A taco-tasting expedition in South Philly finds prices low, spiciness high, and authenticity abundant.

Los Taquitos de Puebla cook Evansto Torres slices pork from a trompo al pastor to make tacos al pastor. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)
Los Taquitos de Puebla cook Evansto Torres slices pork from a trompo al pastor to make tacos al pastor. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 15, 2011

Philadelphia has taco fever. Korean tacos, breakfast tacos, cookie tacos, not to mention all the roving taco trucks. The proliferation of fusion-y options has left us hankering for one thing: authenticity. And with the steady stream of Mexicans who have been moving into South Philly since 2001, we aren't short on variations.

Which is why I spent days exploring the myriad taqueria options on the southern side of our city.

What follows are the results of my taco journey, a guide by no means all-inclusive. While there are great taquerias outside of South Philly, the impressive concentration around East Passyunk and the Italian Market area beckoned to me like a bull's-eye.

As many of that neighborhood's residents hail from the state of Puebla, Mexico - in fact, many even come from the same town, San Mateo - there are a lot of culinary similarities in these kitchens.

And while not all these taquerias are created equal, there are a few common elements you can expect:

You'll always get chips and salsa, often a red and a green. And it's the rare taco that isn't improved by the salty, spicy shock from the sauce.

Interactive Map

taco mapThe options are almost unbelievably affordable, with most in the under-$12 range, for three tacos. They aren't skimpy on fillings, either. You'll be plenty full.

The trail

We'll start at Los Gallos, which is first and foremost a corner market. Head straight to the back and you'll find a handful of tables and a waitress ready to drop salsa and chips.

The large menu here, as at many of these taquerias, seems to transcend the kitchen's space limitations. For a lighter meal, try the al pastor (slow-roasted pork that has a tang from pineapple) or chorizo. Like most of the tacos, they come simply topped with cilantro and chopped white onion, and come to life with a spoonful of salsa and a squeeze of lime.

Hungrier? Order the tacos de chuleta ahumada, soft corn tortillas filled with smoked chopped pork and cheese, under a huge pile of toothsome sauteed cactus and onion strips. The browned bone from which it was cut serves as garnish.

Taqueria El Maguey is off the beaten Italian Market path, but is worth seeking out. Fluorescent lighting and Lottery tickets don't make for a fuzzy vibe, but the tacos here were among my favorites on the tour.

A quick taco rule of thumb: If the chicken says tinga, that means moist chunks of chicken are tossed in a spicy red sauce. If not, there's a strong chance you are going to get the dry, thin, chicken-cheesesteak equivalent of a taco. Here, the pollo tinga tacos have a wonderfully deep chipotle flavor.

The chicharron (fried pork skin) wasn't crisp, but was coated in a nice green sauce. The al pastor was another standout, with tender chunks of pork.

In a surprising gringo twist, the crispy tacos are worth a taste. Corn tortillas are fried to order and arrive airy and greaseless, with a flat, stand-and-stuff bottom that holds the ample filling (like chorizo), shredded lettuce, and shower of queso fresco.

Heading north, just past Geno's is La Lupe. To compete with flashy neighbors, it has a South of the Border feel, and most likely wants you to order in Spanish.

Despite the delicate corn tortillas, I found the options here to be perfectly average, with the queso taco being the standout. A palmful of white cheese is griddled until melted and crispy. It was salty and, like a Mexican grilled cheese, got even better after the loose tomatillo salsa, in IHOP-style syrup containers, was poured on. 

Los Taquitos de Puebla might be the most well-known of the group, thanks to the al pastor tent at the Headhouse Farmer's Market. Adventurous eaters can go cow crazy - eye, tongue, cheek, and mouth tacos are on the menu. The "tacos especials," which have skirt steak right off the grill, are beefy and delicious. They come with thick slices of ranchero cheese and avocado, so you can DIY. Munch on the cucumber slices between bites to keep the spice in check.

A few blocks off Ninth Street is El Jarocho, which, along with El Maguey, was my favorite of the taco lot.

The dining room here is a little more polished than most of the other spots and the tacos are thoughtful. The barbacoa (barbecued lamb) alone is worth the trip. While the old-country method of open-flame pit-cooking was most likely reproduced on the stove top, it's done with great success. The shreds of meat are pink, succulent, and slightly garlicky.

The jalapenos rellenos de tinga is another notable order. A jalapeno pepper is stuffed with shredded chicken tinga, dipped in batter, and fried.  

Taqueria La Veracruzana is a popular destination, nestled among the craziness that is Washington Avenue. If you are lucky you'll get a guitar player strumming "La Bamba" during your visit. Here, stick with such classics as the campechano, a mixture of steak and chorizo that is less heart-attack-inducing than it sounds.

Interestingly, very few places offered seafood options, and the ones that did were not good. Steer clear of the shrimp tacos here.

More Mexican treats

Like Veracruzana, Moctezuma has been around for a while. It's a full-service sit-down restaurant, but the food comes out quickly. The dorados are a clever take on the taco: corn tortillas stuffed and fried, then served under a loose sour cream and a sprinkle of cheese. Vegetarians will like the PaPa, a taco filled with soft potatoes, tasting like a Latin baked potato.

