In the February chill of 1975, a 15-year-old boy left his home in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, slipped illegally across the border at Yuma, Ariz., and boarded a plane for Philadelphia.
Along with two older friends who joined him, Isidro Rodriguez was headed for snowbound Kennett Square. The promise of big money from working the mushroom farms there was the talk of their little city, Moroleón.
"But it was a lie - and I didn't like it," recalls Rodriguez, who found hundreds of migrant workers from his town already toiling there in the dark, smelly, windowless cinder-block buildings for $1.85 an hour.
Like so many immigrants before him, Rodriguez then entered American society through the back door of the restaurant industry, chasing a dream of independence up umpteen piles of dirty dishes and bus tubs in the hopes of gaining a foothold and some day owning his own place.
The journey would lead him to Chicago, then back to Chester County's mushroom country, where in 1991 he became a pioneer in the local Mexican dining scene, with Taquería Moroleón, a modest BYO that soon became a fixture in the strip mall beside the Acme, where the store manager had never heard of a "skirt steak."
Two decades later, Rodriguez, now 51, is a U.S. citizen. He owns a second restaurant (Tequila's) in Middletown, Del. And his original little taquería has recently moved into vast new quarters - a rambling bi-level stand-alone in Avondale that he also now owns, with daughter Maria, 25, as his manager, and sister Olivia as kitchen manager. The Roman columns remain as a relic of the old Italian tenant. But the dining rooms now burst with up to 400 customers a night, sipping margaritas from the bar and feasting on authentic ceviche, molcajetes, and molé-sauced enchiladas. Among them each Thursday night, Rodriguez says, is that manager from the Acme, in for his regular carne asada - grilled skirt steak.
It is a quintessentially American tale, as warming as a dip in spicy tomatillo salsa, when you feel the energy pulse through this local standby on any given night. But so much has changed in our local Mexican food scene over the last decade - especially with the influx of immigrants to South Philadelphia from Puebla - that it is intriguing to taste where Moroleón now sits on our ever-rising scale of genuine Mexican options.
The answer - still high - is gratifying but complex. There are certainly more intensely authentic places now to explore regional Mexican flavors, especially around Kennett Square, where one can eat fantastic fried-to-order chimichangas at La Peña stuffed with Guerrero-style cabeza y lengua (head and tongue), then head for dessert to La Michoacana Ice Cream to savor the sweet surprise of corn or mamey ice cream dusted with chile pepper and cinnamon.
Taquería Moroleón, however, has managed a rare feat in its ability to serve a largely gringo audience without compromising its roots.
True, I'm sorry to concede, there are jalapeño poppers. There is also an abundance of Tex-Mex-style flour tortillas, plus the ubiquitous nachos.
But whoa! These nachos, especially the "obligatorios," are the addictive, authentic-styled nachos I remember from the '80s, before Chi-Chi's spoiled this classic border dish forever. Fresh corn tortillas from El Sombrero nearby are fried into a crunchy nest meticulously layered with creamy refried beans, crumbles of ground beef, and oozy laces of distinctively authentic Chihuahua cheese - none of that Cheez Whiz nonsense.
For an even more intriguing nacho variation, we loved the one topped with shrimp, which were tender in a red salsa that rang with garlicky spice and a bracing splash of tequila.
Seafood, it turns out, is the best way to start a meal here. The cocktail of shrimp and tender octopus is a straightforward classic of seafood dunked in clamato-spiked tomato juice, perked up with the fizzy lift of Jarritos orange soda. The shrimp and snapper ceviche, meanwhile, is pristine, chilled in a citrusy brew tinged with serrano heat, then ringed with warm chips and creamy green fans of avocado.
On weekends, I recommend splitting a bowl of the Moroleón-style seafood stew, in which perfectly cooked shrimp, clams, fish, and crab steep in a rust-colored broth infused with fresh peppers, clove, bay, and marjoram.
This kitchen's ability to cook delicate ingredients such as seafood and chicken in mass quantities without turning them to rubber is a sign of the care and quality that informs these plates.
It's especially striking in a complicated catchall medley such as the molcajete Moroleón, a mortar bowl of black volcanic rock that arrives blazing from the kitchen with chicken, shrimp, beef, and chorizo sausage heaped into a pool of tomatillo-chile de arbol salsa that bubbles like hot lava. Every morsel provided a toothsome backdrop to the swelling spice (suddenly, I felt a cool breeze pass through my scalp). The chorizo, rife with cuminy spice, was totally addictive.
For the surf-and-turf (mar y tierra), a notably fine filet mignon gets a marinade of garlic, orange, and lime before being pierced with serrano peppers and grilled to spot-on medium rare. The plump shrimp on the side were basted in tequila-splashed pico de gallo butter.
Shrimp lovers, though, should detour to the camarones al mojo de ajo, whose red salsa vibrates with edgy garlic. The "Diabla" is similar, but adds extra chile de arbol zap to a salsa made from tomatoes that are char-grilled, not stewed.
You've likely seen skirt steak (arrachera) tacos by now, but Rodriguez uses only the tenderest outside portion of an Angus skirt, which gets a citrus marinade similar to the filet's. Served simply "quatro tacos"-style over four tortillas with fried onions, jalapeños, and guacamole, or on a "Tampiqueña" platter with rice and beans and a chile relleno, these thin sheets of meat offer the zesty, richly grained savor of true Mexican beef.
Let me pause for a moment to praise the chile relleno, which, unlike so many salsa-soggied renditions I've had in the past, revealed a spectrum of perfect textures, a delicately crisp egg-batter crust ringing the snappy layer of green pepper with the springy white core of cotija-jack cheese at its heart. It also delivered a jolt of green heat to remind I was biting into a poblano pepper.
I loved them so much, we ordered the double-size "deluxe" platter on my second visit, which brought an additional surprise: a cheese enchilada glazed in garlicky Guanajuato-style molé.
Moroleón's molé, made from a dozen ingredients - including toasted sesame, clove, bay, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, dried anchos, guajillos, and marjoram - is earthier than the Poblano-style blends woven with chocolate and fruit now so commonplace in South Philly. No, Moroleón's may not be as sweet. But after two decades in business and 36 years to the month since he crossed the border as a young man, Isidro Rodriguez's food still tastes richly of home.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the Khyber Pass in Old City. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.