By Patty-Pat Kozlowski
I’m doing a lot of research on the Great Potato Famine, you know, when almost 1.5 million Irish starved to death or died of disease in the mid 1800’s when their only source of food and economy, their potato crops, were festered with blight and rot. And while the Irish starved to death and some left their Emerald Isle to just survive, the government still strangled them with taxes, refused them relief and food assistance and oppressed them socially, religiously and inhumanely as they rotted like those damned potatoes.
But enough of my history lessons. It was very ironic that after researching the Great Potato Famine that the chance to review Fishtown’s Hot Potato Café’ came into play. Owned and operated by sisters and sister-in-law Claire, Kathy and Erin Keller, the BYOB sits on Girard Avenue watching the 15 trolley pass in the shadow of I-95. It also was featured in the guillotine like hot seat reality show, Kitchen Nightmares, starring Chef Gordon Ramsey.
Did you happen to catch that episode for the season premiere? 3.28 million people watched Fishtown’s own Hot Potato Café get put under the microscope as Chef Ramsey huffed, puffed, cursed, yelled and smashed and mashed the Hot Potato Café into what it is today: A really good place to eat right in the Philadelphia Riverwards.
It’s the perfect story-the Irish and their potatoes. With a plot that goes like this-the Keller clan, a close knit Irish family sees their beloved rowhoused, sidestreeted, every-body knows every body else and their grandmother neighborhood of Fishtown starting to become gentrified and revitalized.
Sure you have your corner delis, pizza places, luncheonettes and fast food joints, but what about having a good place to get something to eat, somewhere to just walk to with a bottle of wine and enjoy your dinner without leaving the zip code or Girard Avenue?
Kathy Keller had a food and hospitality background, working the kitchen and catering facilities for Finnegan’s Wake and Claire had the hospitality background working for the Hyatt and Four Seasons. And the passion to bring comfort food, their family comfort food-from their Irish upbringing and their kitchens onto Girard Avenue lit a fire in them.
So in March of 2007, Hot Potato Café opened its doors next to a used car lot on Girard Avenue and people were talking about the homemade, freshly fried hot potato chips, the addicting buffalo chicken dip and what about that chunky and filling hot potato soup? But the novelty of a new restaurant in the hood wore off and as anyone in the business can tell you, running a restaurant ain’t easy. Corners were cut, diners thinned out, it was hard to keep talented staff. Good wait staff need to survive on tips, and if the tips aren’t there because nobody is eating there, well the ship starts to sink.
A bad food review in the Philadelphia Weekly newspaper prompted the second to last nail in the coffin. Meanwhile, since opening, Hot Potato Café hadn’t turned a profit. An anonymous tipster, contacted the television reality show Kitchen Nightmares and asked Chef Ramsey to consider visiting Philadelphia and whipping Hot Potato Café into shape.
You think Chef Ramsey likes to curse? Well, he was no match for the Keller Clan! But this story isn’t about Chef Ramsey. It’s about giving Hot Potato Café another chance at life-same thing back in the 1850’s when Irish mommies bundled up their Irish babes in rags and boarded barely seaworthy vessels for a better life and sailed away from the only home they knew-not for a second chance, but an only chance at survival. Because if they stayed where they were, they would certainly perish. Keller’s don’t perish.
Launching a new menu and a new passion the Hot Potato Café has refused to starve, has refused to rot. The re-launch of their Hot Potato Soup which used to be chunky, lumpy and topped with bacon and cheese is now a silky smooth creamy drink finished with sour cream and fresh chives atop.
For those of you who like chunky soup (I’m in that group) there is the Fishtown Chowder, which at first sounds like a soccer move concocted on the knee ripping fields of Newt’s Playground back in the day when real boys played on cinders (and still do) instead of lush, soft green, green grass.
But the Fishtown Chowder is a cup of cream soup swimming with bacon, onions, calms and slices of potatoes that goes great for lunch or dinner when your City gets hit with back to back snowstorms measuring over 56 inches of (insert Chef Ramsey and Keller sister’s obscenity here) white stuff.
And I like Hot Potato Café’s nod to the Polish dumpling called the Perogie. Filled with mashed potato, salt and pepper and then blanketed up in a dough cover (it’s the Polski ravioli!) the Hot Potato doesn’t try to be hip and chic and bastardize a simple, comfort food. They fry these little Polonia footballs up in butter and carmelized onions and serve them with a dollop of sour cream.
Want to know what 9 out of 10 ladies talk about when they’re at a wedding, shower, birthday party? How they make their potato salad. Really. Do they use Hellman’s Mayo or Miracle Whip? Do they dice celery or onions? Do they put boiled eggs in there or mustard? Yep, the ladies can be fighting over something horrid and all it takes is one of them to say, “Did you taste this potato salad?” and everything settles down and they all grab a fork. And they all think their potato salad is the best. And they’re all correct.
The New Wave Potato Salad at the Hot Potato uses red and purple potatoes and tosses them with green beans, feta cheese bullets and olives to make a really unique spin on such a staple of a dish. You won’t get this at your block party this summer in a Tupperware bowl so make sure to order this salad stand out.
The namesake screams for Hot Potatoes and the Keller girls do deliver. There are five different loaded hot potatoes on the menu starting with a simple sour cream, cheddar, chive and bacon called the Traditional to the Chili Joe with minced beef, onions, tomatoes, peppers, beans and cheddar which will give you a one way ticket to sleeping on the couch that night, got that Tooty?
In between, the Philly Cheesesteak Hot Potato works with the shredded steak, onions, mushrooms and peps and so does the Florentine, a little kick of a tater filled with spinach, roasted peps, sautéed onions and parmesan cheese.
For dinner, try the Steak Frites, a really well done 10 ounce strip covered in herb butter and stacked with parmesan fries like a haystack that was worth the $19 price (the most expensive on the menu) as well as the Pan Seared Crabcakes (with nice big chunks of crab) served with a catchy remoulade that I wanted to dip my fries in. If its comfort food you want, I know Shepherd’s Pie isn’t exciting and that’s because its not supposed to be but the Keller’s mince lamb and rosemary for a new twist on the ground beef and mashed potato original and cover their creations with a parmesan crusted top coat will make it worth your while.
So what’s that old Irish saying? Foolme once, Shame on you. Fool me twice, Shame on me. The Hot Potato Café deserves another chance and if they don’t bring to the table what they have proven on national television what they are capable of-then shame on them.
Hot Potato Café, 529 E. Girard Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19125 (215)-425-0905