Jen Zavala’s Juana Tamale Pop-Up Has a Permanent Home in East Passyunk

Plus George Sabatino news, a can't-miss event, and the return of Jean-Georges Philadelphia.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Zavala

Hello and welcome to the Tuesday version of Foobooz’s Monday News Round-Up. This week, we’ve got re-opening updates coming in from a couple of the biggest names on the scene, a cult tamale operation going brick-and-mortar, a can’t-miss Philly Chef Conference event, and free pizza in Wayne. So where to begin…

A Can’t-Miss Event

If, like me, you like talking about food and thinking about food even more than you like actually eating food, I’ve got the perfect event for you.

Next week (on July 14th to be exact), the Philly Chef Conference is presenting a talk and book signing by chef Mashama Bailey, John O. Morisano of The Grey in Savannah, Georgia, and Inquirer food editor Jamila Robinson. Bailey and Morisano going to be talking about their book, Black, White, and The Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant, which came out earlier this year, but also about the restaurant and their partnership.

I’ve read a few interviews with the two of them, and their story is interesting. Bailey is a Black woman and chef from Queens. Morisano is a white entrepreneur from Staten Island. Together, they opened a restaurant inside a converted Greyhound bus terminal in the heart of the South that presents a competing, constantly changing vision of regional Southern cuisine.

And the book does the same. Originally conceived in 2017, scheduled for publication in 2019, the authors pulled it back to re-work the manuscript together over six weeks in Paris. It was finally released in January, 2021, in the wake of COVID and the social justice protests, which made its conversations feel all the more vital.

“We have to talk to one another,” Bailey explained in one of the interviews. “And it’s going to be uncomfortable, but in order for us to figure out how to be fair or how to move forward and heal from how this country’s structured, we have to be open to looking at it differently and providing more opportunities for people.”

That’s a lot of what the book is about: talking to one another. And that’s what Bailey, Morisano and Robinson are going to be doing on the 14th. Tickets are $20, but that includes entrance to the event, a copy of the book, entrance to the signing and coffee and donuts from Federal Donuts and La Colombe. So it’s a steal is what I’m saying. Only problem? Attendance is limited to 50 people, so I’d get your tickets now if I were you.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Juana Tamale (@juanatamale)

And Now, Some Tamale News

Jennifer Zavala’s tamales and birria tacos have become something of a sensation. She draws long lines for her Juana Tamale pop-ups, was running business out of a grafitti-covered illegal tamale van that would just show up wherever tamales were required — she and her son, Santino, moving product as fast as they could before the law showed up.

Now, though, it looks like Zavala is going legit and looking to make a buck for herself. She announced over Instagram on Friday that Juana Tamale’s flighty youth was done and that she’d found a permanent, brick-and-mortar home for her operation right in the heart of South Philly. Come September, she’ll be operating out of 1941 East Passyunk Avenue — three days a week; brunch every other Sunday; a short, tight, six-item menu.

Not a lot of details right now, but we’ll certainly be keeping an eye on this one. For now, you can check out the Insta announcement yourself (and wish Zavala a little luck) right here.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by George Sabatino (@gwsabatino)

A Mano Gets a New Exec

Townsend Wentz’s A Mano has announced that its grand re-opening will be happening on Wednesday, July 14th. And while that’s pretty good news all on its own, this particular announcement comes with a kicker: Wentz has a new exec running the line at his acclaimed Italian BYO and it is none other than George Sabatino.

George has been everywhere. If any chef in Philly has truly seen the elephant, it’s Sabatino. He blew up huge years back at Stateside on East Passyunk when Philly’s nth neighborhood restaurant renaissance was kicking off. He did time at Fork and Monk’s and Morgan’s Pier, opened (and closed) Aldine (his own restaurant), which got three bells from LaBan and took me more than a year to review. He was culinary director for Safran Turney Hospitality, overseeing the kitchens and menus at all their restaurants, and then, most recently, bailed on the scene entirely — walking away to go live on a farm and learn about sustainable agriculture (a pandemic-inspired move which shall hereafter be called “pulling an Andiario”).

Now, though, he’s back. As of last week, he and the A Mano team were still debating dishes and suppliers and trying to get a finalized version of the re-opening menu ready to show to the press and the public. But that July 14th date? That’s a hard opening date. Reservations are being accepted, silverware is being polished. And even though it’s coming up fast, I’ve got faith that they’ll be able to pull everything together in time. That’s just how things work in the restaurant world. Everything happens at the last minute. The hour before the doors open is the busiest hour you’ll ever see. And somehow, it all just works.

