WHEN IT comes to a good, cheap meal, chefs at some of the city's best-known restaurants aren't so different from you and me: They love a bargain, as long as it's tasty and fresh.
On any given day - or late at night - you might run into a serious cook like David Ansill, known for the innovative small plates at his own Queen Village restaurant, picking up a different kind of light bite: a Wawa "Junior" turkey hoagie for $4.
Or that could be Jose Garces of Chifa, Amada, Tinto and Distrito fame, tucking into a plate of huevos rancheros or chilaquiles at the no-frills Taqueria Veracruzana near the Italian Market.
"They have really good authentic food, and it's hard to find that around town," Garces said.
Meanwhile, Matthew Babbage from West Philly's World Café Live might be seen slurping up a steaming bowl of Vietnamese pho with bean sprouts, lime and jalapeno peppers at Pho Nguyen on a gritty block of Washington Avenue.
And Noble: An American Cookery's Steven Cameron, a relative newcomer to Philly's food scene, already has found his favorite falafel at Mama's Vegetarian in Center City, and down-home Mexican at the Taco Loco truck at 4th and Washington.
"There are so many hole-in-the-wall places - that doesn't mean
they're good," Cameron said. "But even the smallest places use fresh ingredients. You can tell if something is made entirely from scratch."
For Jason Cichonski, the chef de cuisine at the tony Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel, it's the No. 62 - a bowl of charbroiled chicken over rice vermicelli with carrots, cucumbers and chopped peanuts - that draws him to the dinerlike Pho & Café Viet Huong in a strip mall at 11th and Washington.
The tab may be small - just $5.95 - but the flavors are big and satisfying.
"It's delicious and perfect for the money," Cichonski said of his regular choice. "They do a decent amount of business, so they're turning their product over. You don't have to worry about getting something sketchy."
Why don't these chefs just whip up something at their own restaurants, you might ask.
As good as their dishes may taste to their patrons, it turns out the last thing they usually want is their own food.
"After cooking and being around food all day long, I'm not hungry for the food I cook, I'm hungry for something else, and I'm not satisfied for something other than what I really, really want," Babbage said.
That's not to say just any old fast food will do. These professional foodies have standards. But ambience is much less a consideration than "authentic" ingredients.
"Those authentic flavors come from the people and their ancestry," Cameron, the chef-partner at Noble, who moved to Philly six months ago from Kansas City, Kan., said about the best ethnic restaurants.
"You can never learn more about food and cooking than getting down to basics like that."
The basics are also what draw Garces, who recently won a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic and is known for his creative riffs on familiar dishes, to Veracruzana.
As executive chef at World Cafe Live, Babbage oversees an ever-changing menu that draws on global influences. His off-hour jaunts to Chinatown's Sang Kee Peking Duck, where he always orders the signature dish, or Veracruzana, where he gets the tacos al pastor (three for $6), serve to feed his culinary mind, as well as his belly.
"What it's taught me is the subtlety of how something like pho or tacos are not complete without lime juice," he said. "It's taught me to look for a depth of flavor and appreciate something as more than the sum of its parts."
Sometimes these forays to the other side of the foodie tracks also lead to some direct inspirations for these culinary pros' own menus.
The pork belly on vermicelli on Lacroix's Sunday brunch, for example, is an homage to a similar dish at Pho & Cafe.
"Everything we eat influences what we do," Cichonski said.
But for Ansill, whose menu includes his version of trendy "street foods" like the Korean taco, sometimes a hoagie is just a hoagie.
"It's the perfect late-night snack, if you don't feel like going to a bar or Chinatown," Ansill said. "It's half-decent for the money. It fills a void - it fills my belly." *