amicable and strongly cultural atmosphere, reflected in the bold, homey flavors of its meals. The amount of delicious food people can eat there is endless, and with the market thriving every weekend in the summer, there’s no excuse not to try it all.