No one is coming out of this pandemic the same as when they went in, and Sabatino is bringing lots of experience and a unique perspective to this line. Personally, I can’t wait to see what Sabatino does here.

A New Chef at the Top of the World

Remember Jean-Georges Philadelphia? For about a minute, it was the biggest news in the entire city — Michelin-starred, internationally-renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten coming to bless our humble little burg with his name and largesse in the form of a gorgeous, decadent restaurant set at the pinnacle of the tallest building in the city. There was caviar and lobster, white wine spritzers at the bar and the sense (pre-opening) that a place like this was a kind of message to the rest of the world that Philly had truly arrived.

And then, of course, the place opened. It was just as lovely as everyone thought it would be, just as swank, just as luxurious and pampering.

The food, though? The food simply … was. There was nothing wrong with it. Trouble was, there wasn’t really anything really right about it either. Eating there felt, more than anything, like a subtle lesson in risk avoidance. Like someone at the top whispering, now that we’ve got all the rich people in the city trapped in our glass-enclosed Palace Of Swell, we’d better not do anything to freak ‘em out.

Ultimately, JG’s place at the top of the Four Seasons fell out of all vital conversations being had about food in Philly and became just a beautiful box at the top of the world — pretty, but empty in all but the most literal sense.

Then came the pandemic, the shutdowns and the travel restrictions. Suddenly, a hotel restaurant — once such a sure bet — was the worst thing in the world to be. So JG went dark, all of its luxurious tables unfilled and its million-dollar views unseen.

Now, though, we’re getting the first hints that life might be returning. The Four Seasons is announcing that the restaurant will re-open sometime “in fall 2021,” and when it does, it’s going to have a brand new chef de cuisine running the kitchen.

Cornelia Sühr has had the kind of career most chefs only dream about. She’s cooked with Alain Ducasse in London and at Atelier in Munich. She went to Dubai to serve as the chef de cuisine at the St. Regis, then back to New York to cook at the Carlyle hotel and then with chef Alain Verzeroli at SHUN. Last year saw her back in Germany with her family, reconnecting with her roots, but now she’s coming to Philly to try and bring some new life to Jean-Georges.

And that’s going to be no small trick. Luxury and expense can be a trap sometimes. It can make you feel like you’re cooking within such a narrow range of acceptable opulence; that you must always justify cost with attendant culinary fireworks like caviar-this and foie gras-that. In this way, beauty, simplicity and subtlety can often take a backseat to just dusting everything with powdered gold and unicorn hair so no one feels like they’re being cheated.

I have had thousand-dollar dinners that felt like utter waste and ones that I’ll remember for all my born days. I’ve had two-dollar tacos that absolutely changed my life. The trick with a place like JG is finding that sweet middle ground on the menu where something is both luxurious and daring, adventurous, exciting, different. Something that isn’t about cost so much as value.

I’m really hoping Sühr can pull this off. Resume like hers? Maybe she can. Because it would be super awesome to have a place in Philly that’s both as gorgeous as Jean-Georges already is, but with food that’s just as impressive as the views.

Fall is a little ways off yet. Here’s hoping they can get it right this time.

Last But Not Least: Free Pizza

For decades, Spizzico Pizzeria has been a staple of Wayne’s red sauce economy. But since the beginning of this year a new couple — Vince Colibraro and Carla Ruscio — have slowly been transitioning into ownership. Over the past several months, they’ve been working on their pies, expanding the menu and getting settled into the space. And now they’re looking to officially make the place their own.

The new name will be Carla’s Pizzeria and it’ll feature classic, NY-style pizzas alongside South Philly-inspired sandwiches. Vince, who has been making pizza since he was 14, will be in the kitchen. Carla will run things in the front of the house. And to celebrate, they’re offering free slices on Wednesday, July 7th, from noon to 3 p.m. and one free sandwich with the purchase of a large pizza all day on the 7th.

You can check out the place (and the menu) here. Nice that they’re slinging hoagies made with rolls from Conshohocken Bakery and using local, family distributors to source their ingredients. Double-nice that they’ve got good looking calzones on the menu and a pizza called the “Loaded Jawn” that comes with french fries, bacon, Whiz and ranch dressing. I love it when these places get a little weird.