Dongtian "Eddie" Xia is a long way from home. But the 31-year-old from northeast China, who came to Philadelphia 10 years ago to study, has vividly conjured up the aromas of his native Shenyang through the sizzle of seasoned meat sticks roasting over the glow of hot coals at TT Skewer in Chinatown. It's possible you've missed this little slip of a street-food counter tucked into a humble Ninth Street storefront just south of Arch Street. It's open only from late afternoons on (every day but Monday), so it misses the heart of the neighborhood's daytime lunch crowd. If you happen by in the evening when the narrow metal grill box is fired up, the fragrance will likely draw you in to the cramped little space, where customers wait for the spicy oxtail broth hotpots that are also a specialty.
The authentic order-by-the-skewer menu stays true to the northeast China style, says Xia, in that all his meats are well marinated beforehand, as opposed to the plainer style typical of the northwest skewers from Xinjiang. His Chinese regulars hanker for the hot chicken gizzards and whole marinated squid. But if those are a little too adventurous for some American newcomers to the Chinese kebab game, TT also does an excellent job with more familiar cuts, like the morsels of lamb shoulder that take on deeply earthy cumin notes, and the beef, which has more subtle seasoning. Both gain extra tenderness from beaten egg in the marinade, and both also benefit from the complexity of Xia's signature spice, a blend of Brazilian and Asian peppers crushed at different levels of grind for complexity, and added to your requested level of intensity. The clinging finer grind amps the meat's pure spice, and the coarser bits flake off and fall into the coals, sending up puffs of chili-scented smoke. The most unexpected skewer, though, may not be the chicken heart or lamb kidney, but a skewered white bun that also toasts over the coals beneath a dusting of seasoning. It absorbs all the flavor from the grill but is still a bready balance for all that meat, fluffy and faintly sweet, like the perfect cushion to the spicy savor of Shenyang.
– Craig LaBan