We love exploring places with a unique vibe – especially when they take us (a little) out of our comfort zone. The Italian Market area definitely falls into this category. It’s a little hard to know how to label this section of the city. It’s always been an immigrant area and immigrant areas change with time – they tend to gentrify or the populations change. This is definitely the later – it’s still a little scruffy – and the Italian shops are gradually being replaced by Mexican shops. Still, a few old Italian stalwarts remain – the outdoor veggie markets lining 9th Street, Termini Brother’s Bakery, Di Bruno Brother’s, the “Philly Cheese-steak Challenge – Pat’s versus Geno’s” (neither – in my opinion, the best Philly cheese-steak is actually way out in the Pine Barrens of South Jersey, but that’s another story Exploring the Pine Barrens (pt. 1): Cranberry Bogs and THE Best “Philly” Cheese steak).
Today, this is where you come to get some of the best authentic Mexican food in the city. Although we love tacos (and there are many, many options for great tacos in the area), our goal has been to try more regional, less well-known foods. In most of the places we’ve visited, Spanish is the primary language. My high-school Spanish helped a bit, but we definitely did a lot of pointing and smiling.
You can easily spend many good meals sticking to the few blocks around the Italian Market (the 900-1100 blocks of South 9th Street), although we ventured a little further afield. This area is full of Mexican restaurants, ice-cream stores, grocers, butchers, etc..
Our favorite discoveries (so far):
The barbacoa tacos from South Philly Barbacoa (1140 S. 9th) have been all over the news for the past few years after being named one of the best new restaurants by Bon Appétit. Open only Saturday-Monday, you have to come early (they open 5am Sat. & Sun. 7am Mon.) because they almost always sell out by mid-afternoon. It’s a small restaurant and there are always lines, but the line moves pretty fast (the menu is basic – lamb or pork tacos with our without the consomme made from the lamb drippings) and the service is friendly. The owner, an undocumented worker herself, is a vocal advocate for undocumented restaurant workers’ rights.
Fresh tortillas (only $2.25/kilo – about 30) from Tortilleria San Roman (951 S. 9th). Watch them come off the tortilla maker then stock up – they freeze well when you put about a dozen in a ziplock bag. They also have the best chips (thick and crunchy – perfect for dipping or non-soggy nachos).
Breads, pastries and champurrado (a cinnamon-scented corn porridge drink – much tastier than it sounds) from Las Rosas Cafeteria & Panaderia (1712 S. 8th)
Tres leches cake (whole, or sometimes by the slice) and other pastries from Los Lomas. A convenience store in front with a wall of baked goods in the back – pick up a tray and tongs from the cashier and help yourself. (1032 S. 9th).
Lots of interesting ice cream flavors and a VERY interesting chamoyada dessert -mango slushy with a swirl of spicy/salty chamoy (a condiment). Not sure if we liked this one, but it was definitely an experience. From Paletas Y Helados Bambino (1142 S. 9th).
Right across the street is La Guerrerense (1143 S. 9th), which also has chamoyadas and ice cream, but also house-made paletas (popsicles). They have plenty of “regular” flavors, but also more interesting flavors, such as mamey, rice, and mango/spicy chili. At $2 each, these might be my favorite Italian Market discovery. This is also the place to come for fancy gelatin desserts (pretty AND jiggly – the large is only $5) and to try dorilocos – a Mexican street food snack (a Doritos bag filled with lettuce, carrots, cucumber, peanuts, hot sauce and a mystery ingredient that we didn’t examine too closely…)
Tamales from Mole Poblano (1144 S. 9th Street): Tamales are a weekend thing and the versions from this restaurant are delicious (light, fluffy and flavorful) – and, super cheap at $2.50 each. They begin selling them when they open at 8:00 and are usually sold out well before lunchtime. Stock up on all the varieties (chicken verde, veggie with cheese, pork rojo, and their specialty, pork mole) – they freeze very well. Stick around for breakfast, because they have very tasty egg dishes, such as the eggs with chorizo and black beans and the omelette with ham and mushroom.
For the classic breakfast of Mexican hot chocolate (or cafe ole) with churros, try Cafe y Chocolate (1532 Snyder – about a half hour walk from the Italian Market). Delicious food and very friendly staff. We also loved the dessert of sweet plantains with cream.
Another great choice for classic Mexican fare is Mexico Lindo (700 Moore Street), located in a corner space a short walk from the Italian Market area. It’s a great local spot, with friendly staff, inexpensive, tasty basics and delicious salsas. We had the pork huarache and chorizo tacos.
Tobey says: I’m definitely ready to go back! Everything was delicious, although I’m still not sure about the chamoyada – it didn’t really float my boat!