When Philadelphia chef Juan Carlos Romero’s parents lived in the small city of Zacatlán, Mexico, electricity was a luxury. That didn’t stop them from making good food.
With no electricity or gas, they used a metate — an ancient stone tool — to grind masa dough for tortillas. It was a tradition they’d carry on after leaving the Mexican state of Puebla.
By the 1980s, Romero’s parents would move to Mexico City, where he was born. He left for the U.S. in 2002, opening a restaurant with Silvestre Torres in Philadelphia’s Italian Market that same year, and later opening Philly Tacos in Point Breeze. When discussing his restaurant’s food, tortillas are the first thing on his mind.
“I would watch my aunts, my grandmother, grinding the corn,” Romero says in Spanish, as sunlight pours through the windows of Philly Tacos at 2011 Reed Street.
A majority of Philly’s Mexican residents hail from Puebla — some even from the same town. Take Ynes Sandoval, who co-owns Mole Poblano (1144 S. Ninth Street), and Luz Jimenez, chef-owner of Los Gallos (951 Wolf Street). Both lived in San Mateo Ozolco before contributing to a gastronomic revolution in Philly.
Romero remembers hour-long waits for a table at Philly’s few Mexican restaurants in the early 2000s, when the restaurant scene wasn’t brimming with taquerias or chocolatey mole.
“There was a lot of demand, but there wasn’t much offered,” he says.
Today, things are different. Chefs carve delicate slices of guajillo chile-encrusted pork and dole out tacos with soft, braised cabeza (cow brains) — and many of them brought culinary traditions from Puebla. Here’s a breakdown of where to find several Pueblan dishes around Philly.
Plantains. Garlic. Raisins. Cookies? When Ynes Sandoval of Mole Poblano lists galletas, or cookies, as an ingredient for her mole, it sounds surprising. But it’s common to blend cookies or tortillas, which work as thickening agents, into the explosive complexity that is mole.
Mole poblano is the traditional dish of Puebla, according to Sandoval. At her restaurant, mole is ladled generously over chicken legs and thighs. And it’s a mouthful. It’s peppery, chocolatey, and somehow sour. The chicken, tortillas, and little mound of rice are comparatively tame: perfect for consuming the mole.
The one-room eatery offers dark mole poblano over enchiladas and bundles it inside tamales. For those craving mole for breakfast, it’s available with eggs and tortillas.
Anyone who wanders into a festival in Mexico will likely find a trompo, the vertical rotisserie spit that slow-cooks colossal heaps of marinated pork, similar to a Middle Eastern spit for making shawarma.
Colored with achiote paste (a scarlet spice blend), tacos al pastor with marinated pork are easy to find in Philly taquerias. At Los Cuatro Soles (1801 S. Chadwick Street), the meat is spooned onto tender corn tortillas, which are doubled up to prevent any devastating taco breaks. And the pork, made savory with guajillo chile and oregano, is studded with acidic little bursts of sweetness in the form of fresh pineapple.
Tacos Árabes are the shy, quiet neighbor of tacos al pastor. Supple and delicate, they’re 100 percent worth trying. As with al pastor, the pork is marinated with spices — typically thyme and oregano; Luz Jimenez adds fresh parsley at Los Gallos — then heaped onto a trompo. The flavor and color are more subdued (no fiery red achiote), and the pork is rolled into thick, pillowy flour tortillas, with the oils and juices of the marinated meat gathering to the bottom of the neatly rolled tortillas.
They’re “always, always, always” paired with a flour-based flatbread instead of corn, explains Jimenez. He serves them with grilled sweet spring onions. Traditionally, tacos Árabes are often made with a thicker, fluffy flatbread: pan Árabe, a Mexican homage to pita bread.
Canoe-shaped chalupas are named after a type of boat that still glides through Mexico City’s canals. The simple snack is made of thin, corn-based dough. It’s soft enough to fold in half, but fried enough to crunch a little when bitten into.
At Iztaccihuatl (1122 S. Eighth Street), chalupas are topped with generous dollops of chilled salsa verde, crema, queso fresco, and tons of wonderfully fresh cilantro. Customers can add meat or seafood for a couple extra dollars. You can find them at El Rancho Viejo, too, a small restaurant at Fifth and Carpenter.
“When my mother made them, I felt like...” Romero searches for the words to describe chile rellenos, one of his favorite foods. Growing up, it wasn’t something he and his family ate often, he concludes. It was rare.
At Philly Tacos, the dish is usually served on Fridays. The poblano pepper is lightly battered, fried until tender, and stuffed with a stretchy, salty mixture of Oaxaca cheese and queso fresco. The whole thing is doused in a tomato sauce and topped with a sprinkling of melted Chihuahua cheese. It’s served mild, but Romero has a red salsa with quite a kick available for anyone with an appetite for picante.
Chile rellenos is an all-encompassing name for poblano peppers that have been stuffed with something — they’re found in any Mexican state. But it’s believed that the ultimate chile rellenos, chiles en nogada, was invented in Puebla.
Chiles en nogada is stuffed with a complex picadillo (in this case, pork diced with everything from onions to peaches). It’s then cloaked in a cool, creamy walnut sauce and drizzled with pomegranate seeds to showcase the colors of the Mexican flag. This national dish is only served in August and September: Find it at Los Cuatro Soles.
Cemita rolls are crusty and topped with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. The word can refer to both the roll and a sandwich made with it.
At Taquitos de Puebla III (1201 S. Ninth Street), the most popular cemitas poblanas are the ones with beef or chicken milanesa. The meat is pounded until it’s paper-thin and then breaded and deep-fried. Stringy Oaxaca cheese spills off the sides of the sandwich, a black bean spread coats half the roll, and the silky, charred chipotle peppers demand a small pile of napkins on the side. Amid the crunch and spice and saltiness, there’s something fragrant: oil-slicked pápalo leaves. The Mexican herb, a staple in cemitas, lingers between aromatic and bitter, like someone tossed mint and spinach leaves into a blender. (Meat Market El Pueblo sells pápalo by the bag down the street, at Ninth and Ellsworth.)
Diners eat cactus throughout Mexico, but it’s especially prominent in Pueblan cuisine, whether dropped into tacos or chilled in a salad. The small town of Tlaxcalancingo in Puebla even holds an annual Feria del Nopal — an entire festival devoted to the cactus, complete with nopal-based marmalades, flans, and ice cream.
At Los Gallos, chef Jimenez tops his al pastor tacos with slivers of nopales that have been roasted until they’re tender, slick, and unrecognizable from their once-prickly skeleton. At Adelita (1108 S. Ninth Street), pulled chicken tinga tacos with nopales are topped with a generous sprinkling of queso fresco.
It’s a bit of a stretch: La Guerrerense at Ninth and Ellsworth pays tribute to ice cream from Guerrero, one of Puebla’s neighboring states. But the flavor of rompope — popular in ice cream, paletas, and candies— is a testament to Puebla’s history. The milky Mexican variation of eggnog is centuries old, and some believe it was crafted by nuns (with a knack for mixology, apparently) in Santa Clara, Puebla.
The flavor comes from emulsified egg yolks and sugar: sweet like treacle, with hints of cinnamon. Customers can get rompope scooped without raisins, but they’re plump and juicy from sitting in the ice cream, so the little pasas are a syrupy-sweet plus.