It’s Saturday morning, January 30. We start to load up the van around 7:30 a.m. in front of the Marriott Courtyard. It’s still frigid outside. I’m driving; Bob’s co-piloting. We follow the simple Mapquest directions to 1301 South 11th Street in South Philly, not 10 minutes from the hotel.
Carman’s Country Kitchen sits on the corner of South 11th and Wharton, across from the police station. We drive around the block a couple of different ways (sometimes on amazingly narrow streets!) before we find an acceptable parking spot. It’s about 7:55 a.m. There’s no sign outside that says Carman’s Country Kitchen but the detached tailgate from her pick-up truck is on the 11th Street side of the old corner-shop structure. And her truck is parked on the Wharton Street side of the building.
Yes, there’s a mannequin beside the front door, and apparently her clothing changes with the seasons. She’s bundled up today. The hours and phone number are displayed on the tailgate, along with a warning about Carman’s dog who isn’t here today. Too cold.
I ate at Carman’s once about 8 or ten years ago. It was delicious and unusual and remarkably fun. My Philadelphia food writer friend Holly Moore, the force behind hollyeats.com, brought me to this legendary spot, and when I started this BREAKFAST SPECIAL project, I thought of Carman’s as a possibility. Last week Holly convinced me it was a necessity. I called and set up the shoot with Carman Luntzel while she was visiting her children and grandchildren in South Carolina, and she was specific that we should arrive at 8 a.m., giving her servers the time they needed to get ready, because they usually got there around 7:30, and they needed to get the place prepped for the morning before we got there.
So we arrive right on time. The place is still a jewel. The decorations are many and goofy and deliberately risque. (Do you know that part of “Hamlet” when he says to Ophelia, “Do you think I meant country matters?” Well, there’s a lot of that kind of provocative punning going on around this country kitchen too.) We meet Thomas and Alexis, the two clever guys who handle the front of the house, and we fall in love with Carman.
There were a few early morning minutes before customers started arriving, so we interview Carman as she starts to cook in her tiny kitchen. This restaurant is small, cramped and cozy at the same time, cluttered and bright. It feels European.
Then, people come for breakfast pretty steadily for the next 6 hours. 8 a.m. till 2 p.m. Carman’s regulars love this experience, and it’s easy to understand why. The food is unusual and outstanding. You get a choice of four dishes every week. The menu changes every Friday. And the choices are written on a dry erase board which often comes off the wall to become a giant menu at individual tables, and at the counter. Alexis and Thomas are skilled at explaining how things work. “We each have our schtick,” says Thomas. ”Alexis always says the French toast is a little sweeter than the pancakes. I don’t.” Alexis is the guy with the beard and the knit cap.
The 4 corners of the menu are 1. pancakes (or waffles) 2. French toast (made today from challah bread) 3. An omelette and 4. The Special (which can be very special, having featured alligator, kangaroo, osso buco stew, and other exotics over the years.) Today’s special is a grilled duck breast with eggs and potatoes & toast. Carman tells us that the special is often like some wonderful leftovers from the night before that she tops with eggs, the kind of unexpected breakfast she really likes herself. At one point, I see the omelette with chicken-white-wine-parsley sausage being delivered. I ask if I might snap a picture. When I do, the woman who got it cuts me off a corner so I can taste. It’s superb. Enclosed in the eggs are Swiss chard, white beans and rice, leeks and garlic and a wee bit of portabella mushrooms, along with some of Carman’s spices.
We have an extraordinary morning, talking to people, interviewing Holly, seeing eaters come and go. Bob hand-holds the camera most of the morning, but we have the tri-pod handy for a few rare moments when there’s enough space to set it up.
Around noon, Bob suggests we go outside and get some exterior shots. It’s still extremely cold, but Thomas and Alexis have prepared Carman’s al fresco table just to show us. It’s in the bed of her pick-up truck, and we need some shots of that too. On warmer mornings, 6 or 7 people can be seated in the back of the truck, and it’s a place of honor.
The customers arrive, order, eat and leave. The room seems to stay full all morning, and everybody is OK with our invasion of the place. There doesn’t seem to be any hate of the TV crew. It’s always a dance, it’s just a bit tighter in this little restaurant. This place feels intimate and homey, saucy and goofy, devilish and heavenly.
If you want to come and eat, you should call before you arrive. They call this “same-day reservations.” Carmen answers the phone and calls out, asking Thomas and Alexis if, say, Walter with 2 others can get a seat in 15 minutes. If it’s too crowded, you’ll be told to wait a bit, but I think they fit in everybody this day.
We didn’t eat till 2 o’clock, closing time. We’d all heard the menu many times by then. I knew I wanted the grilled duck breast with eggs because it looked so tempting on so many plates. Thomas had told me that Carman brought the duck back with her from the Carolinas two days before. Beautiful little breasts, perfectly grilled. The eggs over very easy. Bacon. Whole wheat toast. A glorious breakfast. I think one of the best of my life.
I didn’t mention at the top of this blog entry that Glenn and Bob had breakfast at the hotel before we left that morning. Around 7 a.m. I just had a cup of coffee. But they were ready for Carman’s breakfast for lunch — or brunch — or as I say, in the hobbit tradition, “second breakfast.”
Before we leave, we stop and pose for a crew picture with Carman and her crew. A really good, productive and delicious morning.
When we get outside, it’s snowing. It’s winter in Philadelphia.