There's much more to Mexican food than tacos. That becomes clear when you consider the menu at La Mula Terca - brimming with soulful caldos and huitlacoche-sauced steak - and realize there are none.
Then again, there is plenty about this second restaurant from Arturo Lorenzo and Maricela Tellez that defies the conventions of South Philadelphia's gloriously booming Mexican revolution. For one thing, La Mula Terca sits on a quiet corner at Snyder Avenue and South Beechwood, the opposite side of Broad Street from the eastside nexus of taquerias that's become Puebladelfia.
Unlike many of those low-frill establishments, though, as well as the colorfully casual brunch-themed sibling Cafe Y Chocolate, the huevos-rancheros haven that Lorenzo and Tellez own across the street, there is also slightly more of a sit-down polish to La Mula's pleasant corner space. I wouldn't call it "fancy," per se. But the extensive brick work, raw-plank accents, and upturned-metal-bucket light shades give off a distinct style that hints at Lorenzo's previous career as a patio-installation master.
But Lorenzo the restaurateur, whose childhood nickname "Stubborn Mule" was the inspiration for La Mula Terca, was determined to create something different - even if he, too, was born in the Puebla town of San Mateo that is the point of origin for much of South Philadelphia's Mexican population.
La Mula's menu is more an ode to the street foods of Mexico City, where Lorenzo grew up, as well as to some pan-Latino flavors evoking South America. And new chef Javier Geronimo Tellez (no relation to Maricela), who previously cooked at Las Bugambilias, serves it up with a little modern style.
From that first salty, sour, sweet, and spicy bite of complimentary fruit - a Lincoln Log stack of ripe pineapple rails splashed with Day-Glo red Chamoy sauce dusted with salt and chili spice - my taste buds were obliged by the intensity to recalibrate.
That palate-cleansing only accentuated a vibrant freshness of the familiar guacamole, its creamy green mashed to order in a lava stone molcajete with Serrano chili heat and served dramatically with crispy half-moons of blue tortillas sticking out like propeller blades.
A ceviche del Golfo brings big, sweet shrimp that spark against a tomato-onion salsa vivid with cilantro and citrus. A whiff of minty hoja santa lends a hint of herbal intrigue to the crema that streaks montadito toasts that come mounded with cuminy crumbled chorizo. That crema pairs with smoky chipotle cream over the excellent Venezuelan-style arepas, crispy pockets of corn-and-cheese masa dough stuffed with sliced steak, peppers, and onions.
They were among the handful of "beyond-Mexico" moments that technically qualify La Mula's menu as pan-Latino. There was also a zesty chimichurri, its garlicky parsley blend married properly for four days to mellow, that added some swagger to the Argentine-style grilled skirt steak churrasco served alongside a link of chorizo and round of grilled corn on a stick. There were also some attempts at fusion cooking that could have been interesting, like the Pastorguesa, a pork burger flavored with al pastor's signature seasonings (guajillo, orange, pineapple, and achiote), but it was unfortunately overcooked. Ditto for the pork chop in pasilla sauce, which would have been great if it had not been so chewy.
La Mula's true strength still lies in its interpretation of some underexplored rustic Mexican flavors (at least locally), including some especially soulful soups. I've not had a better birria in Philadelphia, a lamb stew from the Mexican state of Jalisco whose mahogany-colored broth is rich with tender leg meat and the distinctive savor of cascabel chilies, which add a nuttiness to the guajillo chili heat. The mole de olla is a homey beef stew classic, its slightly milder broth full of vegetables, squash, stewed short ribs, and chewy hunks of shank that served to add savor rather than tender flesh. The addition of chipotles in adobo adds a smoky spice that gives the chicken soup its Tlalpeño name.
Though the mixiote is not a soup, it comes from the same slow-stewed spirit: lamb shoulder braised with garlic adobo, oregano, guajillos, and fragrant avocado leaves. In San Mateo, Maricela Tellez says, it's served as a tamale - something I'm now desperate to try. (Doesn't everything taste better inside a tamale?) But I also loved the minimalist approach of Mula's presentation - just a hunk of sublimely tender meat basking in the earthy essence of its gravy, a warm bundle of fresh-pressed tortillas on the side.
Chef Tellez gets tricky - and a little strange - with his pollo tamarindo, a perfectly executed roulade of chicken wrapped in crispy bacon glazed in tangy brown tamarind sauce. It gets undeniably a little weird when I notice that chicken is also stuffed with turkey dogs and peppers, but -¡oye! - it was definitely tasty and has become, not surprisingly, one of La Mula's most popular dishes.
For fans like me of the swollen black kernels called corn smut - a.k.a. huitlacoche - la Mula has some worthy showcases. The restaurant's signature char-grilled hanger steak comes over a thick smear of the inky dark corn, whose truffley tones pick up on that cut's gamier notes, with dabs of lime guacamole and shredded white panela cheese for fresh contrast. The quesadilla, meanwhile, is pure Mexico City, a thick triangle of soft corn masa (vs. the more-gringo flour tortilla) crisped on the griddle and wrapped around a satisfying stuffing of whole huitlacoche kernels tangled up with zingy jalapeños, stretchy Oaxaca cheese, and the weedy scent of epazote.
For dessert, La Mula tries hard to offer something less common with las canoas, a boat-shaped fried plantain topped with fruit and condensed milk, as well as with house-made chocolate truffles flavored with cinnamon, tequila, and agave. But if you manage to get there before 6:30 and ask really nicely, they might agree to let you order some hot fresh churros stuffed with dulce de leche caramel at Cafe Y Chocolate across the street, along with that sister restaurant's specialty blend of espresso and hot chocolate.
I know, I know, there's more to Mexican desserts than churros. But considering its off-the-radar location just south of trendy Point Breeze, La Mula Terca already does a fine job establishing itself as a unique destination within South Philly's burgeoning Mexican universe. But for a plate of those caramel-ribboned hot churro fritters? I'd ask again.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Ristorante Panorama in Old City.