Photographed by Michael Persico
When Alex Tewfik opened Mish Mish in 2022, his sophisticated yet spirited restaurant on Philadelphia’s bustling East Passyunk strip, two items absolutely had to be on the menu: One was a baby octopus dish, inspired by an eye-opening visit to Michelin-starred Thai restaurant Uncle Boons in New York City years ago. The other was Armenian string cheese.
With a bottle of Portuguese bubbly in hand, Tewfik moves through the restaurant’s candlelit dining room with the easy enthusiasm of someone who’s exactly where he should be. He started working in restaurants as a teen, then continued while studying business at St. Joseph’s University. The Mish Mish space across from the Singing Fountain—a hub of activity on South Philly’s restaurant row—is where he worked a formative serving gig after college, and when that restaurant closed in 2021, Tewfik’s old boss helped him clinch the deal.
Before Mish Mish, Tewfik was better known for writing about restaurants than working in them. After a pandemic wake-up call, he left his job as food editor for Philadelphia Magazine to open the restaurant he’d always wanted. “A tiny, tiny menu. Very easy, simple dishes,” he says. “I just want it to be a really fun night out.” He gave chef Kyle McCormick, an alum of Top Chef winner Nick Elmi’s restaurant Laurel, free reign to create the menu—as long as those dream dishes were represented.
Armenian string cheese, the pulled-curd braid studded with tiny black nigella seeds, was served at family gatherings in Tewfik’s Egyptian-Russian household when he was growing up. Now, it’s a nod to how his upbringing shaped his vision for Mish Mish. “There’s this kind of Middle Eastern hospitality, which includes the food, the energy, the space, and the welcoming and warm atmosphere,” he says. “I’m really trying to achieve a certain level of energy, a vibe that I grew up with that’s specific to—at least from my experience—Middle Eastern culture. I’m just doing it in a Millennial, first-generation American sort of way.”
But when he brought in a sample and dutifully untangled the braid into snackable shreds, the team didn’t feel inspired. “When it’s on its own in a bowl on a table, it kind of falls flat,” he says. “And then I was like, ‘Kyle, can we fry this?’
McCormick developed a batter that transforms the wavy, bouncy strings into crisp curls that billow like clouds on the plate. “It was one of those rare moments where the very first one I made, I realized, ‘Oh, this is it,’” McCormick says.
Despite its resemblance to squiggly, golden funnel cake, McCormick didn’t want the dish to eat like fair food. To create a batter that fries up light and delicate, he blends beer and vodka with cake flour and leavening. Once the hot cheese is on the plate, he sprinkles a nigella-based spice powder on top, a nod to its traditional flavoring. Each order comes with a cup of red sauce on the side—but instead of long-stewed marinara, the chef buzzes tomato, jalapeno, onion, and garlic with lemon juice and tamarind puree to make a dip that brightens up each bite.
“I tell tables to treat it like mozzarella sticks,” Tewfik says. “It’s really fun to see how people deal with the cheese pull, because it’s intense. You can stretch that thing a full arm’s length and it won’t snap.”
McCormick’s skillful use of cultured dairy runs throughout Mish Mish’s menu, whether he’s shaving pecorino on a salad with apples and puffed farro or serving pomegranate-lacquered chicken atop labneh and soft leeks. “Cheese is so versatile. It’s my go-to when I need to add a little bit of depth and savoriness and complexity,” he says. That talent extends to dessert, too. “A Cheese Plate, Kinda Sorta” is a fluffy blanket of finely shaved L’Amuse Gouda over swirls of brandied cherries and rich hazelnut praline, served with a spoon so that the elements must be enjoyed together, bite by bite.
But the lure of that cheese pull is strong. The fried Armenian string cheese has become one of the most popular dishes on Mish Mish’s menu, a flagship small plate that sums up Tewfik’s vision: easy, simple, fun.
McCormick can look out from the open kitchen and watch guests delight at the hot, molten cheese. “Nobody’s confused by it. They’re just like, ‘Oh, this is fried cheese, but it’s so good,’” he says. “And that’s perfect. That’s what we want.”
Fried Armenian String Cheese with Tomato-Tamarind Sauce and Nigella Powder
- 2 28-ounce cans peeled whole tomatoes
- 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons tamarind paste
- 2 jalapeño peppers, stems and seeds removed
- 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
- Half-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
- 1/2 Spanish onion, peeled and chopped
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- Juice of 1½ large lemons , about 1/3 cup
- Pinch Aleppo pepper
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons nigella seeds
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon sumac
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 tablespoon baking soda
- 1 cup light beer (the restaurant uses Miller High Life)
- 1/2 cup unflavored vodka (use an inexpensive brand)
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 1 braid of Armenian string cheese, separated into 4 thick ropes
- Vegetable oil, for frying
- Place all ingredients into a large bowl.
- Puree with an immersion blender until combined but still somewhat chunky.
- Sauce can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. Use any leftover sauce as you would marinara, or with grilled meats and rice.
- Toast nigella seeds and peppercorns in a skillet over medium heat until fragrant, watching carefully so they don’t burn.
- Let seed mixture cool, then buzz in a spice grinder with remaining ingredients.
- Combine first 7 ingredients in a large bowl, whisking well to blend.
- Heat vegetable oil in a large deep skillet until it reaches 375°F on a kitchen thermometer.
- Submerge cheese into batter and let most of it drip off so it’s lightly covered.
- Slowly dip all 4 cheese pieces into hot oil to avoid splattering. Fry on one side for 1 minute, then flip and fry for 1 minute on the other side. Transfer to a paper towel–lined baking sheet.
- Dust cheese pieces with nigella powder and serve immediately with tomato-tamarind sauce for dipping.