Sampan's mostly veggie-unfriendly menu has kept me away from the chic, Asian-fusion restaurant on Philly's 13th St. restaurant row, despite having a celebrity chef (sorry, but I don't know Michael Schulson, his TV appearances, and his Atlantic City restaurant, Izakaya, from Adam), and the fact that at the bottom of the menu a statement is printed saying vegetarian accommodations can be made. What finally got us in the door — and out the back door — was Sampan's graffiti bar and happy hour. An outdoor, sheltered-from-the-elements space with a long communal table and bar, both made of steel, lies just out back from the restaurant. The back wall and table tops are all graffiti-ed up by artists giving the space a gritty, but hip, urban feel. I like!Happy hour runs Monday-Friday from 5-7pm with $2 snacks and a daily-changing $4 cocktail. You know what would be nice? If the Graffiti Bar had an actual bartender during happy hour. When we went — on a Friday, no less — there was no bartender until 7pm, so servers from indoors periodically came out to check on us and take orders to give to the indoor bar.The $4 cocktail of the day was coconut rum with cherry soda — like a cherry Coke with subtle hints of coconut — and, mmm, I could drink these all day long.
The happy hour menu only has one vegetarian item — satay corn — so that's what I went with. Nothing more than grilled corn on a skewer siting on a dab of mayonnaise, topped with cilantro micro-greens, and accompanied by a wedge of salted lime and a little pile of togarashi (Japanese chili powder) to bring a little Asian to the fusion. The $2 price tag was about right.
Since we had such a nice server, and corn is not enough for dinner, we decided to ask about the vegetarian accommodations. Basically, four or so dishes that can easily have the meat removed (the pad Thai, mapo tofu, Korean rice cake, and fried rice), along with a couple of salads and starters that are already vegetarian are Sampan's accommodations.I went for the pad Thai sans shrimp, and what arrived was the blandest pad Thai I have ever had. Ever! It tasted like I was eating buttered spaghetti. I mentioned this to our server, and then was explained that the chef leaves off the fish sauce-inclusive pad Thai sauce when anyone orders the dish without shrimp, in assumption that the person is vegetarian. That explains the blandness!
Leaving off the pad Thai sauce is simultaneously considerate to vegetarians and extremely lame. Not hardly what I'd expect from a celebrity chef that claims vegetarian accommodations can be made on their menu. How about a pad Thai sauce without fish sauce? We also paid full price for this dish, which, unfortunately for vegetarians, is the norm at most restaurants when meat is omitted, but, dang, full price for meat-less and sauce-less noodles!The Korean rice cakes sans sausage has Asian greens and a sauce with a pleasant mix of spiciness and vinegar, and is actually the better of the two dishes. I'm just not a fan of rice cakes which are heavy, chewy pieces of steamed glutinous rice flour that resemble dense pasta. It's the heft that gets me. I am a fan of the celery micro-greens that garnished the dish. Sampan apparently has an arsenal of piquant, not-your-average micro-greens back in the kitchen.
A bartender-less bar during happy hour and lame vegetarian accommodations. If it weren't for the exceptional server we had, I would have left in a sour mood instead of smiling ear to ear, making a point to thank the server for such a wonderful evening.
124 S. 13th St., Philadelphia, PA 19107
Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30am-4pm
Dinner: Mon-Thurs 5-11pm, Fri-Sat 5pm-midnight, Sun 5-10pm