Latin American Restaurants and Food in Philadelphia
Philly’s Hispanic population is mostly made up of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, two Latin cultures that use similar ingredients but totally different cooking techniques. You’ll find the best Puerto Rican food in one neighborhood in North Philly, while Mexican food is more ubiquitous. Look out for a new wave of Mexican chefs who are combining authentic cooking with more attention to detail — the results are game-changing.
Puerto Rican Food in Philadelphia
If local Puerto Ricans have a Peach Pit, it’s Porky’s Point (3824 North 5th Street, 215-221-6243), which sits at the base of a triangular intersection and doles out takeout food from windows, like a shack at a pool club. The friendly guys taking orders will walk you through the platters, pigs’ ears and frituras (fried snacks that are a staple of the cuisine). Don’t leave without ordering the pork sandwich, in which shreds of pulled pork are stuffed into a South Philly-style hoagie roll. And if you think you don’t like fried plantains (tostones), try them again. The ones here have a crisp outside and a hot inside, like a souped-up, meatier kettle chip.
For something beyond street food, go to El Bohio (2746 North 5th Street, 215-425-5991), a corner restaurant on the main artery of the El Centro de Oro neighborhood. Here, the play is to skip the frituras and go straight to the heartier stuff. The chicken soup comes in a crock and is bright in flavor and thick with rice. The blood sausage, pork and steak mains are all highly seasoned, and the pollo, with its magically crisp skin, will have you rethinking what good fried chicken can be.
Freddy and Tony’s (201 West Allegheny Avenue, 215-634-3889) has been around for decades and is the place for P.R. classics. (Plus, the well-versed staff is used to the occasional gringo wandering in.) Wait in line for takeout up front, or ask for a table in the side dining room — but first, take a peek in the hot box in the window, which is full of frituras, and get whatever looks freshly fried — like the relleno de papa, a mashed-potato-and-beef round the size of a softball. Mofongo is a traditional dish with crispy pork skin that’s punched up with plantain and garlic and served in a wooden mini-keg — if you want it, get it here.
Mexican Food in Philadelphia
Most of Philadelphia’s Mexican population comes from Puebla, a region in the southern part of the country with people who pride themselves on their excellent food. A second wave of Pueblan-style restaurants is being opened by chefs who have worked their way through high-end Center City restaurants and are adding some polish to their hometown cooking.
Quetzally (1225 Fitzwater Street, 215-735-2326) is run by a father and son who are turning out colorful, fresh and light dishes from their year-old casual spot. Get the barbacoa sopes — puffy hand-formed corn cakes topped with a mountain of slow-cooked shredded lamb and crisp lettuce. Blue Corn (940 South 9th Street, 215-925-1010), another newbie, is more restaurant than taqueria and makes good use of a liquor license. (See the sidebar) The excellent dishes have all these little stand-out details that make the restaurant instantly memorable: Quesadillas are delicate (made with mozzarella-like Oaxaca cheese and a light house-made corn tortilla), and the tampiquena is a filet mignon pounded thin, generously seasoned and marinated, and served up with a folded enchilada in a deep mole sauce.
In South Philly, there are three favorite taquerias. El Jarocho (1138 South 13th Street, 215-463-2205) has tacos al pastor (slow-cooked rotisserie-like pork shaved thin into a taco) sweetened up with pineapple. Los Gallos (951 Wolf Street, 215-551-1245) is tucked into the back of a convenience store and has tacos a la plancha, with corn tortillas cradling grilled meats (tripe and tongue for the more daring) accented by cactus and jalapeño. La Fonda de Teresita (1446 South 8th Street, 215-334-4500) has sopes that look like flatbreads and are loaded with salsa, as well as spicy, plump shrimp. There’s also breakfast all day (huevos rancheros), which is good for those of us who consider noon a perfectly reasonable time for our first meal. For a true fusion of South Philly, Rosario’s Pizzeria and Restaurant (1501 Wharton Street, 215-755-4555) offers burritos and quesadillas, and also wings, stromboli, and a whole section of Mexican pizzas topped with al pastor pork, chipotle-tomato sauce, cactus and more.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.