Northern Liberties diner hits all the right spots

If there ever was a culinary goodwill ambassador for the financial and residential reinvention of the Northern Liberties area now known as the Piazza, it’s Darling’s Diner, 1033 N. Second St. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the increasingly popular eatery is far more “darling” than it is “diner.” For the most part, the fare on the diverse menu is a cut above anyplace else that would call itself a diner, with breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert just about any time you want it.

Darling’s appetizers are the highest form of comfort food and well worth the trip by themselves. The tender and well-cooked calamari fries ($9.95) are further elevated by the wasabi aioli that comes with them. We really didn’t want to let a drop of the dipping sauce go to waste. The pierogies ($7.95) were delightful drenched in a Parmesan sauce and carmelized onions.

Darling’s Diner also goes above and beyond the call of duty with entrées. A prime example is the chicken quesadilla tray ($12.95), which puts most, if not all, other quesadillas to shame in regard to taste and presentation. The massive portion of the Tex-Mex favorite is pleasantly overloaded and topped with a colorful array of red pepper, corn chipotle salsa and scallion cream.

Needless to say, it helps to bring friends with you to help finish some of these dishes.

That was the case when the California club sandwich ($12.95) arrived — evoking an audible gasp from patrons. We suspected the gargantuan club was named for its state-like size instead of the ingredients that comprise it. The almost-obscenely big sandwich was stacked high enough to warrant a chairlift and loaded with roasted turkey, avocado, bacon, lettuce, tomato, alfalfa sprouts and cranberry mayo.

Before we go any further, we just want to throw this out there: The cranberry mayo on the sandwich and the wasabi aioli that accompanied the calamari, both made in-house, should be jarred and sold in stores. There, we said it.

Anyway, back to the sandwich with its own ZIP code: The convergence of ingredients was as tasty to eat as it was attractive. But like that quesadilla, one would have a hell of a time trying to finish this generous beast of a sandwich alone.

Darling’s East Philly chili ($8.95) was another exercise in abundance. Most other places would have been content to put a layer of cheese on the dish and call it a day, but Darling’s offers up its beefy concoction with chipotle sour cream, tortilla chips, corn salsa and a fried pepper. That latter element — big, green, crunchy and served on the side — is a necessity for anyone who likes spicy chili, as Darling’s version doesn’t hit the table ready to kick your tongue’s ass. But after a few slices of that pepper added to the mix, it’s ready to make some taste buds sweat.

As good as the food is, it has to be said that anyone who doesn’t leave room for dessert at Darling’s is a damned fool. There might be a better selection of cheesecakes and pies in the city, but we haven’t found it yet. These housemade offerings ($5.95 a slice) have enough variety to satisfy most, if not all, tastes. The blueberry pie lived up to Darling’s homemade claims, as it looked and tasted like it had just been cooled on grandma’s windowsill an hour earlier. The Belgian chocolate ganache cheesecake is pure heaven for chocolate lovers, and both the Key lime pie and the bananas Foster cheesecakes were note-perfect.

If Darling’s Diner is the price a city neighborhood pays for upward mobility, then all we can say is, three cheers for gentrification!

Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected].