Back when Michelle Zimmerman and Carlos Molina were falling love in the kitchen of Tequila's, where he was chef and she washed dishes, the local Mexican landscape was as barren as the Sonoran Desert.
Fifteen years later, and just a few months into the launch of Las Bugambilias, their own cozy South Street cantina, the city's Mexican options are considerably more bountiful.
The full range, in fact, is on display only a block north on Headhouse Square. During warmer months, when the marvelous new farmers market is in full flush, long lines of produce shoppers wait beside the portable grill of Los Taquitos de Puebla, a no-frills taqueria stand from the new South Philly barrio that griddles fresh huaraches and spit-roasted tacos al pastor.
Just a few feet across Second Street, meanwhile, you can discover modern Mexican at sophisticated Xochitl, where ex-Vetri sous-chef Dionicio Jimenez riffs on his native flavors in stunning contemporary ways, from tasting menus of different moles to truffled gordita masa pockets bursting with huitlacoche. A recent revisit landed Xochitl a well-deserved third bell.
That Las Bugambilias has blossomed (like its namesake bougainvillea) nearby may be entirely a coincidence. Zimmerman and Molina, now married, found the former Primavera space because they live less than a block away. But Las Bugambilias has also settled into a niche that falls neatly between those two viejo and nuevo poles - channeling the authentic flavors of a taqueria, but presenting them in a more polished, upscale way.
Las Bugambilias is not quite as elegant (or as pricey) as Los Catrines (formerly Tequila's), David Suro's mural-painted, chandelier-hung paean to agave on Locust Street. But there is a sweet warmth and personality to this narrow, 45-seat room that could almost be romantic if only someone dimmed the harsh lights.
Black-and-white glamour shots of vintage Mexican movie stars, like Dolores del Rio, grace the vibrant yellow and exposed brick walls. The tabletops are fitted with painted tile. The comfortable chair seats are made of woven grass. And the servers wear white vaquero shirts lined with bright red piping, a crisply formal touch that doesn't feel too chainy.
The service here can be a little stiff (and so are the margaritas, by the way, which tasted too much like rocket fuel). But Molina's cooking is the reason this spot should have a chance. It isn't necessarily creative. But his repertoire of classics is rendered deftly, with good ingredients and an attention to subtleties that are essential to traditional cooking.
His tortilla soup is pure vegetarian, but its broth swirls with layers of complex flavors, the deep spice and roastiness of guajillo and chile de arbol peppers, the tang of tomatoes and garlic, the underlying earthiness of tortillas. Little chalupitas, disc-shaped boats made from soft corn dough, brought a series of contrasting textures, the tender fluff of masa, a layer of creamy frijoles topped with the green snap of shredded nopal cactus.
A skewer of tender butterflied shrimps, tangy from an adobo marinade and tiny bits of pineapple, were pure seafood sweetness against the earthy blackness of huitlacoche, the intense, almost-truffly corn mushroom pureed thick and heady.
It took two tries for the kitchen to serve those shrimps properly cooked (the first time they were rubbery). But those slips were few for a relatively new kitchen.
Crema poblano brought the bright spice of fresh green peppers; the heat was tempered by a creamy puree with zucchini and the surprising pop of roasted corn kernels. The silky puree of pinto bean soup, crema de frijoles, was sparked by cuminy crumbles of chorizo sausage. The crisp half-moon pastries of empanadas were filled with green plumes of squash blossoms and corn, whose sweetness was cut by tart tomatillo salsa.
Other classic starters rose on the freshness of ingredients and a respect for simplicity. The guacamole was addictively chunky and lightly seasoned. The seviche mixto filled a glass cup of lime- and wine-splashed tomato juice with perfectly tender shrimp, flounder and crab.
Molina's strong suit at Los Catrines/Tequila's was always meat, and he delivers some memorable entrees here, including a tender "medallon del rancho," a filet with poblano cream over pumpkin blossoms, and another filet special that came over an ebony dark sauce of pureed dry chiles that was mysteriously complex and addictively spicy. The skirt steak "tampiqueña," wrapped around a Chihuahua cheese-stuffed poblano pepper, was a bit complicated texturally for its own good, but the cheese-meat-chile trio sang in warm harmony.
Las Bugambilias has some great fish dishes, too, including a grouper fillet done in the style of Molina's native Veracruz, a tomato, olive and caper sauce that could be Italian if not for the swelling heat of mild "blondie" guero chiles. Finely minced rings of more incendiary chiles de arbol lent the garlic and lime sauce for whole fried tilapia ajillo a lingering savor.
With such bold tastes, the kitchen has a number of satisfying sweets to quell the heat. The coconut-flavored flan de coco, fringed with white coconut shreds, was indulgently creamy, much preferable to the bumpier custard of the choco-flan. There were also decent chocolate and vanilla variations on tres leches.
But the best dessert, by far, was the crisply fried churros, whose sugar-dusted, ridge-lined sticks were still puddinglike at the center. With a caramel dip of goat's-milk cajeta on the side, and a hot cup of orange- and cinnamon-scented café de olla to wash them down, I found it hard not to devour them all.
I never tire of great Mexican food, even now that we have such variety. Add Las Bugambilias to our growing list of favorites.
Next week, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Supper on South Street. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.