There is no comfort quite like a fresh tortilla. Steaming hot from the griddle and rolled into a perfect taco cone, the velvety-soft white wrapper warms the fingers as a prelude to the fireworks tucked inside.
At La Lupe in South Philadelphia, where the tacos all come with a cool green dollop of guacamole, the payoff could be any number of stellar fillings. There's a fire-orange mince of chile-rubbed pork al pastor studded with bursts of pineapple. Or curdy white clouds of salty queso fresco fried to a golden cheese crisp. Or sublimely tender morsels of roasted barbacoa goat, slow-cooked to gamy sweetness with avocado leaves.
But it's the hand-pressed and cooked-to-order tortillas that make the tacos sing. Considering how easy they are to make, and how superior those supple, fragrant rounds are to the chewy industrial variety, it's amazing that more local Mexican restaurants don't make their own. That attention to detail is a factor that distinguishes La Lupe as the best of our recent wave of authentic taquerias.
Like many of the Mexicans who have poured into South Philadelphia over the last five years, owner Gabriel Bravo and his wife, chef Guadalupe (a.k.a. "Lupe"), came from New York City in 2002 after 9/11 dampened the economy in Queens, where they owned two restaurants.
The region's Mexican population continues to grow as Philadelphia has proven an affordable destination. And for a region that not long ago was a Sonoran desert of genuine Mexican flavors, finding a decent taqueria suddenly isn't that hard to do.
But La Lupe just might be a great one. And with its prime perch just north of the Italian Market crossroads where Pat's and Geno's duke it out, La Lupe has a chance to show that there is much more to South Philly street food now than the cheesesteak. (A fine new Vietnamese hoagie shop next door, O Sandwiches, may also have its say.)
It's about time someone on Ninth Street offered a steak "wid" cactus. And La Lupe's garlicky bistec smothered in strips of green nopales might look very tempting on a roll.
Inside the retractable glass garage-door facade of its dining room, a former chicken cheesesteakery now festooned with the red, white and green colors of the Mexican flag, there are few unnecessary concessions to gringo palates. For one, this is anything but fast food, as evidenced by the painfully long waits for our meals. Occasionally gruff and spacey service can make it seem longer.
The delays were almost always rewarded with spectacularly satisfying plates. The tacos, of course, are a highlight. But La Lupe produces a number of other variations on handmade tortillas that are worth trying.
There are the thicker "sopes," crisp on the bottom and puffy in the center, whose sides are crimped into ridges that hold a smear of creamy refried beans and shredded lettuce. I'm especially partial to the huaraches, longer, sandal-shaped sopes that come vegetarian or topped with any number of meats. The pork carnitas were a great choice, a fragrant mound of pulled pork roasted with orange juice and beer that had the right balance of tender, fatty flesh and crisp edges that crackled with the savor of caramelized garlic.
The quesadillas are essentially a hearty platter of three tacos that offer some extra-intriguing fillings, like pickled pumpkin blossoms, and huitlacoche. These swollen black corn mushrooms have a trufflelike intensity and come threaded with jalape?os and stretchy Oaxaca cheese. Few bites anywhere in the city deliver an earthy gusto as profound.
La Lupe isn't perfect. The carelessly wrapped burritos seem a halfhearted nod to the flour-tortilla mainstream. And seafood was less than stellar.
La Lupe is impressive, nonetheless, for the breadth of its menu and sauces. Italian Market neighbors have raved to me about the huevos rancheros with salsa verde, though I've never been for breakfast. And there are a number of other dishes I crave.
The giant soups here, filled with seafood, chunks of beef or honeycomb puffs of tripe (caldo de pansa) could be a full meal unto themselves if they weren't so pungently spiced. The homemade posole stew is a milder-flavored exception, the toothsome nuggets of hominy corn bobbing in bay-scented broth alongside morsels of tender pork.
There are also the delicate, cheese-stuffed chile rellenos ringed with smoky chipotle gravy. The enchilada suizas tingle with a tart green salsa of tomatillos. The special chicken pipian is also napped with vibrant cilantro green and the tang of tomatillos, but this ancient sauce is also enriched with cream and a nutty puree of pumpkin seeds. The pierna adobada brings chunks of memorably tender pork in a cuminy red mole made from guajillo chiles, oregano and avocado leaves. The same red mole is used to cook the excellent tamales rojos.
Guadalupe Bravo also makes a marvelous chocolate-based mole learned from her mother, who was in charge of preparing the legendarily intricate sauce for wedding banquets back in her Puebla village.
The thick, nearly black, puree that glazes the chicken enchiladas tingles the minute it crosses your lips. It swirls through deep notes of bitter cocoa, cinnamon, dried chile peppers, almonds, ground tortillas, and a tangy backbone of fruity plantains. And like the best moles, it's sweet but not candy. It's toasty but not burnt. It's rustic but amazingly suave. It's hot but doesn't burn.
It changes every time I take a bite, and calls me back for more. Much like La Lupe itself. It may be a while before I get enough.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.