Tacos taking off in Philadelphia

Lucio Palazzo, owner of Taqueria Feliz, Manayunk, holds his brisket suadero taco.
Lucio Palazzo, owner of Taqueria Feliz, Manayunk, holds his brisket suadero taco. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 08, 2013

Is there such a thing as too many tacos? Twenty years ago, there was nary an authentic tortilla to be found in this city.

Ten years ago, we got our first taste of the real deal with the expansion of the local Mexican population and mom-and-pop shops in South Philadelphia.

In 2013, the new school has arrived: three taquerias (Shifty's Taco, Taqueria Feliz, Union Taco) opening in a span of six months, with at least one more (Calexico) slated before the end of the year.

We could blame Roy Choi. The Los Angeles chef started the kim chi taco trend back in 2009 and here we are, almost five years later, with an explosion of cross-cultural hybrids.

Or we could blame Jose Garces for running traditional flavors through a chef's paces at Distrito.

Or we can look at the way upscale street foods, first by truck and now by storefront, are starting to dominate the local restaurant scene, as people hunger for anything fast, handheld, and inexpensive.

Maybe it's just a corporate thing. "I think the explosion of places like Chipotle have made the average American much more familiar with Mexican food, and that exposure has helped the rest of us," says Zack Shell, who ran El Fuego before opening Shifty's.

No matter how the current state of affairs came to pass, it's an exciting time to be toasting chiles in Philly.

"If there was a divide between Mexican food cooked by Mexicans and Mexican food adapted by Americans, that line is getting blurred," says Lucio Palazzo of Taqueria Feliz. "It's a scene within the food scene and you hear an exchange going on: 'What are you putting in your mole? How do you make your carnitas?' It used to be that a lot of the authentic ingredients, especially the herbs, were hard to find, but now you can easily get epazote, grasshoppers, a much wider variety of chiles" (at local Latin markets).

Even as local Mexican food has gotten more authentic, it has also gotten more cheffed up, amplifying the age-old recipes with technique and unexpected flavors.

Shell cooks up a seitan taco that's slathered with a pomegranate molasses "mole," bringing a bit of Middle Eastern flavor to the proceedings. A panko-crusted chicken nugget taco, with iceberg lettuce, ranch dressing, and Mornay sauce, takes the hybridization in too many geographic directions to count, but is nonetheless delicious.

"We're American guys making Mexican food, and we'll just do what we think is interesting and fun and not taking it too seriously," Shell says.

Likewise, at Union Taco the motto is actually "where the gringo meets the street," and chef-owner Nick Farina embraces the blank tortilla as a canvas for exploration.

"We'll use Kobe beef for our ground-meat taco and pork cheeks for our carnitas. We might go a little more high-end or in-depth with our preparation, a little more extravagant with our ingredients. And because it's a taco, I can give you something nice and fun at a reasonable price."

Yet there are, of course, limits to what can constitute a "taco," and not everyone can Roy Choi their way to innovation. Going too far outside of the foundation of a simple braised meat, a few sprigs of cilantro, and a lime wedge can verge on trying-too-hard or gimmicky at best, inedible at worst.

Wary of bastardization, Lucio Palazzo hit a crossroads in his study of Mexican cuisine several years back when he read a review on Yelp that said, "Just because you put something on a tortilla doesn't mean it's a taco."

"Something about it really struck me. My background up until then was eclectic, but that comment made me think."

As a result, Palazzo decided he wanted to hew closer to tradition, and he has used that Yelp question as a litmus test when planning the menu for Taqueria Feliz: There's barbacoa, lamb shoulder and belly rubbed with a guajillo chile paste, wrapped in banana leaves, and steam-roasted; and an approximation of al suadero, brisket braised in chiles and evaporated milk.

A separate section of the menu titled comida loco or "funky stuff" is reserved for the traditional but less-familiar-to-Americans taco fillings such as lamb hearts, beef tongue, and eventually, grasshoppers.

For Palazzo's part the authenticity comes from something deeper than the flavor.

"At the end of the day it will never taste exactly the same as what you'd get on the street in Mexico City, but you can get the intensity, the soul of the dish, and that's what matters. Authenticity in and of itself isn't the ultimate goal. But we think about the texture, the mouthfeel, how it holds up in the hand - these are important distinctions."

And those odd bits on the menu? They're turning out to be the biggest sellers, he says.

"I guess people are just ready for these foods now. Or maybe somehow, when it's on a taco, it's a little easier to swallow."

