South Philly Barbacoa. All photos: Roland and Sandy Sanchez-Bui
The best Mexican food in Philly
Roland and Sandy Sanchez-Bui are well known on the fashionable Philadelphia food circuit and their followers know to pay attention to where the couple and their impossibly adorable children are dining out. A scroll through their Instagram accounts garners more intel on where to find the best Mexican food in Philly, the best moles, tacos, cemitas and barbacoa, than any other source. These are their favourite Mexican restaurants in Philadelphia.
Cantina la Martina
Cantina la Martina is a restaurant the Sanchez-Buis visit frequently. “It’s a place we love to go with our children. They celebrate a lot of traditions from all over Mexico that you don’t see as much in Philly. Chef Dionicio Jimenez is really pushing these, which I love for the sake of community and for our kids, too,” says Sandy. “The food is unabashedly Mexican, but you see a lot of regionality. Even though the chef is from Puebla, he’s not afraid to put dishes inspired by outside of Puebla. We had a wonderful rabbit al pastor and a bone marrow dish with chapulines,” says Roland.
Blue Corn Restaurant and Bar
“Our girls always ask for Blue Corn. Our daughter Issa loves the way they do their lengua tacos because of how the tongue is cut – in thicker slices. That’s in her top three Philly dishes. The tortillas are indeed blue, sometimes green! Their cocktails are great – they do a solid margarita that isn’t too sweet. They just use fresh lime. Any of their margaritas, I really enjoy. They always have cool specials, a rotating whole fish of the day,” says Sandy. “They consistently have tripa on the menu and I had it there on a blue corn huarache. They always have it available. Some other places are worried they can’t sell tripe so it’s not always on the menu. They also have high-level service,” says Roland.
“This one is an overall Sanchez favourite – my whole family – my parents, my sisters, my cousins and all our children go there. It’s in Warminster which I will absolutely make the drive for. Get any of the tacos – the tripa is so good, the lengua, the al pastor,” says Sandy. “It’s in a shopping centre and there’s a convenience store in front. They sell sausages, chorizo, queso fresco, and even once a week, chicharrones. You walk through the pinatas to find a counter and a sit-down area in the back with four or five tables and it’s great food,” says Roland. “You go and grab Mexican groceries for the house and then get lunch.”
El Primo Plaza
“El Primo Plaza in Bensalem is right outside of Philly and another Sanchez family favourite. They have a mix of many dishes from moles to tortas. It’s like the Cheesecake Factory. You have a storefront with produce and a full bakery. They do birthday cakes, communion cakes and great tres leches. They also have a sit-down restaurant. It can be overwhelming because it’s huge. Their menu is so expansive, but I have not had a single bad dish. My family loves going there because there’s such a variety. They have a station of six to eight salsas, pickled peppers, radishes, where you dress your own tacos,” enthuses Sandy. Roland loves their pambazo, with bread that’s dipped in guajillo sauce. “Like a French dip but the whole sandwich is dipped. It’s messy and you don’t see it very often and it’s fun,” he says.
South Philly Barbacoa
“Amazing tortillas. My parents are not from Puebla, my father is from Michoacan, and my mom is from Zacateca, and they say the quality of tortillas there is beyond amazing. They have lamb barbacoa, so also the belly meat. My kids love the tortillas so much sometimes they just want quesadillas,” says Sandy. “My favourite part of South Philly Barbacoa is the consommé. It’s one of the most soul-warming soups you can get in Philly. It’s always a treat when Cristina Martinez is around. She’s also one of the most soul-warming people in Philly. It’s nice that she’s the same person as when she had that little truck. Celebrity hasn’t changed her.”
“Chef Frankie Ramirez there does great stuff,” says Sandy. “Sometimes people think that as a Mexican, I have to name Mexican food only from holes in the wall. But at LMNO, great Mexican food is executed along with great vibes. The space is amazing. You sit out on their patio when it’s nice out. My favourite dish there is the snapper chicharron, but you have to add the salsa macha. I would buy bottles of that if I could (I’ve asked) and put that on everything at home.” “Yes, it’s a Stephen Starr restaurant,” says Roland. “But there’s room for different settings to have great Mexican food.”
“There’s a new, exciting chef at Mission Taqueria. Chef Alejandro Martín Sánchez used to be at LMNO. As a disclaimer, I consult for Mission Taqueria,” notes Roland. “I had him cook dinner for Sandy’s birthday. It was mind-blowing and eye-opening. In NYC and Mexico City you see [Enrique] Olvera’s influence through Cosme and Pujol – an evolving style of Mexican food adapting to a newer generation. Yes, Mexican food can be comforting. But there are new techniques and training being applied to Mexican food and that’s what Alejandro is doing,” he continues. “This is the closest I’ve come to having food in Philly that’s like Mexico City,” says Sandy. “A lot of Philly’s Mexican food is soul-warming and comforting. This is modern, technical, and very flavourful. It’s daring and intriguing. He’s doing different types of mole, such as a mole pipian with toasted pumpkin seeds, red chillies and nuts. In Puebla, you usually see mole negra which can use chocolate and banana, and this is so different.”
El Chingon Philly
“It’s super fun. Chef Carlos Aparicio started out doing pastries and then his cemitas really started selling. It’s BYOB and overall, a great spot. He just added tables outside. It feels like a gastropub but Mexican. You have the feeling like you’re going to a corner American pub with Mexican food. Instead of a burger, you’ll have a cemita,” says Roland. “You have to get the loaded fries there,” says Sandy. “Like the same stuff you get on an elote – cheese, lime, chillies – our whole family will kill a big plate of them.” “In a city that’s so proud of its sandwiches, people should talk more about cemitas,” says Roland.