The best Latin American restaurants in Philadelphia
Though there is a sprinkling of traditional Colombian stalwarts concentrated in North Philly—Tierra Colombiana and El Bochinche among them—Bogotá native Mel Tenorio always felt there was room to bring the flavors he grew up eating to his adopted hometown. After executing a series of successful pop-ups out of Fishtown’s Philly Style Bagels, Tenorio introduced Usaquén, named after the neighborhood of his youth, to a cozy corner space in September 2017. While Colombian food is by definition a fusion cuisine, built upon centuries of influences from Europe, Asia and elsewhere in Latin America, Tenorio has taken this idea a step further, offering personal riffs on fare like burritos, shakshuka and a full English breakfast. But plenty of native favorites are still in play: Mainstays on the menu include cayeye, a pepper-plantain hash topped with queso blanco and a fried egg, and a pork belly that’s served on pan de bono (cheese bread) baked from scratch.
Born and raised in Guatemala, Sofia Deleon came to the States a decade ago to further her education, earning a B.S. in food industry management from Michigan State and an advanced degree in food marketing from St. Joseph’s. She’s parlayed her academic cred into a rising local brand in El Merkury, currently operating in pop-up mode as she hunts for a brick-and-mortar. Busy with corporate-office catering gigs during the day, Deleon can sometimes be found at South Philly’s Garage at night, offering an accessible menu inspired by the building blocks of ancient Mayan cuisine: corn, chili, chocolate and beans. In Philadelphia, “Central America is really underrepresented,” says Deleon, whose signature dish is pupusas, corn-based flatbreads served with meat (carnitas) or not (cheese and serrano pepper).
Venezuelan cooking has more in common with Caribbean cuisines than with the food of its bordering South American nations. It’s just one oft-overlooked aspect of the culture highlighted by Puyero Venezuelan Flavor, which opened in early 2017. While beloved BYOBs like Sazon focus on a swath of Venezuelan cooking, Puyero’s taut street-food menu is big on arepas, hearty corn patties sliced like a sandwich bun and stuffed with fillings such as the quintessential pabellón (shredded beef, black beans, plantains) and the nontraditional sospechosa (smoked salmon with avocado). “The flavors aren’t only in the food—it’s also who we are,” says Maracaibo native Simon Arends, who opened Puyero with his brother, Gil, and Gil’s wife, Manuela Villasmil.
Arepas are also the calling card at Fishtown’s TartAreperia 18.64. The restaurant, which recently expanded into an adjacent space that can host 100-person parties, tweaks the format, crafting the maize-based dough into easy-to-eat cups that hold fillings like cazón (shredded cod) and pernil (roast pork).
When customers ask Jezabel Careaga if she’s got hot sauce, she likes to joke that she grew up closer to Antarctica than Mexico, a statement of Argentinian identity that’s as telling as it is geographically accurate. The food of this southern nation of South America is heavily influenced by European cooking. While restaurants like Malbec Argentine Steakhouse in Head House Square go for a more high-end expression of Argentine cuisine, Careaga goes for a homier café vibe at Jezabel’s, her Fitler Square hangout, which serves a variety of empanadas, sweet alfajores and other staples made from scratch.
Northwest Philly’s El Balconcito is expanding into Old City for its third location, featuring a large ceviche selection and a dedicated pisco bar. Competition is brewing nearby in the form of Chalaco’s Ceviche & Pisco Bar, taking over a previously vacant Liberties Walk space to serve lomo saltado, charbroiled Peruvian chicken and other classics. Meanwhile in Center City, chef Carmen Gaspar of Rogues Gallery Bar has been known to throw the occasional Peruvian special on the board—cuisine you’re not going to find at most Center City beer bars.