Doing the basics of your job is expected. Like if you’re a babysitter, you make sure the kids don’t fall down the stairs, and if you’re a motivational speaker, you say cliche things into a microphone. But being great at what you do takes a lot more than just the bare minimum, which is where White Dog Cafe comes up short. It does all of the easy things well, but anytime it tries to get creative with the menu, the results are a letdown.
White Dog Cafe is located inside a little brownstone next to Penn's campus that's full of fake taxidermied dog heads on the walls and has one of those menus that doesn’t quite fit in a box. You’ll see everything from pasta to arepas to pho, which makes it an easy choice for students to bring their parents when they want to prove to them that they’re actually respectable adults. The versatile menu also means that, whether you’re here for a weeknight dinner or a weekend brunch, White Dog is usually busy.
The problem is that even though the menu has lots of things that look creative and interesting, they all ultimately fall very flat. Like the seared yellowfin tuna, which is served in a bowl with vermicelli noodles, bok choy, some pickled chili peppers, and then, as if they mixed up their recipes, braised beef brisket. A server pours an herb pho broth over the whole thing and even though the presentation is impressive, it’s actually a very bland and criminally overpriced ($33) bowl of pho. The broth is basically warm brown water, the seared tuna is well-cooked but completely flavorless, and the brisket, which is the only thing that has any sort of distinguishable flavor, is somehow dry even when it’s soaked in the broth.
If this was the only sad dish on the menu, we might just call it an anomaly and move on, but there are a lot of other things that end up being flavorless or otherwise off. The arepas are so dry that you’ll have to flag the waiter down for a refill of water every few bites. And the Kennett Square Mushroom Soup, which has been on their menu for years, has the consistency of a watery smoothie and tastes pretty much just like truffle oil, with no other seasoning.
There are still reasons you might end up at White Dog, like at the request of a family friend who’s helping you do your taxes or when you need a place near Penn to meet someone for a quick drink and some roasted garlic hummus. And it is possible to eat a decent (if a bit overpriced) meal here if you stick to the dishes that are hard to screw up, like the pulled pork mac & cheese or the butternut squash ravioli. It’s just not a place you need to go out of your way to try.
The flavor of the mushrooms is overpowered by the truffle creme fraiche and is otherwise pretty bland. No need to get this.
The arepas themselves are quite dry, and the black beans and squash inside them are always a bit undercooked. The salsa verde is perfectly spicy, though, and if the arepas didn’t leave us needing a sip of water after every bite, this could be a very good dish.
Simple, great mac and cheese. If you find yourself here, you can’t go wrong with sharing a bowl of this.
A totally non-offensive plate of butternut squash ravioli with rosemary pesto and apples. It won’t blow you away, but it’s one of the better things on the menu.
This is one of the saddest dishes we have eaten in recent memory. The broth is basically warm water and there’s no flavor in any of the ingredients. It’s also $33, so you could get a better bowl of pho at pretty much any other place in town for a third of the price.
The catfish is fine and completely edible, but not great. However, the grits and red pepper sauce that come underneath the catfish are pretty good. We’d happily come here just to sit at the bar, have a cocktail, and eat a bowl of these grits topped with some red pepper sauce.
It sounds so decadent and rich, but it always comes out kind of lukewarm as though it’s just been reheated in a microwave, and it’s much drier than it should be.
You could buy this at a supermarket for $3, so please don’t spend $10 on it.