This column started with a sandwich.
Last month, I was in Strawberry Square, sitting at one of those high tops near the Little Amps coffee kiosk, when newly minted Harrisburg Councilman Dave Madsen walked by. We chatted for a few minutes, and then he asked me about the awesome sandwich I was about to bite into.
“It’s a ‘Chestnut Street’ from Ciao! Bakery,” I said.
Madsen knew of Ciao’s baked goods, but didn’t know they also were in the sandwich business.
“One of the best-kept secrets in Harrisburg,” I responded.
After encouraging Madsen to break his Subway sandwich habit, I thought about other places I regarded as well-kept Harrisburg secrets—some hidden in plain sight and some plain hidden. These may not surprise certain people (for instance, the outstanding sandwiches at Ciao! are probably not news to nearby office workers), but they don’t seem to have the broader recognition they deserve, especially among newcomers to our city.
Let’s start on Allison Hill, which, to the flatland dwellers along the river, can be one big mystery.
Allison Hill is rich with great places to visit—from authentic cuisine at Mexico Lindo and Tacos La Barca to the stunning beauty of Reservoir Park and Harrisburg Cemetery. However, I’d like to focus on two: Matangos Candies and the Asia Mall.
Matangos Candies emphatically breaks the old rule of success: location, location, location. To get there, you have to wind your way through a residential section of South Allison Hill that’s seen better days, at which point you think to yourself, “This can’t be right. I must be lost.”
But there it is, a simple brick-and-clapboard building on the corner of S. 15th and Catherine streets. Mantangos, run by the same family and located in the same place (their house) since 1947, is a genuine throwback. But the candy is homemade, delicious and, to my knowledge, unavailable anywhere outside of this odd location that you have to hunt down to find. Did your GPS break down? No, you’re just going to Matangos.
A few blocks down S. 13th Street, you run into a place that is easier to locate, but seems just as out of place.
The Asia Mall occupies a chunk of land at the corner of 13th and Sycamore streets, across from a housing project, and is home to a funky Asian market and a few restaurants. Kanlaya is my go-to Thai restaurant in the Harrisburg area, and I feel fortunate that it’s a quick, five-minute drive away. For even more character, check out Bangkok 56, located in a squat little building off of busy Paxton Street, which also dishes up traditional Thai fare.
Since I’m on everyone’s favorite subject—food—let’s explore a few more places back along the river.
The secret’s long out on Alvaro Bread and Pastry Shoppe, as a weekend dinner reservation there can be as tough to get as a glimpse of the Harrisburg beaver. The trick is to go at lunchtime. Skip the sandwiches and bready pizza and head straight for the daily specials, which are similar to the coveted, rustic-style Italian dinner entrees and a good deal, to boot. You won’t need to eat for the rest of the day.
Speaking of deals—my hands-down favorite food deal in Harrisburg is half-priced tacos at Suba, the snug, hip restaurant atop Mangia Qui. How good are Suba tacos? Among the best this taco-lover has ever eaten. Other great secret-not-a-secret deals include ad hoc Monday happy hours at Note Bistro and Thursday pasta nights at Aleco’s.
The Broad Street Market is no one’s idea of hidden, but I want to highlight one vendor that I think gets overlooked amid the head-spinning array of deliciousness pouring out of the stone building. Ougi’s Cocina offers Latin staples like mofongo and empanadas and meat/bean/rice “meals” that weigh more than your average baby. Oh, that pulled pork! Oh, those plantains!
Speaking of the market—we’re all sad that it’s open just three days a week. But you can still get your fix on other days by dropping into an unexpected location, Midtown Cinema, which offers products from several market vendors (Elementary Coffee Co., Raising the Bar) seven days a week. Enjoy your treat in the comfortable lounge, and they won’t even make you buy a ticket.
Since you’re in the vicinity of the cinema, go around back to Zeroday Brewing Co. and ask to sample the chemistry experiment they call “the daily infusion.” Did you ever wonder what an IPA would taste like steeped with dried chipotle peppers, or what happens when you toss some Sour Patch Kids into a saison? You may not like the result—or you may love it—but it’s a fun mystery either way.
My final two secrets stray from gastronomy. I’m sometimes asked about the best free wi-fi in Harrisburg, and I immediately respond, “Capital Joe.” Often, the response is, “Where’s that?” It’s Harrisburg’s lesser-known independent coffee shop, just across Forster Street from the state Archives. Capital Joe has a large back room that may be the best publicly accessible workspace in the city: large desks, excellent wi-fi, proximity to caffeine and often no one else to bother you. So, you can be all alone with your thoughts, your MacBook and your world-changing screenplay.
Lastly, I want to bring you right along the city’s waterfront. There are so many interesting monuments, memorials, nooks and crannies in Riverfront Park that are worth exploring. But, for a greater adventure, journey just beyond the PennDOT building into Phoenix Park.
A little creepy, a little weird, Phoenix Park is the overgrown site of what was once the sprawling Phoenix Steel Corp. (and, before that, Central Iron & Steel Co.). There, you’ll find industrial ruins, lots of nature, people who may be homeless and a few bicyclists taking the long way around the Greenbelt. There’s also what remains of Harrisburg’s 9-11 memorial, a bench or two and fantastic views of the river. It’s a serene break from the busy city nearby, though some people may find it too quiet and remote for their comfort.
In all my years in Harrisburg, I’ve never heard anyone—officials, residents, park workers, no one—mention Phoenix Park, a public park hiding in plain sight along the Susquehanna, the final resting place of the city’s industrial past. That may make it the best-kept secret in Harrisburg.
Lawrance Binda is editor in chief of TheBurg.
Do you have a best-kept secret to share? Email it to our editor at email@example.com.