The Impostor

Makes 3-6 servings

For the smoked tomatillo crema:

10 ounces tomatillos, husked

1 small white onion

1 jalapeno pepper

1 bunch cilantro

Juice of 2 limes

1 ripe avocado, peeled and pitted

12 ounces sour cream

For the taco:

2 teaspoons canola oil

1 tablespoon minced white onion

4 ounces pomegranate molasses

12 ounces jarred barbecue sauce

3 ounces canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce

1 teaspoon grated lime zest

16 ounces seitan (Ray's preferred), cut into 1/4-inch-by-2-inch pieces

For the assembly: 

6 tortillas

Shredded Romaine lettuce

Lime wedges

1. Make the crema: Char tomatillos, onion, and jalapeno by setting them on a sheet pan under the broiler for about 5 minutes. Transfer charred vegetables to a blender and add cilantro, lime juice, and avocado. Blend thoroughly, then salt to taste and add sour cream.

2. Heat 1 teaspoon of oil over medium-high heat in a saute pan and add minced onion, cooking until soft. Add pomegranate molasses and cook, stirring, until bubbling. Then stir in the barbecue sauce and simmer for 10 minutes. Add chipotles and lime zest, mix thoroughly, and blend until smooth.

3. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. When just smoking, add the remaining teaspoon of oil and seitan. Sear the seitan until browned, for about 3 minutes per side, then toss with the pomegranate chipotle sauce.

4. Assemble the tacos: Heat tortillas and line with lettuce. Top with seitan and a drizzle of crema. Serve with lime wedges.

- From Zack Shell of Shifty's Taco

Per serving (based on 6): 727 calories; 62 grams protein; 55 grams carbohydrates; 28 grams sugar; 25 grams fat; 25 milligrams cholesterol; 1,887 milligrams sodium; 9 grams dietary fiber.

Brisket al Suadero

Makes 8 servings

For the rub:  

1 cup salt

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup ancho powder

1 tablespoon arbol powder

1 clove, toasted, ground

10 allspice berries, toasted and ground

2 teaspoons fennel seed, toasted and ground

For the brisket:

3-4 pounds beef brisket

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons lard or oil, divided

3 onions, julienned

10 garlic cloves, peeled

7 ancho chiles, seeded and toasted

1 can evaporated milk

5 black peppercorns, toasted

3 allspice berries, toasted

1 star anise pod, toasted

7 sprigs thyme

1 bay leaf

1/2 bunch parsley

1 quart chicken stock

For assembly:

8 to 12 tortillas

Garnishes: Scallions, cilantro, lime wedges, spicy salsa

1. Combine rub ingredients. Rub brisket liberally with spice mixture and let sit, wrapped, overnight in the refrigerator. Rinse, pat dry, and season with salt and pepper.

2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Heat half the lard or oil in a large saute pan and sear brisket until just brown, then remove to a roasting pan. Add onions and garlic to saute pan, and saute until lightly caramelized. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pan, bring to a boil, and season. Pour over the brisket, seal the roasting pan with foil, and braise in the oven until fork-tender, about 4 hours. (There should be only about an inch of liquid in the bottom of the pan.)

3. Let brisket cool, and chop into 1/3-inch cubes. Heat the remaining lard or oil on a griddle or cast iron pan and sear cubes until a little crispy. Serve with tortillas, grilled scallions or spring onions, cilantro, lime wedges, and a spicy salsa.

- Courtesy of Lucio Palazzo of Taqueria Feliz

Per serving: 454 calories; 55 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams sugar; 17 grams fat; 162 milligrams cholesterol; 1,966 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.

Tacos al Pastor

Makes 10-12 servings

For the marinade:

6 guajillo chiles, seeded, toasted, and rehydrated in hot water

1 cup achiote paste

1/2 onion, charred

5 garlic cloves, charred

6 ounces pineapple juice

1 apple, peeled and cored

6 ounces orange juice

5 black peppercorns, toasted

2 allspice berries, toasted

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano, crumbled

1 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

For the tacos:


5 pounds boneless pork butt, sliced into ¼-inch strips

12 to 16 corn tortillas

Garnishes: Sliced avocado, grilled pineapple, cilantro, onions, salsa verde

1. Make a marinade by pureeing chiles and the remainder of the ingredients (except pork) in a food processor or high-powered blender.

2. Season pork strips with salt and liberally apply the marinade. Let sit in refrigerator a minimum of four hours, preferably overnight.

3. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Set baking racks over baking sheets (you may need up to four, or you can do this in batches) and arrange the pork in a single layer. Roast for 25 minutes. Chop strips into small pieces and reheat before serving. Serve with corn tortillas, avocado, grilled pineapple, cilantro, onions, and salsa verde.

- From Lucio Palazzo of Taqueria Feliz

Per serving (based on 12): 333 calories; 49 grams protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 11 grams fat; 138 milligrams cholesterol; 115 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.

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