Taco Time: Heffe Reviewed
They were taking the Christmas lights down at Heffe on the day I showed up. Everyone was wearing gloves and hats; collars turned up against some of the first serious cold of the year. It was the kind of afternoon that made the smooth white stones of the outdoor seating area, the picnic tables, the sand-colored stucco of the walls and all the lime, the chilies, the summer-sunlight flavors kind of a joke. Who eats street tacos in January? In Philly?
No one but me … and the half dozen people already waiting ahead of me, and the additional half dozen who filed in behind. Enough people that maybe it isn’t really a joke anymore, but a question—semi-serious and a little bit darker: How desperate for tacos do you have to be to risk frostbite in Fishtown just to get your fix?
Heffe has no indoor seating, just those red picnic tables. There’s no dining room, no service, no silver, no booze. No credit cards are accepted (it’s cash on the barrelhead, but relatively cheap), though if you count the two column heaters and those Christmas lights (now gone), an ATM makes up fully one quarter of the exterior decor.
What there is is a taco stand conceived by chef/raconteur Peter McAndrews—better known for his Italian restaurants (Modo Mio, Monsu, Paesano’s), his horsemeat grandstanding, big gloppy sandwiches, and a foundational belief that no dish is done until there’s an egg on top. Or gloppy melted cheese. Or, preferably, both. It’s McAndrews’s name that makes Heffe notable—this Irish-American guy dedicated to sandwiches and lasagna suddenly making a left turn into Taco Town—plus Philly’s taco obsession, its boom in dedicated, chef-y taco shacks, its history with the small, the weird and the novel.
Heffe itself is nothing but a tiny kitchen inside a stucco box with a small window through which orders are taken and tacos are dispensed. They’ve got a freestanding cooler a couple steps away, and a chalkboard menu full of tacos and burritos with goofy names. The Mac Daddy has beef cheek and butternut squash, red chimichurri and mostarda. The Poleyo (like pollo, get it?) is fried chicken thighs with ancho mayo, shredded cabbage for texture and some Mexican cheese for bulk, and it’s good. It’s a fried-chicken taco. How could it be bad? The kitchen (such as it is) avoids fucking it up by simply not doing very much to it.
I ate the Al(most) Pastor tacos twice and loved them both times—pork, pineapple, some matchstick-cut radish (perfect utilization, WAY better than slices) and a gentle salsa. With a squeeze of lime for acid, and eaten while standing around under the halos of pole lights, they were perfect. On the other end of the spectrum, the Bellicimo burrito is a monster of overindulgence, as thick as my forearm and stuffed with tender paprika-spiced lamb belly, pickled jalapeño, melted cheese, chickpeas and green chimichurri. It’s genius because it removes all imaginary country-of-origin labels from the notion of a burrito. Makes it Middle Eastern, Turkish, Indian, Spanish, Argentine, what-have-you. Also, it tastes good, which is, you know, important.
Yes, there are examples of excess gone wrong (kind of a trademark for McAndrews, really), where the urge to go big, to keep adding elements, smothers any chance at goodness (like the Kraken, a taco with fried octopus and chimichurri, plus spicy tomato jam, and Mexican mozzarella, AND queso fresco), and others where the need for simplicity, seemingly baked into the design, is just ignored. The Plain Jane is supposed to be an entry-level taco, but it veers off in a roasted-tomato-plus-additional-salsa direction, adds extra grease and extra salt, and seasons the beef with something more complicated than Old El Paso taco seasoning, which, rather than improving it, makes it taste like it was briefly boiled in old hot-dog water. The Tijuana Poutine is horrifying in the light of day—a big tray of waffle fries, white American cheese, grilled onions and pickled jalapeños, the whole mess topped with too-sweet, too-smoky, too adobo-y “Mexican chili” made with giant chunks of beef, then some crema and an over-easy egg—but is probably the perfect thing to eat after they throw you out of the Yachtsman across the street for binge-drinking mai tais and propositioning the bathroom fixtures.
Here’s the thing, though—and I know this is gonna sound weird, but hear me out. My problem with Heffe isn’t the occasional missteps; it’s that there’s only one of it. Because while I might be tempted to drive across town for another brace of Almost Pastor tacos or walk a few blocks for a Bellicimo, there’s not much else on the menu at Heffe that’s worth considering unless Heffe is right there.
There’s a Chinese restaurant two minutes from my house. Objectively, I can say that it’s just a decent American-Chinese takeout operation with good eggrolls (they always use clean oil) and sweet-and-sour chicken. But in reality, I love the place. I go there all the time. I recommend it to neighbors. And I do this because it’s two minutes away. If it were 10 minutes away, I’d never go. I know this because there’s a different Chinese restaurant that’s about 10 minutes away and I’ve never gone there.
So Heffe’s problem is that it needs to be the restaurant next door to everyone in the city. You live on Frankford Ave in Fishtown? Good for you, pal. You should totally put on three or four scarves and ride your bike over for some tacos. But right now, every chef in the city should be cruising the streets looking for vacant lots, because the Heffe model—small, self-contained, no bullshit, offering a few interesting, satisfying or inebriation-dependent options—is a solid one. Be good enough and be close, that’s the motto.
And put an egg on everything. Because this is still Philly. And for some reason, we still think that’s remarkable.
Stars: 2 stars – Come if you’re in the neighborhood.