Jennifer Zavala on Haters, Bad Employees, and Why She’s Leaving Philly

Plus, the Juana Tamale owner explains why on earth she got a tattoo of Steve Keeley.

Jen Zavala, owner of Juana Tamale, inside the South Philadelphia restaurant

Jen Zavala, owner of Juana Tamale, inside the South Philadelphia restaurant / Photograph by Gene Smirnov

Behind the Line is Foobooz’s interview series with the people who make up Philly’s dynamic food and beverage scene. For the complete archives, go here.

South Philly chef Jennifer Zavala has had one hell of a strange Philly trip. Illegal graffiti-covered tamale trucks parked in secret locations. DIY crime-foiling sting operations. A vegan meatball controversy that got blown wildly out of proportion. But now, the owner of Juana Tamale on Passyunk Avenue says it’s time to get out of town.

I’ve lived in Philly since… 2008 or 2009. I still don’t know why I came here! I was living in New York but had to move to this area to be close to a sick relative in South Jersey. And I knew for a fact that I didn’t want to live in New Jersey, so Philly it was. It’s a decision I am still digesting. I first lived near Kensington and then moved to South Philly.

My restaurant gigs in Philly included… El Camino Real, Xochitl when Cook n’ Solo owned it, Amada, Will BYOB and Rex. And then I did some of my own catering, and even got to cater for the Rolling Stones when they came here.

To people who’ve never been to South Philly, I would describe it as… what you’d get if the Wing Bowl and church had a baby. There’s a little bit of a moral direction to it all, but that can just evaporate at any second. Oh, we would never do that! And then five seconds later, all hell can break loose. [Growls loudly] Kill everything! You really don’t know what you’re going to get.

I learned to cook from… watching my grandmother — from Chichen Itza, Mexico — and my mom, who is Bulgarian and Russian. I started cooking for myself at a very young age. I was a latchkey kid like most of us in the 90s. And I dropped out of school and moved out on my own quite young. I was always cooking for myself.

I opened Juana Tamale… in 2021 with disdain, resistance and regrets. Opening a business in this city is brutal. Dealing with the city government is top-notch frustrating and archaic at best, almost like you need to communicate by homing pigeons and smoke signals. And the public can be tough to deal with. Think about the reputation we have as a sports town. People in Philly will wish cancer on your grandmother over a parking spot just like they will wish cancer on another sports team, and that’s a lot of who walks into a restaurant. All of that can be rough. But I knew I was a good cook and a good person and I am funny, so I thought those three things would help cushion this experience. I was naive to think that.

jennifer zavala and her illegal tamale truck in 2017

Jennifer Zavala and her illegal tamale truck in 2017 (photo by Mike Whiter)

Since opening Juana Tamale, my life has become… unmanageable. I feel powerless and have definitely become a different person. I can’t really describe it any more than that without crying. It’s really hard. Small restaurants like mine are closing left and right, and I’m right behind them. The city takes so much from everyone. It’s fucking brutal. We didn’t have a street for weeks due to construction. The business association… let’s just say I am not wanted in this neighborhood. I have had every city department called on me. I get very little support in part because, God forbid, I made vegan meatballs. And maybe I went to a few protests. My presence here has created a reputation for me that turns me into an enemy. Everybody thinks I’m some libtard who voted for Hillary and who wants to have a siesta every weekend.

Since the whole vegan meatball controversy, some more recent trouble I’ve gotten into has been… because of my review of Philip’s Steaks, which I posted on my private Instagram page and some guy took it and posted it in these South Philly Facebook groups. People say all this great shit about Philip’s Steaks, just like Dalessandro’s keeps winning these “awards” for best cheesesteaks, which is a total joke. So I got a cheesesteak from Philip’s, and I wrote that it tasted like shit and that the only people who could possibly like this were people who like Christopher Columbus. What I meant by that is that people who like Philip’s like it because of the idea of what Philip’s was in old South Philly, the way it used to be. But all these people are accusing me of being racist against Italians. No. It’s just a bad cheesesteak.

The best thing that’s happened to me since opening Juana Tamale has been… cooking for the Eagles, which I just did last week. I got to go down and use their kitchen and cook lunch for all of the staffers and players. And I met Jalen Hurts, who said my tacos were awesome. I almost died! They were all there. Jason Kelce. It was incredible. The Eagles food and beverage director asked me a while ago about cooking for them. But I kind of let it go. I didn’t want to be too pushy. And about a month ago, I felt pretty ready to close the business, and I thought that before I do that, I have to make this dream come true of cooking for the Eagles. So I made a phone call and it happened.

Now that I’ve fulfilled that dream… I can’t say what is going to happen. My lease is up in July. But I can’t say if I am going to be open in a week, just to be totally honest with you. That’s a hard thing to say. But, I’m on my 23rd day of minimum fourteen hours straight. But if my business fails, I blame the city — not me.

