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What: The Philadelphia soft pretzel comes in just behind the cheesesteak as most recognizable Philly food, despite the fact that it’s Lancaster County—the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country—that’s reputed to be the origin of the pretzel in the U.S. Naturally, it’s thanks to German settlers that it’s here at all. But the soft pretzel flourished on the street corners of Philly; it turned out that Philadelphians love them some salted, twisted baked dough. Here, they’re distinguishable by their oddly narrow shape—unlike those of NYC, the pretzels here are squished together, so that the usual four holes are often nonexistent—and their taste and texture: soft and moist, salty and chewy.
Where: The ubiquitous pretzel street vendors are still a decent bet for trying this classic—squirted with yellow mustard, of course. Our photo is from a cart on Sansom Street at S. 15th St. (not that it matters). The only problem with the street guys is that you don’t know just how fresh your pretzel is, so quality can vary wildly.
Alternatively: Go straight to the source—one of them, at least—of those street pretzels by visiting the wholesale/retail Federal Pretzel (638 Federal St., map) in South Philly; it opens at 8am; the earlier you go, the fresher your pretzel. Along the same lines but with even wilder hours is Center City Pretzel Co. (816 Washington Ave.; map), also in South Philly. For guaranteed hot-out-of-the-oven pretzel freshness, go very early in the morning or—depending on your schedule—late at night (open Mon-Fri, midnight-noon; Sat, 4am-noon; Sun, 6:30am-10:30am).
Good to know: The pretzels out in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, are quite different from Philly’s. Lots of hard pretzels are made there, of course, but the soft ones are sweet, fluffy, buttery, and insanely delicious—think Auntie Anne’s, but much better and fresher. You can find them in Philadelphia at the Amish-run Miller’s Twist in Reading Terminal Market (51 N. 12th St.; map).
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