I doubt even Clairvoyant Monica could have foretold the fitful fortunes Manayunk has experienced in recent years.
One moment, its strip appeared poised for a bounce back to its gourmet glory days. The next, a handful of promising recent operators (Bisou, Agiato) were history. And then the much-anticipated opening of Main Street's Great Margarita Hope - Taqueria Feliz, which would relocate Monica's psychic powers a couple of storefronts away - dangled agonizingly close to opening for what seemed like an eternity. An early summer opening turned to late summer, then finally mid-fall.
Liquor license limbo was to blame, says partner Brian Sirhal - not some fading Manayunk mojo. But when the Taqueria's fiesta-colored doors finally opened in October, and executive chef Lucio Palazzo began unleashing grasshopper tacos upon the land, beside nachos so epic they look more volcanic eruptions than mere piles of chips, a salsa-scented sigh of relief was surely exhaled by many a local.
If I was a 'Yunker, I'd be thrilled, too, to have this latest member of the Feliz family anchoring the block. Sirhal and his partner, Tim Spinner, have cultivated the region's most exciting Nuevo Mexicano menu at Fairmount's La Calaca Feliz, following their hit Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington.
With the more casual Taqueria, the focus for Manayunk's slightly younger crowd is on updated street-food favorites, from tacos to enchiladas, with some cool-kid cheffy twists. And while the lively open space can at times feel like a 'rita-fueled bar (the neat exposed stone walls and filigreed steel partition amp the noise), Palazzo delivers a menu that goes beyond the typical quesadilla joint's.
His passion for handcrafted, authentically inspired fare is clear, from house-made tortillas to the myriad salsas (not to mention multi-textured guacamoles) that lend the food subtle layers of flavor.
There's not one, but two chile de árbol sauces. The first absorbs touches of sesame, cumin, and allspice into its heat for an exotic ping that resonates through the massive plate of nachos, which, despite its girth, is a carefully constructed tortilla shrine ribboned with poblano pepper strips, silky trickles of black bean puree, and ancho-tinged crumbles of brisket picadillo beneath lava flows of melted cheese.
Chile de árbol salsa No. 2 takes on whiffs of smoke (from both chiles and tomatoes) to lend the tacos topped with meltingly tender chunks of brisket al suadero (braised overnight in lard, spice, and evaporated milk) an earthy depth.
There are some "funky stuff" specialties rooted in tradition that are destined to catch novelty notice, from beef tongue tacos to lamb hearts with chimichurri.
And then there are those "chapulines," the hoppers piled atop mini-tortillas smeared with guacamole. The crunchy, hollow carapaces taste sort of like overcooked french fries (with legs) seasoned to an almost Asian savor of chile and salt. With enough Santana margaritas (an Espolon reposado-upgrade best drunk "up") I could eat more than a few. And the restaurant sells 30 orders a week.
Palazzo's true destination masterpiece, though, his lamb barbacoa, is considerably more accessible. Rubbed for days in a mulato chile paste aromatic with canella and charred onion, smoked over cherrywood, then baked six hours inside banana leaves over chickpeas, it's a Mexican cousin to the legendary lamb shoulder at Zahav, where he once worked. It's very much worthy of the legacy - sublimely tender on the bone over refried beans and plancha-seared nopales strips, with a soulful lamb and chickpea consommé on the side.
While the menu has some inconsistencies, the heart of the Taqueria's mission is more about refining familiar flavors than shocking Main Street with adventure eats. Although the special taco piled with crispy chicken skins tossed in vinegar-tanged chile de arbol salsa is a creation the entire city may soon crave.
The Manayunk masses, rather, are going for the fish tacos - and doing well by chef Spinner's long pursuit of the perfect gluten-free crisp. These blue tilapia lovelies are flaky and fresh inside their ancho-tinted corn starch-rice flour crusts, paired with creamy avocado, tart red cabbage slaw, and classic chipotle mayo.
The chicken tinga tacos offer wonderfully moist shreds of pulled meat, smokey with chipotle-tomato gravy. The carnitas are exceptionally flavorful, too - the pork brined, then cooked in evaporated milk and beer until it almost melts.
There are even a number of standout vegetarian options, from the cauliflower tacos aromatic with rusty-red guajillo salsa, to the refreshing, complex crunch of a jicama-apple salad in pumpkin-seed dressing, and a hearty enchilada Suizas, stuffed with tangy squash and ringed by creamed tomatillo salsa, that I'd return for.
The service is admirably articulate on the menu without becoming tiresome.
The Taqueria's kitchen, though, still has weak spots in need of polish. The huitlacoche quesadillas were mushy and one-dimensional (I prefer a little pop of some whole kernels inside). The tacos al pastor weren't tender, and their fresh tortillas had become chewy from sitting too long before being served - an issue with several tacos.
The snapper entrée was overwhelmed by a pinch too much morita chile heat. The torta sandwich, essentially a giant pile of various pork preparations, was a sloppy mess. The Taqueria has also chosen to outsource most of its desserts to neighbor Sweet Elizabeth's, and they were fine, if not distinctive.
With the exception of the uncomfortable booths, which feel an inch or two shorter than the chairs, all of the Taqueria's minor issues are easily remedied by this talented, proven team. And with Palazzo putting real passion into every dish, I don't need to be a fortune-teller to make this prediction: Manayunk has a new winner built to last.
4410 Main St., Manayunk
Manayunkers shouldn’t be happy — they should be thrilled that chef Tim Spinner and partner Brian Sirhal brought a taqueria sibling of their Feliz family (La Calaca in Fairmount; Cantina in Fort Washington) to Main Street. The colorful, lively space is more casual in spirit than the others, but talented chef Lucio Palazzo brings the same no-shortcut passion and authentic sensibility to updated Mexican street food, from a singular barbacoa to excellent vegetarian options and adventure tacos (grasshopper, chicken skin) that should have a citywide draw.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Nachos (with brisket picadillo); hot dog “perro caliente”; chips and salsa; shrimp cocktail; tortilla soup; jicama salad; tacos (fish, carnitas, chicken tinga, brisket al suadero, cauliflower, crispy chicken skin, chapulines); enchiladas Suizas; carne asada; lamb barbacoa; esquites; margarita cheesecake.
DRINK Less focused on premium tequilas than the other Feliz restaurants, but still with several excellent fresh-juice takes on margaritas, including the Santana (with Espolon reposado, and best straight-up) and a fun white whiskey “Moonshine” variation. There’s a small but quality selection of craft beers — think IPA or pils to quench the spice, or a Michelada of Dos Equis with Bloody Mary mix. El Tesoro, Herradura, and Don Julio headline the solid tequilas, but the quality mezcal selection (Vago, Illegal, Del Maguey) is especially worth exploring.
WEEKEND NOISE A margarita-pumped 93 decibels can make it hard to hear the server. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Monday through Thursday, 4-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, to 11 p.m.; Sunday, to 9 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
All major cards.
Reservations available but not required.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Le Chéri on Rittenhouse Square.