What comes to mind when you hear the word "sugar"? Whether it's birthday cake, cotton candy, salted caramels or an ice cream sundae, we'll bet that whatever you imagine brings a smile to your face. Sugar's just kind of magical that way. When we hear "sugar" we think about Sugar Philly: a cheery, colorful food truck that sits right down the street from our cafe in University City.
They create the best French-style macarons we've had stateside, and we carry a selection of fresh flavors each day. Their macarons are so, so good: decadent, creamy fillings sandwiched between light and chewy cookies - their rich sweetness pairs perfectly with hot coffee.
We've known the Sugar Philly peeps for awhile now from the food truck community, but we wanted to learn a bit more about their story. So we sat down with their head chef Dan Tang to get the scoop on his journey from poli sci major to macaron master.
Dan hails from Long Island, New York, but came to Philly in 2004 to study at Temple University. He majored in Political Science, but says he didn't really have plans to pursue a career in law - one of the few career paths approved of by his parents. He took up baking as a relaxing hobby in college and taught himself to cook in preparation for a study abroad program in Rome (he knew he wouldn't have enough money to go out for every meal). When the other students in his program were running low on money, he offered to cook dinner for a few of them, and soon was having people over for dinner almost every night. One night, he cooked for 10 people. "It was a disaster!" he says. But the overall experience and encouragement from his friends got him thinking that his real future might be in food.
Instead of applying for internships with think tanks, as many of his classmates were doing, Dan decided he would apprentice in a restaurant during the summer between his junior and senior year. The only thing was, he was super nervous to tell his parents. "My parents didn't come here from Hong Kong so that I could wash dishes in a kitchen," he says. But he laid out his plan for them, cooked for them to show off his skills, and in the end, they agreed to support him. He worked for a few months in the kitchen of a French restaurant in Philadelphia before doubt set in. The attitudes of the kitchen staff and the lack of respect for the food did not sit well with him. "The thing I loved about sharing food with people just wasn't there," he says.
Dan went back to school and graduated in 2008. He dreamed of becoming a consultant, traveling frequently and living well. Instead, in the face of a struggling job market, he found himself moving back in with his parents and temping in New York City. "I'll be honest," he says. "I was heartbroken." Soon, though, his friend John from Philly called him to share a plan he was forming with another friend, Franklin: a dessert-based food truck. They hoped that Dan would be their chef. Dan spent the next month cooking and baking up a storm, trying to get his skills up to par. His first tasting session didn't wow John and Franklin, and they implied that they might go in another direction.
Dan was distraught. Here was his chance to get back into the food business and it was slipping away. It wasn't until a few days later, when he was lying on the couch feeling bummed out, that something changed. "It was like a switch just flipped inside me," he says. "I got off the couch and went back into the kitchen and started working again." The food he began making from that point on was much better, and John and Franklin were back on board.
The Sugar Philly truck opened in January 2010. They started out selling restaurant-quality desserts, but soon realized that they needed something more suitable for people on the go. John thought of the French macarons that his girlfriend was obsessed with, and pitched the idea to Dan. After many rounds of tweaking (macarons require a high level of technique), they came up with a winning recipe and quickly became known for their tasty Parisian sweets.
They make traditional varieties like chocolate ganache and chocolate hazelnut, but their best stuff goes outside the box to explore unique flavors. Green tea, peanut butter apple, Samoa Girl Scout Cookie, milk and honey and maple walnut are just a few of the amazing combos Dan has created (he says they have over 200 flavors in total!). One of their wildest flavors, he says, was actually a special HubBub flavor: coffee, cashew, and pineapple! How amazing does that sound?
Dan says his flavor inspiration comes from all kinds of places, especially savory foods. He tells a story about dining at Zahav, an incredible Israeli restaurant in Old City, on a plate of beef cheeks with an apricot cilantro jam on top. The combination set off fireworks in his brain, and the next day, he created a macaron echoing the flavors from the jam on that dish. It is this impulse, searching high and low and in unexpected places for inspiration, that makes Dan and Sugar Philly's macarons so special.
When it comes to teaching yourself how to cook or bake, as he did, Dan has one main suggestion: focus on the why instead of the how. "Once you know why something works the way it does, it sets you free," he says. "From there, there's no limit to the things you can create." He especially recommends Alton Brown, food scientist extraordinaire, as a resource. We've been fans of Alton and his classic Food Network show Good Eats for forever, and also can't recommend him enough!
Thanks to Dan and the crew at Sugar Philly! Next time you're hankering for a special treat, check the case at HubBub for our selection of their lovely macarons!