Juana Tamale opens in South Philly with birria tacos

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Twelve thousand plus subscribers were thrilled with a surprise Instagram post last week from chef Jennifer Zavala announcing that she was opening the doors to Juana Tamale, her neon-colored restaurant on East Passyunk Avenue.

After selling every day, the restaurant closed again temporarily to sort out some issues. It reopens on Black Friday – and impatient shoppers can expect another rush.

Zavala has spent over a decade on the Philly food scene. She helped open El Camino Real in 2008 and landed as a contender on Bravo’s “Top Chef” the following year. She came out early, but her unapologetic style and unrepentant demeanor won her many local fans. This flair is on display at the new location.

“For those of you who know Jenn, you’ll see her personality at every turn in the restaurant,” said Lauren McFadden, who designed the interior design for Juana Tamale. “And for those of you who don’t know, well, now you know!” “

A proud Latina chef of Mexican-Italian heritage, Zavala has cooked in many of Philly’s best kitchens; launched a bright pink food truck; caused kerfuffle on meatballs that dared to be vegan; and helped introduce Philadelphia tacos birria, the stuffed and toasted corn tortillas served with a side of consommé.

Zavala has also recently made a name for herself as a “tamale lady”. Since the end of her popular series at Underground Arts this spring, her followers have been eagerly awaiting a place to satisfy their desires.

They will find him in the new restaurant, where all his past experiences come together. “This is my love letter to my life. This is my legacy,” Zavala said at a preview event, “and I look forward to serving each of you.”

Here’s a rundown of what to expect when you go.

Alisha Miranda for Billy Penn

For many of the concise menu items, it’s that dark, rich, and bright broth. You can choose to get it in different ways: in tacos or soup, and with queso and / or beef.

Birria ramen ($ 18) is currently made with thin Korean-style noodles, but will soon be enhanced with Neighborhood Ramen noodles. It is served in a Styrofoam cup and is accompanied by a beef birria taco and chopsticks for maximum absorption.

Queso birria tacos (3 for $ 21) are stuffed with burnt cheese (the best part) along the crispy edges of the tortilla and are served with a small cup of consomme. Any version will make you want to sip the broth in its entirety.

For a bite of SoCal, try the puerco con chili verde tacos. The pulled pork is cooked to perfection, still pink and juicy, accompanied by peppers, cilantro and onion.

Not in the meat? Grab vegan tamales ($ 5), hand-made masa pouches gently steamed from Oaxacan green corn from Sherwood Seeds, Pennsylvania, filled with collard greens, plump chickpeas and diced yams. Or, order vegan wings ($ 12) or churros ($ 3) for a on-the-go snack.

Future plans include adding a tortilla machine for even more authentic masa creations.

A taco puerco con chili verde
Alisha Miranda for Billy Penn

There’s no official drink menu – it’s BYOB – but South Philly’s neighbors Stickman Brews will be on-site on select weekends, offering three to four of their 30 beers to accompany meals. (their First World Problems farm beer is a great addition).

If space is an issue, bring your beer and tacos to the corner of Mifflin Street from the brewery. Otherwise, consider bringing your own drink.

Look for detailed beer ads on Instagram: @StickmanBrews.

A taco birria with a cup of broth for dipping
Alisha Miranda for Billy Penn

An artist by training, McFadden is a longtime friend of Zavala’s and she channeled the chef’s energy into the design of the restaurant.

Take a look at the FDR Skate Park boards used as shelving, or the wood planks supporting the recycled order counter and the giant wood carved red and yellow menu board.

You can’t miss the six-foot flashing neon “Oaxacan Dancing Man” from neighboring Electroromanic, displayed on a purple wall. Or the personal framed photos from Zavala’s own collection, like the graffiti-covered van that started his tamale business, hanging in the bathroom.

Friends and partners helped refurbish existing furniture to match the brightly colored aesthetic. The result is like dinner in a world where Beetlejuice meets street culture and a tattoo shop. Enter it.

Artwork by Electroromantic
Alisha Miranda for Billy Penn

Important note: no menu changes are allowed. What’s on the menu is what’s available, and that’s how it is.

The restaurant is counter service, cash and cards are accepted. There is no delivery and no online ordering. A 20% tip will be added to each check, which helps provide a living wage for staff.

A mother of two herself, Zavala has set schedules not only to promote work-life balance for herself and her staff, but also for the neighborhood. She said she was focusing on making foods “accessible and achievable” for families and workers.

To this end, there are different schedules for each of the three days per week that Juana Tamale serves. Lunch is the bet on Thursday, when it is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Children and students can drop by after school on Fridays, when the doors are open from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays are ideal for dinner, with service from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The triangular patio park outside United Savings Bank will be an unofficial offsite seating option. And if restrictions return to indoor dining this winter, Zavala said the front windows are ready to go for pickup orders.

Zavala and her tamale delivery van
Alisha Miranda for Billy Penn

Address: 1941 Passyunk Avenue.

Telephone: 267-273-0894

Instagram: @JuanaTamale


Thanksgiving weekend:
12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 25
11 a.m. to 5 p.m. November 26


11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursdays
3 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Fridays
4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays

Juana Tamale at 1941 E. Passyunk Ave.
Alisha Miranda for Billy Penn

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