Restaurateurs Arturo Lorenzo and Maricela Tellez have gradually transformed the relatively sleepy blocks of West Passyunk Avenue into a vibrant BYOB Mexican dining destination over the past eight years. La Llorona Cantina — their latest and most ambitious venture to date — is now keeping the owners’ restaurant empire afloat during an ongoing pandemic.
The months-old cantina that debuted in June at 1551 W Passyunk Avenue turned out to have all the built-in components necessary to survive an extremely trying time for fledgling restaurants: a library of agave-based spirits, dishes designed for leisurely snacking, and expansive outside seating.
In February, the couple had two well-established businesses — Cafe y Chocolate and La Mula Terca — and were preparing to open a third (and its first with a liquor license).
Regulars were already familiar with Lorenzo’s and Tellez’s take on Mexican fare, and with minimal outdoor dining, the restaurants sustained on takeout and delivery. La Llorona welcomed a built-in audience to a new venture that proved to be ideal for the current climate — abundant outdoor dining and a full bar. Even as the weather cools, those who want to dig into birria tacos and agave cocktails can do so under La Llorona’s newly installed heaters.
General manager Israel Nocelo says COVID-19 forced La Llorona to shift course, but not dramatically.
“Before the pandemic, the plan was to focus on bigger plates, with ingredients imported from Mexico,” he says.
Instead, they decided to scale back, offering smaller dishes with just four or five ingredients created by Doña Flores, a seasoned chef from Cafe y Chocolate.
Nocelo, who’s worked in bars in New York, Washington, D.C., and Mexico City, put together one of the city’s most impressive selections of agave-based spirits at La Llorona. The list moves beyond the usual tequilas and mezcals to include several sotols made from wild plants native to the Chihuahua region of Mexico and raicillas, a spirit made in a similar manner to mezcal in the coastal state of Jalisco.
“Our menu is based on what we eat in Mexico. It’s easy to pair agave with this kind of food,” Nocelo says.
Both Lorenzo and Tellez hail from Puebla, a town southeast of Mexico City. Lorenzo’s culinary background was limited to helping his brother, a street vendor. Tellez had spent time working on the line in restaurant kitchens and as a barista.
Their first foray into ownership came by way of a curious West Passyunk breakfast and lunch spot they took over in 2012, before they were married. Cafe y Chocolat at 21st and Snyder was already a homey neighborhood institution owned by Yoshiko Yamasaki, who was raised in Mexico City by a Japanese father and a Mexican mother. She created a menu that combined Mexican daytime dishes like huevos motuleños and rancheros with a smattering of Japanese options that never quite managed to gain traction.
Under the ownership of Lorenzo and Tellez, Cafe y Chocolate blossomed into the South Philly neighborhood’s only brunch spot with a weekend waitlist. The service was warm and familiar and, even without a liquor license, the drinks menu impressed with cajeta cappuccinos and the Blue Corn Awake, an espresso concoction made with blue corn pinole, milk, and honey. House specials like enfrijoladas and tamales.
Four years later, when a storefront across the street that had housed a Chinese takeout spot came on the market, Lorenzo and Tellez jumped at the opportunity to open a second restaurant, this time with dinner service, too. They sensed the neighborhood needed more dining options.
La Mula Terca — “the stubborn mule” — was a departure for the neighborhood, transforming a corner spot known for quick takeout into a small, welcoming dining room where customers were encouraged to bring their own tequila to pour into pitchers of margarita mix and linger over standout birria and soups seasoned with avocado leaves.
La Mula Terca and Cafe y Chocolate both thrived. In September 2019, Lorenzo and Tellez relocated the cafe a few blocks away, closer to Broad Street, in a spot with more visibility and foot traffic. There they found another opportunity too good to pass up, located just across the street.
In February, Lorenzo and Tellez struck a deal to take over Thirsty Soul in February. That ultimately unsustainable eatery brought together an all-day brunch menu and moody cocktail bar in a dining room outfitted with religious decor. It lasted just over a year and a half. After running two BYOB restaurants, Lorenzo was keen on opening not just a bar, but a cantina.
“It’s more like the Mexican way of doing it,” Lorenzo says. “The snacks, some tacos, some mezcals — nothing crazy, nothing too expensive, a lot of space for dining.”
Not only did the space come with a liquor license, it also has a wider-than-usual sidewalk already zoned for outdoor seating.
“When the pandemic came, everything was shut down by March 16 and then, well, we decided not to do it,” Lorenzo says. “I made the deal before the pandemic [but] I didn’t think we were going to be able to do anything.”
But while Lorenzo and Tellez were decidedly on the fence about opening their cantina, when they sat down with the staff they had already recruited, everyone urged them to go ahead with it. The cantina is named after a ghostly lost soul who wails all night.
“At the end you have to push. I don’t know how we did it,” Lorenzo says.
On a recent sunny fall day, La Llorona feels like just the right pandemic-era combination. Spaced-out tables are covered with Micheladas, Tajin-rimmed margaritas, nachos heavy with slowly simmered black beans, pickled carrots, and crema, and tacos atop paper-thin tortillas made on-site.