It's easy to fall into the trap of finding a Mexican restaurant that has reasonably good, reasonably cheap tacos and then sticking with them, as opposed to branching out to other restaurants, or even other menu items. I myself am guilty of this, despite the fact that there are almost two dozen taquerias in South Philly, many within walking distance of my home. But when confronted with the prospect of ordering from a new place—and I have no shame in mentioning that it's usually for delivery—I worry I'll pick something subpar. To avoid potential disappointment, I just end up ordering the tacos. And if I already have a favorite place for tacos, then I end up ordering from that place every time. Eventually, I decided I was doing myself a disservice set a new plan into motion.
My idea: visit some of the local Mexican restaurants and let them steer me toward the dishes that set them apart from the rest. This worked exceedingly well and has helped me discover some fantastic food in the restaurants I already know, and introduced me to some places I might never have found otherwise.
El Jarocho has always had a good reputation, but it never made it in to my regular rotation. Past experiences had been okay but not amazing, so I decided it was time to try again. El Jarocho's tiny Passyunk Square interior can handle about 15-20 diners at a time, and the friendly staff told me they specialize in a Veracruzana style of food, as evidenced by by the Tampiquena Steak and Vuelve a La Vida, a Veracruzana seafood cocktail.
My waitress recommended another Veracruz specialty, Jalapenos Rellenos de Tinga Tacos ($7.50 per order of 3), which make the trip to El Jarocho more than worth it. The dish is basically chile rellenos made with jalapeño peppers rather than the usual poblano, and in this case, stuffed with chicken tinga, then made into a taco. The battered and fried peppers would be awesome on their own, but in taco form, they're even better. The finished product is tangy, but not overpoweringly hot, despite the jalapeño and adobo sauce in the tinga.
1138 S. 13th St, Philadelphia (map); 215-463-2205
Rosario's Pizzeria and Restaurant
Rosario's, a Point Breeze corner take-out and delivery shop with only few small tables, has no problem standing out from the crowd. While it serves the usual suspects like tacos, nachos and cemitas, it's also a full-fledged pizza, hoagie, and steak shop. But what's really unique here can be found under the menu section titled "Mexican Style Pizza."
Rosario's has twelve different pizzas made in the style of various Mexican dishes—things like Pico de Gallo Pizza, Chicken Fajita Pizza, and Choriqueso Pizza. The best of the bunch is easily the Pizza al Pastor ($10 small 10", $15 medium 14", $19 large 18"). It's a surprising combination that works on both the pizza and taco level. The crust is a slightly thicker style, well-browned at the edges, and the guajillo pepper sauce walks the right line between sweet and spicy. This pizza would probably be delicious even without the al pastor bits on top of the melty mozzarella cheese, but the addition of marinated pork, pineapple, fresh chopped cilantro, and onion makes for something truly sublime. Equal parts sweet, salty, crunchy, chewy, and spicy, the Pizza al Pastor is everything Hawaiian pizza aims for but never quite hits. This should be a staple for anyone who's ever been on the fence between pizza or Mexican.
1501 Wharton St, Philadelphia (map); 215-755-4555
Taqueria La Veracruzana
Taqueria La Veracruzana is a popular spot situated close to the bustle of the Italian Market at 9th and Washington that, unsurprisingly, also specializes in Veracruzana style cooking. The interior is not much larger than El Jarocho, but during meal hours it's usually packed to capacity, and with good reason.
The Bistec Arrachera ($15.00) that the waiter told me was his favorite thing to eat was truly one of the best tasting pieces of beef I've ever had. Even the smallest Mexican restaurants usually offer some form of this dish, a marinated and grilled skirt steak, sometimes topped with a sauce (often to mask the toughness or lack of flavor). Here, sauce would only do this steak a disservice. Given that skirt steak is so thin, it's not always an easy cut to keep tender. At Taqueria La Veracruzana,it's soft and supple throughout. Extensive surface caramelization, a pleasant hit of fat, and sweet-and-sour notes from the marinade pack a lot of complexity into this otherwise simple dish. Kick it up with a bite of the beautifully cooked chiles toreado (roasted jalapeños) that come on the side.
908 Washington Ave, Philadelphia (map); 215-465-1440
I'm not going to lie to you: Tres Jalapeños is my go-to restaurant when I'm craving Mexican. I have tried many dishes on the menu—the grilled shrimp burrito being a particular favorite—and just about anything I've ever ordered has been good, but somewhat more importantly, consistent. Nobody likes their dinner to be a crapshoot.
So with all of this already going for Tres Jalapeños, I didn't really expect any surprises. When I asked the waiter at their spacious Bella Vista locale for a suggestion, he told me about some new lunch specials, including a Mole Pork dish ($9.99, includes soup, served 11am-4pm). I'm not a connoisseur of mole by any means, and after ordering this dish I think I know why: the mole dishes I've had in the past have not been very good. Here the mole is rich, almost grainy, with a deep color that's equal parts red and brown. Combine the mole with the restaurant's ridiculously moist carnitas-style pork, top it with a sprinkle of sesame seeds, and you've got yourself a welcome addition to the menu. If you'd like to try the mole outside of lunch hours, you can order the Mole Enchiladas ($9.25).
908 Washington Ave, Philadelphia (map); 267-239-2358
Los Gallos, tucked away in the more subdued Moyamensing section of South Philly, is a Mexican restaurant that's been getting a lot of buzz recently. Los Gallos, or "Roosters," prides itself on offering a more rustic menu—their tag line is "Sabor de la Provincia," or "Taste of the Country."
The section of the menu that jumped out at me most was the Tacos a la Plancha, which featured fillings like smoked pork chop and fried tripe. When I asked the waitress about the Tacos a la Plancha, she immediately suggested the Grilled Beef Short Rib version ($9.99). The plate came piled with roasted cactus pads, grilled jalapeños, and onion strips piled so high that you could barely see the gooey mess of chopped rib meat and melted queso blanco underneath. It was all topped off with a single beef short rib. The juicy strips of tart cactus pads were the perfect compliment to the salty meat and cheese. I'll definitely be back to explore the large menu, which has some atypical (for these parts, anyway) Mexican fare (tripe stew, anyone?), and homey touches like homemade horchata and Sunday tamale specials.
951 Wolf St, Philadelphia (map); 215-551-1245