Friday, October 28, 2011

Ode to the Philly Pretzel

Chicago deep dish pizza. Memphis barbecue. New York bagels. Famous regional specialties are one of the most important components of the (young) American culinary culture. With Tricia's recent move to the Philadelphia-area, we have recently had the chance to start developing as pretzel connoisseurs by sampling various Philly twists. We have tried quite a few locations (chains, independent storefronts, street vendors), and here a few of our favorites. By no means is this list comprehensive, and if you have suggestions for better pretzels, please send them our way! But for now, this is our ode to the Philly Pretzel!

Pretzels are made in a manner very similar to bagels: boiled and then baked. However, unlike bagels which are malt-boiled, pretzels are boiled in lye-water (very high pH), and this underlies their characteristic dark brown color. Ideally, pretzels should have some crusty bite on the outside enveloping a dense and chewy inside. For the purposes of this ode, we're going to assume that everyone likes their pretzels with mustard, and nothing else (yes, even I do like cheese with them sometimes, but we'll strive for Philly-authenticity here!).

Campo's Pretzel
The first place we tried was Campo's on Market Street near Penn's Landing. Campo's promotes themselves as having the best cheesesteak around (and they are pretty good, but that's a different post!), but their pretzels were delicious. Looking at the picture on the left, you can see how crispy they were. The deep brown color and that crunchy exterior were coupled with a very chewy interior. This was a great pretzel, and it was served with Campo's homemade mustard. Now the mustard here is a major talking point - it wasn't a classic brown mustard, but instead it was a sweet and searingly hot mustard. Absolutely delicious, and genuinely hot. The mustard alone distinguished Campo's!

Pretzel from Miller's Twist
The next place we sampled was inside Philadelphia's famous Reading Terminal Market: Miller's Twist. Unlike the Campo's pretzel, Miller's Twist presented the pretzel in it's more famously known shaped. This pretzel was also less shiny, much lighter in color and not as crispy on the outside, leading us to believe that it was either not boiled or it was not boiled in extremely alkaline water. Also contrasting to Campo's, this pretzel was slathered in butter. While this means that Miller's pretzels  may not be truly authentic, they are still delicious (in a different way). They were definitely fresh and hot, and butter never made anything bad! Miller's did not have fresh mustard, but they did serve a good packaged brown mustard on the side.

Pretzel outside Philly Museum of Fine Art
Of course, we also had to try a street pretzel. On a trip to the Philly Art Museum, which is a must-see by the way, we stopped outside to try a pretzel from a local vendor. As you can see, the shiny brown exterior suggests that this was a alkaline-boiled pretzel. It was tasty, but unfortunately it was not as fresh as the others we had had. The exterior had lost a little bit of it's crispiness by the time we had it. Still a good pretzel, but lacking the advantage of being just baked. The vendor again offered a good spicy brown mustard out of a squeeze bottle to flavor the pretzel.

Pennsylvania is also home to two of the most popular pretzel chains around: Auntie Anne's, which you've probably seen in a mall near you, and the Philly Soft Pretzel Factory. We have been fans of Auntie Anne's for years, and in fact until recently, that was our main exposure to soft pretzels! After having a chance to taste pretzels in Philly, I will say that Auntie Anne's is very similar to Miller's Twist. Their pretzels are not boiled, and they are brushed with butter. The butter brushing and then baking somewhat simulates the crispy exterior of a boiled pretzel, but it is very different in the end product overall. We are still frequenters of Auntie Anne's however, and we definitely enjoy their offerings (hey, it's not always about authenticity)! Philly Soft Pretzel Factory definitely boils their pretzels. They are extremely cheap (like 20 for $5), compared to Auntie Anne's, with locations throughout the Philly area and southern tier of NY. Our advice with this chain, however, is to go to the busier locations with higher turnover. Fresh out of the oven, these pretzels are a treat, but if you go to a less busy location, you get older and staler pretzels. In general, both of these chains hold up well to their independent competitors, and if you feel like snacking, they're a great bet.

We really have nothing negative to say about any of the places we tried. They are all excellent, and we hope that you give them all a try! And maybe one day, you too will be hooked on the treat that is the Philly Pretzel!


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