A small Mexican sandwich shop in South Philadelphia is one of the 50 most exciting restaurants in America, The New York Times wrote Tuesday.
El Chingon, a taqueria and cemita shop that opened last November on a side street in East Passyunk, was one of three Philly restaurants named among the best in the country.
The other two Philadelphia restaurants on the list, including popular Thai restaurant Kalaya in Fishtown and bustling downtown French bistro My Loup, were from already well-known chefs who received awards or nominations from the James Beard Foundation this year.
And just like at this year’s James Beard Awards, neither Delaware nor South Jersey was featured.
El Chingon chef-owner Carlos Aparacio said he was amazed to see his small taqueria and bakery among the best in the country.
“It’s overwhelming,” Aparicio said, “But it’s definitely overwhelming. … It’s taken a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice. Personal sacrifice, financial sacrifice, emotional sacrifice. Everything.”
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El Chingon took years of hard work to open
El Chingon is the first restaurant the Puebla-born chef can call his own.
Aparicio spent decades working in other Philadelphia restaurant kitchens, including cooking at some of Philadelphia’s most prominent Italian and French restaurants.
But about three years ago, he and his family started selling cemita sandwiches a la Puebla from a sidewalk pop-up, even while Aparicio was working a day job as a chef at a pizzeria in suburb. For years, during free evening and morning hours, he and his family built the small restaurant they would one day open.
When El Chingon finally opened, Aparicio leaned into its baking strengths.
That meant dense, seeded homemade bread for his cemitas, which arrived loaded with papalo meat and herbs grown in the restaurant’s garden. Sweet, crunchy and colorful concha breads filled with nutella and strawberries. A pop-up pizza with Mexican flavors.
And, of course, several versions of pork or beef carefully layered on a vertical spit and cooked to caramelized perfection, the same way they do in the Lebanese-influenced state of Puebla.
But Aparicio’s Puebla Arabic tacos also feature a longtime pizza maker’s twist: His house-made flour tortillas arrive with the slight sourdough flavor of fermented dough.
El Chingon caught the attention of the New York Times after a food editor was invited by a friend
Times Food editor Nikita Richardson first praised El Chingon in April as part of a travel guide to the city. She had been invited to the small restaurant, she wrote, by a friend.
In naming the restaurant one of the best in the country in September, Richardson raved about the “springy” bread on his cemita sandwiches, the lime-cured scallop and fiery spice of Aparacio’s aguachile, and the innovative tacos that included vegetarian Arabic tacos made with mushrooms.
“El Chingon doesn’t clamor for attention or deal in gimmicks,” she wrote. “It’s simply a neighborhood restaurant, albeit a top-notch one.
The newspaper sent a photographer earlier this year, but Aparicio said he was still amazed to find himself among the best restaurants in America.
His phone and social media accounts quickly filled with messages from reporters and chefs from as far away as Los Angeles and Charlotte, North Carolina.
“From where we started to where we are, it’s impressive. … I’m still trying to figure everything out,” Aparicio said.
Philadelphia’s Kalaya and My Loup also named among the nation’s best restaurants
The top 50 also included Philadelphia Thai restaurant Kalaya, whose chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon was named best chef in the Mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Awards earlier this year.
His restaurant moved last year from a small South Philadelphia restaurant to a large, cocktail-filled Fishtown space.
Times writer Brett Anderson praised Suntaranon’s “bright, heavily spiced cuisine,” particularly the “flower-shaped shaw muang, fiery venison curry and goong phao, with its freshwater shrimp grilled”.
Whimsical French-influenced restaurant My Loup, from chef Alex Kemp and Her Place supper club celebrity chef Amanda Shulman, has been praised for the “twists and surprises” of a seasonal menu that can range from platter from seafood to a pork chop. with peaches and soft serve ice cream topped with Teddy Grahams cereal.
El Chingon also occasionally offers an ambitious, multi-course Mexican tasting menu with guest chefs. Hard-working specialties of regional Mexican cuisine pop in and out of the menu, and entrees include upscale aguachiles and ceviches.
But the small restaurant also maintains a bustling takeout business for its taco platters and cemita and Mollete sandwiches, which can fill you up for between $12 and $18.
Aparicio doesn’t expect El Chingon to move upmarket in the near future, even with local and national media attention.
“Little El Chingon has been accepted for what it is,” he said. “We tried to build a place where everyone can come. You can come in flip flops.
Matthew Korfhage is a reporter for the USA Today Network in the Philadelphia area, covering culture, food, equity, science and why trains don’t run on time. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on the site formerly known as Twitter @matthewkorfhage.
This article originally appeared on Cherry Hill Courier-Post: The South Philadelphia Mexican restaurant is among America’s 50 Best Restaurants, according to the New York Times.