The world on a platter in U-City

Remember when “ethnic cuisine” meant Italian or Chinese? If you do, you’ve been around much longer than I have. But even if you don’t, the University City culinary scene has gone global in the past few years. Laotian, Middle Eastern and African establishments have joined long-established Indian, Thai, Mexican, Italian and Chinese eateries, adding variety to the campus dining scene and bringing new life to U-City’s further reaches.

You could easily spend an entire month eating in the neighborhood’s international restaurants and not visit the same one twice. And many are very affordable. Here’s a one-workweek sampler of some of the best of the latter to get you started.

Simsum

Lebanon was once known as the crossroads of the Middle East, and Simsum, the new restaurant from the owners of Bitar’s, reflects that heritage. That counter-service eatery has been transformed into a sit-down bistro with the feel of a Lebanese courtyard and a menu that combines Middle Eastern, Greek and French influences. The space is intimate, the dishes creative, the prices reasonable, and the wine your own. By the way, that’s pomegranate juice mixed with the olive oil in their pita bread dip.

222 S. 40th St., 215-382-3000. Noon to 11 p.m. daily.

New Delhi

The granddaddy of the campus’ Indian restaurants still serves delicious fare at inexpensive prices. Like all the other Indian restaurants in the area, the draw is the food, not the ambiance—the décor has traces of Indian style but is otherwise plain. But the food, including the all-you-can-eat buffet—spicy and mild masalas, several varieties of chicken, including tandoori, lamb and potato stews, salads, chutneys and dessert—is excellent. The buffet is still one of the best values around.

4004 Chestnut St., 215-386-1941. Noon to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, noon to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed from 3 to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.

Fatou and Fama

This bright little restaurant tucked in between Nan and New Delhi brings a taste of West Africa to campus. The menu mixes Senegalese specialties like yassa (chicken, fish or shrimp marinated with garlic, mustard and lemon in a brown onion sauce) and chebuden (a spiced fish and vegetable stew, the Senegalese national dish) with West Indian and soul food dishes. Chef Fatou Ndiaye Wilson uses only fresh ingredients, and it shows. Entrées are all under $12.95, and there’s a $7.95 lunch buffet during the week.

4002 Chestnut St., 215-386-0700. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Dahlak

Forget the utensils—the fun of eating Ethiopian cuisine is in mopping up those spicy stews and rich vegetable dishes with the spongy bread, called injire, supplied with your meal. Native Eritrean Amare Solomon’s restaurant, which has won numerous “Best of…” awards, is the pioneer in the cluster of African businesses around 47th and Baltimore. When you go, bring friends along—the dishes are meant for sharing.

4708 Baltimore Ave., 215-726-6464. 4:30 to 10 p.m. daily.

Vientiane Café

This newcomer to the University City restaurant scene is the first restaurant in Philadelphia specializing in Laotian cuisine. Signature Laotian dishes include the green papaya salad and laab, a dish that combines grilled beef or chicken with cucumber, parsley and herbs, served with mixed spring greens. While we weren't able to visit the establishment in time for this article, the buzz on the street is that the food is interesting and the ambience pleasant at this BYO. And unlike its neighbor Dahlak, it's open for lunch as well as dinner.

4728 Baltimore Ave., 215-726-1095. 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Originally published on February 27, 2003