Rick Nichols: Mexican grocery in South Philly has big plans

Owner Luz Jimenez outside Los Gallos, his store at 10th and Wolf that has been open eight months and proudly offers traditional Mexican fare.
Owner Luz Jimenez outside Los Gallos, his store at 10th and Wolf that has been open eight months and proudly offers traditional Mexican fare.
Posted: September 16, 2010

One block east of the Bomb Bomb Bar-be-que Grill in deep South Philly (four blocks before Oregon), you encounter what is ostensibly a Mexican corner grocery, necklaced in car-lot pennants, the exterior, in this case, a brash habanero-orange.

It is not immediately apparent here at Los Gallos, 10th and Wolf, but behind the stacked tortillas and bottles of pickled corn smut (the prized Mexican fungus called huitlacoche), there resides a tiny taqueria, itching to make its move.

Six tables today, tomorrow - who knows?

If you eat here, though - and you'd be well advised to sample the chorizo tacos with chopped cilantro and onion; and the tacos el pastor, glistening marinated pork sliced from a vertical spit and graced with a guitar-pick of pineapple - and if you hear the story of Luz Jimenez, you cannot help rooting for his plan to gobble up his grocery space and turn it over to tacos (and tortas, the hot sandwiches, and quesadillas, including a toothsome, not pasty, huitlacoche version, and enchiladas that are layered like lasagna, not rolled, the green tomatillo-sauced ones far superior to the rougher brown mole-sauced ones).

Jimenez, dark-eyed, short hair swept into a peak, is 29, and his family lives upstairs.

And if the Bomb Bomb down the street harks to another era, to the great Italian migration of a century ago, there are immigrant echoes here - of learning the language (which Jimenez has done triumphantly), learning the ropes, making your case, taking your lumps.

He arrives at the table, sizing up the assembled gringos, offering photos to accompany the menu, giving a tutorial on his specials, though the tripe bubbling in the pot in the sparkling kitchen won't be ready until evening.

For a dollar extra, he suggests, you might want to add Mexican cheese to the tacos. The side of guacamole - a big bowl of fresh, lush guacamole with chips - seems too much for $6.50: "We can do a half order," Jimenez volunteers, without pause.

Los Gallos is named for the street in San Mateo, outside Mexico City, where Jimenez grew up: "The Roosters," he says it was called and, yes, roosters roamed the streets.

He joined the corps of dishwashers and prep cooks - most of them from Puebla, too - who have powered the city's restaurant kitchens for a decade, doing time at long-closed Cibucan, and Melograno, Bonte, the Belgian waffle house, and the redo of Oyster House on Sansom Street, where he cooked fish on the flat-top grill.

But he has something in common, as well, with the pioneers from Puebla who rose from the ranks - planting Las Cazuelas on Girard Avenue, opening the thriving Taquitos de los Puebla on Ninth Street (which has an open-air stand at the Sunday farm market at Headhouse Square), and another Jimenez, Dionicio, who apprenticed at venerable Vetri, and went on to open Xochitl in Society Hill, and now El Rey, the latest Mexican eatery in the Starr firmament.

When city inspectors told Luz Jimenez the kitchen in his newly leased space didn't have the proper zoning, he took photos of the well-scrubbed cleanliness of his premises, noted that his family lived there, right upstairs, got letters of backing from neighbors and from the civic association, and, as he tells it, was told (he pokes his thumbs up) after presenting his case to the zoning board: "We support you!"

He strung his festive pennants across the sidewalk, stop sign to street-cleaning-hours sign.

Can't do that, the inspectors came back and told him.

So he has redeployed them on the walls outside.

At 10th and Wolf, he is playing by the rules.

And he's playing for keeps.

Los Gallos

951 Wolf St.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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