Right next door is Prima Pizza Taqueria Mexicana, which lives up to all its name suggests. While the food isn't mind-blowing, it's hot and cheap. Each taco is $2, less than most bottles of water these days. So, penny-pinchers, this is the spot for you. Load up on the carne enchilada (spiced pork) or beef, which comes with cucumber slices and a nice salsa. Is there pizza?

Just North of Washington Avenue is El Costeno. The big bonus here is beer, which might be why it is usually full. The barbacoa and chorizo tacos are particularly good. The sausage is broken up into large, well-crisped chunks, while the barbacoa has unctuous shreds of slow-cooked lamb.

Tres Jalapenos is a sit-down restaurant where it looks like Cinco de Mayo every day. Here the soft tacos are made from delicious corn tortillas that are pliable and slightly smaller, which means order more.

The al pastor is particularly memorable, as is the chicken, which despite being plain is slow-cooked and a perfect match for the cilantro-rich tomatillo salsa.



Taquerias mentioned

El Costeno

940 S. 9th St., 215-925-1010.

El Jarocho

1138 S. 13th St., 215-463-2205.

La Lupe

1201 S. 9th St., 215-551-9920.

Los Gallos

951 Wolf St., 215-551-1245.

Los Taquitos de Puebla

1149 S. 9th St., 215-334-0664.

Moctezuma

1108 S. 9th St., 215-218-4008.

Prima Pizza Taqueria Mexicana

1104 S. 9th St., 215-339-5000.

Taqueria El Maguey

1538 S. 10th St., 267-528-3296.

Taqueria Veracruzana

908 Washington Ave., 215-465-1440.

Tres Jalapenos

901 S. 8th St., 267-239-2358.


Salsa Verde

Makes 2 1/4 cups

1 pound tomatillos, husks  removed

4 serrano chiles

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons safflower oil

Sea salt to taste

   1. Put the tomatillos and chiles into a pan, cover with water, and bring to a simmer. Continue cooking until the tomatillos are soft but not falling apart, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, strain, and reserve 1/3 cup of the water.

   2. Put reserved cooking water into a blender, add the chiles, cilantro, and garlic, and blend until smooth. Add the tomatillos and blend for 10 seconds more, to make a fairly smooth sauce.

   3. Heat oil in a frying pan. Add the sauce and reduce over high heat until it thickens, about 8 minutes. Add salt to taste.

- Adapted from Diana Kennedy's The Art of Mexican Cooking (Clarkson Potter, 2008)

Per serving (based on 6 servings): 55 calories, 1 gram protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 4 grams fat, no cholesterol, 98 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Authentic Chicken Tacos

Makes 12 tacos

For the filling: 

1 whole large bone-in,  skin-on chicken breast

3 tablespoons, plus more salted chicken broth

3 tablespoons oil

1/2 cup diced white onion

3 jalapenos, cut into strips with seeds and veins

1 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes

Sea salt to taste

For the tacos:

12 5-inch corn tortillas

Safflower oil for frying

1 cup salsa

2 cups shredded lettuce or cabbage

3/4 cup creme fraiche

6 tablespoons grated queso fresco   

   1. Cut chicken breast in half. Put into a pan with enough chicken broth to cover meat. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool in the broth. Strain and shred meat. Set aside.  

   2. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a pan. Cook onions and jalapenos for 1 minute. Add tomatoes and cook for 3 minutes, until juices have been absorbed. Add shredded chicken, 3 tablespoons broth, and salt, and cook until mixture is almost dry, about 8 minutes. Set aside.

   3. In another pan, heat enough oil to liberally cover the bottom, and fry the tortillas until soft, one at a time. Top each taco with chicken, salsa, lettuce, creme fraiche, and cheese. Serve.

- Adapted from Diana Kennedy's The Art of Mexican Cooking (Clarkson Potter, 2008)

Per taco: 223 calories, 16 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 43 milligrams cholesterol, 207 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Carnitas

Makes 6 to 8 servings

4 tablespoons lard

3 pounds pork, a mix of country-style spare ribs and boneless stew meat, cut into 2-inch cubes

1/2 medium white onion, sliced

4 sprigs fresh marjoram

4 sprigs fresh thyme

3 Mexican bay leaves, broken up

10 peppercorns, crushed

1 orange, cut into 8 pieces

1 cup milk

Sea salt to taste

   1. Heat lard in a heavy pan over medium-high heat. Add meat and fry, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 8 minutes. Add onion and stir well. Cook for 8 minutes longer, until meat is well-browned.

   2. Add remaining ingredients, cover the pan, turn heat to low, and cook until meat is tender, about 20 minutes. There should be plenty of pan juices. Remove lid, increase heat, and fry, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the juices have been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Drain off extra fat and serve as desired, with sides or tortillas for tacos.

-

Adapted from The Art of Mexican Cooking (Clarkson Potter, 2008)

Per serving (based on 8): 493 calories, 48 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 31 grams fat, 145 milligrams cholesterol, 119 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Contact staff writer Ashley Primis at 215-854-2244, aprimis@phillynews.com, or @ashleyprimis on Twitter.

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