Soy meat and the right kind of ‘dive’

On my scavenger hunt for picks, I came across an area that often gets overlooked. It seems that everyone who parties in Center City hangs out on Chestnut or Walnut streets. Meanwhile, Sansom Street’s nightlife lies in the dark shadow of these two areas of heavy vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

1 – Two meat-loving guys (my friend Yoram and my boyfriend Dan) and I were hungry, so we decided to visit the Su Xing House, an all-vegetarian Chinese restaurant. I had been there once for their amazing Monday through Saturday lunch deal. It features soup, a side dish and an entrée all for $6-$7. So why not return again for dinner? While dinner prices weren’t as affordable, they were still reasonable.

The boys and I pored over the menu, debating on numerous options while drinking several cups of the free jasmine tea. I also ordered a $2.85 creamy coconut drink with tapioca balls, which was delightful but not chilled enough. To start, we scarfed down one $1.30 veggie spring roll each. I ordered the $10.95 Vegetable Heaven with stir-fried string beans, braised tofu and Chinese eggplant in a garlic sauce, served with lemon wedges. Every bite was tender and tasty and my next-day leftovers were top-notch.

The boys went a different route, ordering mock meat dishes. Dan got the $10.95 Sesame Seitan with cooked broccoli, and Yoram got the $9.95 Soybean Nuggut Szechwan Style with red and green peppers.

I envisioned these dishes as soft stir-fried seitan in a delicious sauce – boy, was I wrong. Both meals came with extremely chewy mock meat that was breaded and fried way too long. Although I thought their meals were poorly prepared, they were both quite happy. The texture and chewiness was what they were looking for in a soy-based dish.

2 – A hop, skip and jump away and you are outside the entrance of Nodding Head. This second-floor bar and restaurant has been a beer lover’s destination for almost eight years. While the menu has some interesting draws like the $6.95 Quiche du Jour, the $6.95 Baked Brie and the $9.95 Rasta Man Chicken, the food isn’t the main attraction. Nodding Head offers six rotating, home-brewed drafts. At $5 a pop, guests can try out new brews without going broke.

Bartender and manager-on-duty Amy Prozan cited “the fact that it is a brew-pub” and the well-laid out placement of tables as the main reasons for its popularity.

With a kitchen that is open late every night and ample seating in two different rooms, how can you go wrong? Not to mention, many of Nodding Head’s drafts are award winners. Try my two favorite award-winners: the Grog, an English style brown ale with chocolate accents, or the 60 Shilling, a light, smooth Scottish ale.

3 – A few more steps down the path and you arrive at Oscar’s Tavern. Don’t be taken by the smoky cloud exiting through the front door, because Oscar’s is not as divey as you might think.

Yes, it does have a stained ceiling from years of secondhand smoke exposure, the cute blond bartender wears a wife-beater and the menu doesn’t expand beyond standard bar fare. However, it still has atmosphere and flavor that transforms it from “the lame dive bar” into “the fun dive bar.”

These subtle differences include the music (Weezer favorites and Michael Jackson remixes), the lighting (outdoor street lantern replicas) and the trinkets (the Phillies bobble head collection behind the bar).

The bartender was a tad salty, but kind enough to let us bring in French fries after the kitchen closed. Yoram’s favorite aspect of this joint was the super-cheap drink prices. A large 23-ounce draft beer starts at $3, and drafts include Yuengling, Stella Artois, Guinness, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Rolling Rock and Flying Fish Oktober Fest.

So come in, have a cheap drink, and relax in a tavern that is reminiscent of how bars were when I was underage bar-hopping from spot to spot in upstate New York. But be forewarned: the bathrooms definitely scream “dive” with the stench and graffiti marks.

Colleen Dunn can be reached at

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