When somebody tells me they want to open a restaurant, I tell them… to start drinking! [Laughs] And good luck with staff. I was a fool. I put myself out there so much, sticking my neck out as an activist, talking about workers’ rights, speaking at City Council meetings. And what happens? Most of the people I’ve hired don’t give two shits about me.

If you really want to piss me off… show up late for work. I can’t even begin to tell you what it’s like these days. There are so few people with any work ethic. Recently, I had this guy. I told him I would pay him $20 per hour, plus we do the mandatory 20 percent tip on all checks, and we pool the tips. So I told him at the slowest times, you’re making at least $27 an hour. He told me the job doesn’t offer enough flexibility. He said, “I have a new girlfriend, and sometimes I see her on the weekends.” I’m like, “Go fuck yourself!” You’re making $27 an hour. You have four days off. That’s not enough?

The problem with workers today is that… they feel so entitled. I have such a different perspective on things now. It used to be: Why did you fire this person? And now I look at the person complaining and I say, what kind of employee were you? Did you call out all the time? Never once in my 45 years of being alive did I call out because I had my period. Now, it happens all the time. We are all fucked. I had one employee who went on vacation and was like, “I need to take off so I can rest a day now that I’m back from vacation.” I said, “Yeah, why don’t you just take Thursday off, too, so you can get acclimated?” I was, of course, being passive aggressive. He said OK!!! I said, “Why don’t you just take the whole weekend off?!” He did!

If I were to lead a South Philly food tour, I would take you to… Avenue Steaks for your cheesesteak experience. Then we would go right next door to Pop’s Water Ice. We would also visit Pho Cyclo, because they have the best pho in the city. Hands down. I will fight that to the death. And if we’re doing anything formal and fancy, I would take you to River Twice.

The most overrated chef in Philadelphia is… Jen Zavala! [Laughs] People are sick of my name. You should have low expectations when you meet me or when you come into my restaurant. It can only go up from there.

The percentage of my body covered in tattoos and piercings is probably… 80 percent. My last tattoo was on my face under my chin and around my side burns. Fill-in work. Prior to that was my world-famous tattoo of Steve Keeley. In a city of characters, there is no character more “Philadelphia” than Steve Keeley. I’m not into his crime reporting. But c’mon. He is the most Philadelphia thing ever. A true icon.

The tattoo Juana Tamale owner Jennifer Zavala got in honor of Steve Keeley

The tattoo Juana Tamale owner Jennifer Zavala got in honor of Steve Keeley (images courtesy Jennifer Zavala)

One thing you should never put on a pizza is… weed. A guy opened a shop called Stoned Pizzeria down at 5th and Bainbridge. You could go in or order it on GrubHub and whatever. You could get pizza covered with weed and all sorts of other weed stuff. He got shut down because he didn’t have the proper food license. Think about that. The man was selling weed pizza on GrubHub and the city shuts him down over a piece of paper. The weed, that was perfectly fine. But they wanted their piece of paper.

One thing you should never put on a cheesesteak is… anything truffle or “artisanal”. Once you start getting “artisanal” it’s done.

If I knew the world were going to end tomorrow, I would immediately eat… as many magic mushrooms as I possibly can. I’m gonna see Jesus.

One year from now… I will not be in Philadelphia. I really think Pennsylvania is a beautiful state, so hopefully we can find something that works and that’s far enough away from Philly. It’s really hard to function here on a daily basis. I mean, just finding a parking spot is enough to push you over the edge. It should’t be this hard. You have to worry about having to park eight blocks from where you need to go and then you need to worry that you’re going to get shot or stabbed on the way back to your car and if you don’t get shot or stabbed, there will probably be a ticket on your car or it will have been towed. So I don’t know where we’re going. But we definitely plan on being gone.

[Ed. note: Zavala called us after we published this story to clarify that she does not intend to close Juana Tamale prior to the expiration of her lease in July and that though she plans to leave Philadelphia, the restaurant could remain open even once she moves.]

The next big trend in restaurants is going to be… closing. Craig LaBan says the restaurant scene is on fire. No it’s the fuck not! Do you realize how many small places have closed or will be closing? Small indie places are dying. The large chain and “restaurant group” places, they are all packed. But other than that in Philly, forget about it. On the other hand, I just went to this dim sum place in South Jersey the other night I had been hearing about. A midweek visit. And guess what? It was packed like all hell. Philly has such a bad rap. Why isn’t there more positive news to counter the crime? I know that crime sells. But we can’t wake up everyday to everything being about killings and carjackings. We need to change the pulse of the city.

I wish that diners would… support more small, independent places like mine. We need it. It feels like our backs are up against the wall. So I hope somebody reading this will come and try my food and like it and let me make them laugh. Either that, or I’m going to get killed over a cheesesteak.