Mackenzie Hilton, executive Chef at the Vintage Syndicate, grew up in a family of foodies, with wine-making grandparents and a mother who had a passion for food and travel.
“I grew up spending my summers visiting my grandparents in Sonoma, CA. My grandfather grew grapes and made wine and my grandmother had a garden with every fruit, vegetable and herb you can imagine,” she says. “My mom traveled and lived extensively in Europe in her 20’s and developed a further appreciation for food and cooking, so that exposed me to a lot of different cuisines as I was growing up. Food was a huge part of my family’s life, from entertaining guests to preparing family meals, it was at the heart of my family.”
Hilton’s first job in the industry was as a waitress at the Davidson Depot Tap House, but she soon advanced to the role of line cook.
“I realized cooking was a talent I had as I got older,” she says. “ I decided that I should at least see if it was a career I would enjoy, so while in college at Davidson (studying Political Science), I started working as a waitress and finally convinced the kitchen manager to give me a shot on the line. As it turned out, I did enjoy it, and was fairly successful with it.”
Hilton has been living in Philly for the past 15 years and still carries her passion for food with her.
“Food is the only art form that nourishes mind, body and soul,” she says. Eating is a necessity, but to elevate that experience that we all have to have on a daily basis to something truly inspiring, interesting and even beautiful, is so gratifying.”
For this edition of Eat like an Insider, Hilton tells us where to get the best soup dumplings and the best pho in the city.
Best late-night meal?
Easily, I must say Time Restaurant (1315 Sansom St.). I love the fact that we serve our full menu until 1 a.m., Sunday through Thursday. Where else can you go in the city at midnight on a Monday and order bone marrow, grilled octopus, oysters on the half shell, Australian grass-fed filet mignon, all while sipping on some amazing whiskey?
Best meal under $10?
Pho 75 (1122 Washington Ave.). A large bowl is $6.75, and in my opinion, the best pho in the city. Service here is also miraculously fast.
Best hidden food gem?
Tom’s Dim Sum in Chinatown (59 N. 11th St.). They have the best soup dumplings, and if Tom happens to be there, ask if he’ll make you his spicy cumin noodles. I don’t think they’re on the menu, but they’re amazing, as is anything he’s willing to throw together if you’re adventurous enough to trust him. The sauteed Shanghai bok choy, cucumber salad and the eggplant with garlic sauce are all at the top of my list, too.
Best place to dine alone?
Cheu Noodle Bar (255 S. 10th St.). My go-to is the brisket ramen, with red chili broth, kimchi and matzo ball, with an egg. You can sit at the bar and watch them cook, service is always friendly, it never takes very long to get your food and it’s always delicious.
Place you take out of towners?
Sate Kampar (1837 E. Passyunk Ave.). This amazing Malaysian restaurant is truly unique. The chef and co-owner Ange is super passionate about the authenticity of her food and it shows. From the Malaysian marble tables, to the fact that she will only cook the sate over coconut charcoal, to the adorable banana leaf pockets that a lot of the food comes in, this super-flavorful meal is always a great experience. In addition to the sates, my favorite dishes are the beef Rendang Daging, the chicken Ayam Kurma, and the Mee Hoon Goreng Bungkus noodles.
Best place to catch up with friends?
12 Steps Down (831 Christian St.). Whether it’s hanging outside in their sidewalk cafe on a nice evening, or even downstairs, this place is one of my all time favorites. I always run into a people I know (a big restaurant industry hang out), and the staff is like family. On top of it all, the food is super solid for being a dive/basement bar (the fried chicken “Pride” sandwich hits the spot if you need a little snack), and their beer selection is great.
Most Instagrammable restaurant?
Vernick (2031 Walnut St.). The food is always beautiful, fresh and colorful. As one of my absolute favorite restaurants in the city, I’m always inspired when I dine there.