What color is your corn?
Is it the iridescent white glint of Silver Queen, whose bursting sweetness reflects summer's ripe back stretch? Or the classic maize of fall, a season of earthy polentas? Or the milky stew of dried Cope's corn at the Thanksgiving table?
For the Sandoval family, the indigo tint of blue corn - which they use in masa dough for the tortillas and huaraches made fresh daily at their South Philadelphia restaurant - is the symbol of home.
San Mateo Ozolco, which sits on the slopes of an active volcano in the state of Puebla, is where this prized corn is produced. It's also the point of origin for a huge percentage of the Mexican community that has settled in South Philadelphia - and nearly tripled over the last 15 years. I suspect more than a few are moved to nostalgia when they see a trio of blue tacos topped with pork al pastor in guajillo salsa, or a bowl of crisp blue chips offered to begin, with a vibrant green salsa verde edgy with tomatillos and raw jalapeño spice. Every gram of blue masa flour the Sandovals use helps support their friends back home.
But Blue Corn Mexican Restaurant & Bar, which is technically owned by landlord Ernesto Atrisco (who once ran el Costeño there), is clearly also speaking to a broader audience. Opened in 2014 beside Villa di Roma in a tidy 40-seater with a full bar, tall black tables, and a veteran service staff, it has an extra polish that's proved a strong draw for a mainstream American clientele.
Exceptionally soulful flavors, rather than upscale frills, have always been the lure on my steady hunt for Mexican gems at some of my favorite South Philly taquerias, from the masterful tamales at Mole Poblano to the lamb tacos at South Philly Barbacoa, and the juicy steak and tlacoyos at La Fonda de Teresita.
For the most part, Blue Corn is a fine blend of style and authentic substance. Agustin Sandoval and his brothers, Amado and Max, are all veterans of Philadelphia restaurants who worked their way up from Rose Tatoo Cafe dishwashers to become servers (and a bartender) for more than a decade with Susanna Foo. Their sister Alicia helps run Blue Corn's kitchen. And their ease with serving a multicultural crowd is clearly infused with obvious pride.
Their glorious chile en Nogada, for example, an early September-only special of a big poblano stuffed with juicy ground meat studded with sweet nuggets of fresh and dried fruits, will cue the tale of the special walnuts. Agustin's father sends them "from my little town" so the creamy white sauce of pureed nuts glazed over top tastes just right beneath the tart pop of fresh pomegranate seeds.
The mood, already joyous from the multiple birthday serenades of a mariachi band pouring from the speakers, is helped by a bar turning out deft classic tropical cocktails. From a creamy rum piña colada to a margarita tanged with tamarind and a rim that sparked with chili salt, they tasted like a beach vacation. The zesty Clamato mixer of Michelada was the best bet to upgrade the standard Mexican beers.
It's Blue Corn's eye for quality ingredients and distinctive specialties, though, that establish it as a worthy player. The Fundación Olmeca appetizer sampler of three masa specialties is a perfect snapshot of its appeal. Oval tlacoyo turnovers are folded around centers of refried beans, then topped with smoky chipotle salsa and shredded cactus salad. Puffy chalupas are topped with tangy green salsa and crumbled queso fresco. Sopecito rounds layered with beans are topped with tender pulled chicken in a roasty guajillo-flared pibil sauce.
Max, who worked in a Mexico City seafood restaurant (before a stint at Johnny Brenda's), is especially deft with seafood here. The shrimp in garlic sauce got an extra little earthy kick from guajillos and sliced mushrooms. But it is Blue Corn's shrimp cocktail, one of the best I've ever eaten, that I really crave - a wide glass chalice of tender shrimp in zesty tomato cocktail sauce (a splash of Jarritos orange soda is its secret) that hits another level when I add a stiff dose of La Bruja, spiced vinegar from a tall cruet on the side infused with peppers and herbs. A shake of La Bruja is also an essential perk for the Chilean sea bass ceviche, though it would have been better without the fussy flourish of intrusive alfalfa sprouts.
But I'd also return just for the special called pescado parroquia, a thick red snapper filet my night (and more recently branzino), that comes stuffed with huitlacoche corn mushrooms then glazed with vibrant green poblano cream. That same sauce, at once piquant and rich, is featured in another stellar dish, Offrenda de los Dioses, which is essentially a wedge of tortilla lasagna stuffed with more huitlacoche plus stretchy Oaxaca cheese.
There were a few dishes that let me down. The pork chops in sweet Manchamanteles sauce were thoroughly overcooked. Tiny tostadas topped with braised beef suadero lacked crunch, and the meat itself was bland. On more than one occasion, some of Blue Corn's standard taco toppings (like the al pastor), lacked some complexity or an edgier seasoning. Was it restrained with the restaurant's large gringo clientele in mind?
Who knows? There were too many other successes to really mind, like the deeply rustic tortilla soup, or the thick slice of traditional turkey glazed in spicy-sweet chocolate mole, or the oval huarache, whose hand-formed ridges offer a substantial showcase for the extra nutty sweetness the fresh blue corn masa brings.
And perhaps fittingly for a restaurant whose prices are a shade more expensive than the local competition (despite the inconvenience of being cash-only), Blue Corn makes some of my favorite filet mignon dishes in South Philly. For the Sabana, it gets pounded as flat and large as a plate, topped with a thin layer of refried beans, and then gratinéed with Chihuaha cheese ringed by a garland of fresh cilantro.
For the Tampiqueña platter, the presentation is more straightforward, but no less satisfying. The meat is marinated in garlic and olive oil, butterflied into a long strip, and grilled alongside refried beans, spicy guacamole, shredded poblanos in cream, and "enmolada," little bundles of folded tortillas that have been dunked in the dark sweet spice of mole poblano. At $20, it's well worth the price.
For dessert, Blue Corn stays traditional with mixed results. I've had creamier flans. And the lava cake was solid but standard. The cheesecake, though, caught my eye because its crust was made with . . . blue corn.
It's a fine reminder that for the Sandovals, who now count 15 family members working at this thriving little restaurant, the color of their corn is sweet success.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Aqimero in the Ritz-Carlton.
VERY GOOD (two bells out of four)
Blue Corn Mexican Restaurant & Bar
940 S. Ninth St., Philadelphia 19147, 215-925-1010; on Facebook
This cozy Italian Market ode to authentic Mexican flavors brings a little extra polish to Ninth Street's taqueria scene, with experienced service and a bar mixing good renditions of classic beachy drinks. The kitchen excels with seafood and anything made with blue corn masa from the Sandoval family's home in San Mateo Ozolco. Some flavors taste a bit restrained, perhaps with the large gringo clientele in mind. But overall, this is a worthy destination for distinctive dishes not found elsewhere in town. Only drawback: it's cash-only.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Ofrenda de los Dioses; nachos; Fundación Olmeca; shrimp cocktail; tortilla soup; blue corn tacos al pastor; blue huarache; chile en nogada (special); pescado parroquia; camarones al ajillo; turkey mole; Sabana filet with bean sauce; tampiqueña platter.
DRINKS A compact but full bar mixes fine renditions of some classics, including multiple variations on piña coladas and margaritas (loved the frozen tamarind version with the chili-spiked rim) that taste like a beach vacation. A small selection of Mexican beers are adequate (try the Victoria lager) but are better mixed with spicy Clamato into a Michelada.
WEEKEND NOISE A reasonable 80 decibels, except when the little room erupts into its frequent happy birthday serenades. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch daily, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 2:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.
Tacos, $8-$10 for three. Entrees, $17-$26.
Reservations suggested, especially weekends.
Street parking only.