This is especially true in the Taco Belt that is the Italian Market, where a rapidly expanding repertoire of no-frills kitchens caters to the authentic crowds of Baja Filadelfia. Not unlike the richly overlapping patchwork of Chinatown's storefront eateries, many of these have similar menus, but each exhibits its own distinctive strengths. There may not be one stellar champ that captures the entire breadth of Mexican cuisine on a single menu. But they are getting there quite nicely as a collective force.
So I no longer have one favorite taqueria but many, with different destinations depending on the dish, whether it's tacos al pastor (Los Taquitos de Puebla), a bowl of green chile pozole (Restaurant Acapulco), or barbacoa tacos and huitlacoche quesadillas pressed between homemade tortillas (La Lupe).
The fact that our latest worthy addition to Philly's taqueria team - Que Chula es Puebla - isn't even close to the Italian Market is only further proof of the pervasive power of our rising Mexi-strength.
Named by charming owner Delfina Pacio after the popular song by Rafael Hernandez, Que Chula es Puebla ("How Beautiful Is Puebla?") stands like a cheery stucco sentry at the corner of Second and Master in lower Kensington, the only building left on an otherwise razed city block that has big ambitions for condo redevelopment. It's a simple and freshly tidied space inside, but nothing special, with serapes on the wall and ranchera music pumping through the room.
Often, though, and especially with traditional ethnic cuisines, that glimmer of something special reveals itself in the most mundane places: here, in the complimentary tortilla chips drizzled with bean dip.
Somehow, these warm chips were more intensely corny and addictive than usual. But it was really the bean dip that snapped my taste buds to attention, its crema-like puree of pinto purity erasing a thousand sludgy refried rejects from my mind. Even the house salsas on the side, a fire-orange froth of toasted guajillos and chipotles, and a green jalapeño balm of tangy tomatillos creamed with avocados, had laserlike vibrance and punch.
That confident homemade touch bolstered so many of these familiar flavors that a fair number of items here rated high on my unofficial citywide dish-by-dish rankings.
The guacamole platter, for example, spiked with standing rows of chips like a Guaca-saurus Rex, eschews the typical creamy blandness for a zesty, rustic feel. The coarsely mashed avocados sparked with snappy bits of onions, tomatoes, jalapeños, and an herby cilantro streak that drove my tablemates to a scooping frenzy.
Que Chula's mole poblano is especially spot-on, and there's a reason it tastes so authentic: Pacio's mother, Catalina Tepoz, makes it in her native Puebla and regularly ships batches north. This mysteriously dark puree has only a measured sweetness and a more assertive spice compared with most Philly varieties, in part because it harbors no chocolate. But it is beguilingly complex, with a soft natural sweetness from ripe plantains and raisins, a shadow-black hue from burnt tortillas, an earthy spice from dried mulatos and smoked chipotles, and a nutty richness from almonds, peanuts and sesame. Reanimated in a refry of good old manteca (a.k.a. lard), it gilds a platter of chicken enchiladas with an almost magnetic glow.
Of course, Que Chula's location adds a different spice to the clientele than you'd find in South Philly, with more gringos from the gentrifying river wards of Fishtown and Northern Liberties than Mexicans. And there are a few awkward moments on this menu where owner Pacio, a charming new restaurateur who is understandably eager to welcome all comers, caters too willingly to norteamericano cliches.
Note the hastily penned-in "ground beef" option for the tacos and chimichangas. Or the store-bought flour tortillas for the quesadillas (they'll make them fresh from corn masa upon request, a good idea). Or, God help us, the lurid yellow streams of Cheez Whiz that polluted Que Chula's nachos supreme.
Why, I wondered in shock as I fished the sublimely tender shreds of braised beef from beneath the wreckage of those Whiz-streaked chips, would such a skilled kitchen ever stoop to such an abomination?
Most proud Mexicans, Pacio concedes, would likely never order a folly like nachos supreme. My fellow Americans: neither should you!
There are too many genuine Mexican flavors to be savored here. And lest I worry that Que Chula es Puebla was not quite as authentic as I thought it was, a big bowl of Sunday pancita stew dispelled that notion. Even my most adventurous companions paused at the edge of their bowls as if peering into Aztec pits of hot lava - their trepidation heightened by the thick hunks of skin-wrapped bone (cow foot) and what appeared to be frilly ribbons of terry-cloth bathrobe (tripe). Ah, if only terry cloth were so tender and tasty - but it wasn't for everyone.
The whole table agreed, though, that the special Sunday pozole was a dish worth coming for. The stew brought fistfuls of tender cubed pork (with just the right amount of fat still on) and puffy kernels of hominy corn in a guajillo-red broth layered with bay leaf and thyme. Scattered at the table with a fresh "verdura" of minced onions and oregano, plus a squirt of lime, each spoonful was a fiesta of contrasting textures and earthy savor.
As a relatively new restaurant, Que Chula still has rough edges to polish. There's no concept of pacing here, and the all-at-once delivery is cumbersome with a lot of food. And there are a few off dishes to be avoided, like the overgrilled shrimp, the dry green tamale, and the quesadilla filled with low-grade cheese.
But these misses were the exception from a kitchen that cooked through the taqueria canon with notable consistency, from the chipotle-spiced shreds of chicken tinga to the chorizo-tinged suadero brisket (campechanos), pork glazed in a barbecuey "al pastor" brew of clove-scented pineapple-guajillo, and meltingly soft chunks of "whole pig" carnitas braised in Corona and Coke.
Even the torta Milanesa was an unexpected delight, a delicately breaded chicken cutlet sandwiched in the buttery puff of griddled bread with fresh avocado, ham and shreds of Oaxaca string cheese.
So, is Que Chula es Puebla the best new taqueria in Philly? I might not go quite that far yet. There are still so many to explore. But the mere fact that we have such riches to ponder now only makes the question that much more satisfying. What did we do in the dark decades before our Mexican revolution?
As I took a forkful of Que Chula's cool flan and let the stunningly creamy caramel custard melt on my tongue, I shuddered at the thought.
Next Sunday, Restaurant Critic Craig LaBan reviews Slate near Rittenhouse Square. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.