Our recent lack of Philly restaurant experiences was thankfully ended by the visit of one of our food-loving friends. We asked him to choose the eating location, and after much debate (he doesn't get to Philly much), we decided on Varga Bar. J and I have been once before and loved it-- good location, interesting food options, a good mix of healthier choices and heart attack inducers, and decent price points. The restaurant is certainly bar-centric, but has lots of regular seating (including tented sidewalk seating during the cold months!) and a very solid kitchen.
Photo: Philly360 (Presumably not during the winter)
We visited in the midst of an Eagles game and were happy to see that it wasn't overcrowded-- it's actually a great place to catch a game that we'll have to keep in mind. The menu has a large section dedicated to a good cheese selection, a long list of appetizers, a solid set of sandwiches and a handful of larger "plates." We all had trouble making our decisions since there were at least 5-6 things that we each wanted-- not including a half-dozen specials of the day.
J and I were at least somewhat informed by what we had eaten previously- including perhaps our first introduction to the deliciousness of roasted brussels (which has now sparked an obsession, apparently). We had also previously ordered the Kobe burger, and while it was much enjoyed, was a little bit much. On this occasion, we split up our past favorites and each ordered something new.
I was fortunate enough to get the brussels (although we shared everything, it still got to sit in front of me...). A large portion of halved sprouts ($8), roasted until their innards are soft and not too wet, and their outer leaves are crispy and similar to crunchy kale chips. Everything is tossed in a sauce which I must say undergoes some sort of synergistic reaction: the simple combination of balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil and parmesan just should NOT be this good. Salty, crispy, and tangy, I really can hardly tell I'm eating an often-hated vegetable.
J started with the Kobe sliders ($12)- for only $2 less than the whole burger with fries, it's not exactly monetarily economical, but certainly calorically economical. Three mini burgers, each composed of a tiny patty of creamy, juicy cow topped with a melted sliver of boursin, crispy bacon and caramelized shallots, all on a small brioche-type bun. Absolutely perfect for satiating a burger craving without succumbing to a massive food coma, and great as a shared appetizer. These sliders are hands down better than steakhouse extraordinaire Barclay Prime's, although notably almost as expensive. They also come with 3-4 mini onion rings, which didn't do much for us.
For our main dishes, we continued on the sharing path and decided to split a sandwich with fries and a salad. The roast pork sandwich is certainly a Philly classic, but you don't often see it on the menu of legitimate restaurants (no offense, guys, I just mean a sit-down, staffed, real silverware kind of place). The sandwich ($13) was a special menu addition that evening, solidifying my decision to order it. It was a bit on the small side, but with all the food we had, it ended up being just the right size for sharing. Juicy chunks of pork (not slivered or sliced like you often find) were accompanied by bitter broccoli rabe and melted provolone on a toasted baguette, and served with a garlicky, greasy jus which most definitely got poured on top. The sandwich doesn't make it to the top of my list, but it was a very much enjoyed rendition.
What came as a surprise is how good the fries were- I was a bit disappointed to see a pile of thin-cut fries on the plate- they almost look like the McDonald's version. Not my favorite.. but after one bite, I was sold. Extremely fresh, and somehow the thin cut still allowed for the crispy outside and soft inside that I wanted.
One part sandwich, four parts fries
We also split the Varga salad ($9), our only disappointment of the evening. The salad sounds like what lettuce-y dreams are made of: roasted butternut squash, gala apples, arugula, shaved parmesan, toasted pumpkin seeds, red onion, and a cider-clove vinaigrette. A perfect fall-inspired salad, with originality and substance! Concept: A+, Overall: C. Perhaps it was just compared to our other three excellent eats that evening, but the salad was just not good. The cider-clove combination was a little bit off, bringing a salty, almost seaweed flavor to the entire dish (weird). The other components, which should have great flavor of their own at this time of year, all seemed bland and lost. Perhaps just a different dressing option would have won us over (and we did eat most of the salad anyways), but we were both exchanging odd looks with every bite.
I know we always complain that Philly just has way too many restaurants, we never have enough time/money to get to all of them, and together these prevent any sort of restaurant returns or maintaining "go-to" spots. But from now on, I am officially declaring Varga as my "go-to"- it fits all the requirements and turns out amazing food to boot. Who wants to go back to try the truffled mac n' cheese or the fish and chips with me.. or better yet, how about brunch?
941 Spruce Street (at 10th Street)