Alexis Tellez’s heart still beats with the spirit of the blue tlacoyos.
These oblong masa boats made from heirloom blue corn — crispy on the bottom, chewy on the inside, and sublimely earthy — remind him of what his mother, Guadalupe Tellez, would cook when they arrived in New Hope nearly two years ago. decades.
Today, 26 and now executive chef of Sor Ynéz, he layers his tlacoyos with black beans and a spicy cactus salad cooked as his mother taught him – a tribute to Nezahualcóyotl, the town in the state of Mexico, which he left as a child. But there is also a Michoacan-style carnitas learned from his father. A sikil pak pumpkin seed puree (which Tellez dubbed “Mayan hummus” on the menu) from his family in Tlaxcala.
But what about the “alt-pastor” made with spit-roasted cauliflower glazed with guajillo spices? Or the scorching banana leaf bundle of a typically meaty mixiot filled with…vegan treasure? They are also the products of Tellez’s personal history as a DACA dreamer who was steeped in American culture as much as his Bucks County-born girlfriend, Brielle Appleton. They met while working at the Carversville Inn, and his pescatarian ways, along with his vegan older brother, compelled Tellez to create inventive approaches to meatless dishes using traditional Mexican techniques.
“My family has grown and I want to please everyone,” Tellez says. “My goal is to be part of the growth of Mexican food in Philadelphia.”
There have been few more ripe times for that kind of ambition in Philly history. More than 20 years after the great migration of Mexican immigrants to South Philadelphia began, this entrepreneurial community is taking off with an ever-growing repertoire of Capulhuac-style tacos, tamales and barbacoa thrills. Year-long arrivals such as La Llorona on West Passyunk nod to Oaxaca (try the tlayuda) and the scope of agave spirits beyond tequila. El Molino Tortilleria has brought fresh tortillas and great birria to West Ritner Street. Carlos Aparicio, former chef behind Tredici restaurants, will soon open El Chingon on S. 10th Street. Jennifer Zavala’s Birria pop-up sensation Juana Tamale is set to open a showcase at East Passyunk this month.
There are more new Mexican energies than ever beyond South Philadelphia, some more successful than others. Carlos Molina and his wife, Michelle Zimmerman, recently moved their 14-year-old canteen, Las Bugambilias — with its reliably satisfying molcajete, cochinita pibil, and Veracruz grouper — to a beautiful location in the Old Town formerly occupied by Farmicia. I’m also a fan of El Purepecha’s swanky new location in the old Brick and Mortar, now with liquor license, stellar chorizo sopes and a mojado burrito stuffed with carnitas which is one of my favorites. .
The elegantly brooding Añejo drew a lively crowd to his Northern Liberties perch in the Piazza, but the food was unremarkable at our recent brunch, where his unwillingness to even bother to brew coffee was equally perplexing. Almost as disappointing was La Chinesca, because its potential is so much greater. I loved this energetic revamp of an old Jiffy Lube on Spring Garden Street into a neon-lit cocktail patio offering an intriguing fusion of Chinese and Mexican flavors. But the flavors, texture, and compositions on the menu were so out of place during my visit, it was as if no one knew how to cook Mexican or Chinese flavors particularly well, let alone blend them in any meaningful way.
I also didn’t have particularly high expectations for Sor Ynéz, based on my lukewarm experiences with its downtown sibling, Cafe Ynéz. But owner Jill Weber, who also owns the Jet Wine Bar and Rex 1516 (soon to become Rex at the Royal), has stepped up her design and concept game at this Kensington venture. It sits behind the gates of an industrial island so isolated, the massive warehouse her husband Evan Malone converted into his second NextFab studios (“a gym for inventors”), that it’s a pleasant surprise everyone anything of culinary interest can exist there.
But Sor Ynéz sprawls like a colorful outdoor oasis in this gated parking lot on North American Street, with an artificial lawn surrounded by umbrellas, fairy lights, dining cabanas and heart-pounding Mexican pop melodies. With a plate of jicama and mango salad slathered in tangy homemade chamoy sauce to munch on, and a Rosario’s tumbler of mint tequila at your fingertips (or maybe the Frida with its charred corn topping), this looks like an unexpected vacation.
Weber, an archaeologist who is a consulting researcher for the Penn Museum, has a longstanding interest in Mexican culture (as well as Mexican godparents). She called on Miguel Antonio Horn, the local artist behind recent projects like the floating head of Spruce Street Harbor and the Against Fuerte sculpture of gargantuan figures hung in a parking lot next to Reading Terminal Market, to design the spaces. Teal and pink plaster walls set the colors for a vintage casona mansion vibe in the restaurant’s 45-seat interior, while ceiling-laced Mexican hammocks add rippling textural warmth to its industrial box. Weber also commissioned an intricate beaded portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the 17th-century feminist nun-philosopher, to put a face to the restaurant’s name.
It’s the hiring of Tellez, however, that gives this project a knack for building its contemporary identity.
This menu can get a little bogged down when it dwells on some of the obligatory burritos and tacos reminiscent of the cal-mex cuisine Tellez used to cook at Loco Pez. But he’s clearly aiming to dig deeper, especially in the reimagining of his father’s Michoacan-style carnitas — a piece of pork confit in lard from Green Meadow Farm (versus the braised carnitas more commonly seen in Philadelphia), served with tasty whole pintos, fresh tortillas and tangy habanero-carrot salsa.
I admired Tellez’s work with various tortillas, infusing them with mashed cactus for green quesadillas stuffed with stretchy Oaxaca cheese and squash blossoms. I coveted the melted Chihuahua cheese flavor for its queso fundido, which got a smoky boost thanks to Green Meadow bacon and zesty shishito peppers. The Michoacana-style onion and carrot escabèche balanced the richness of the enchiladas rolled in a guajillo salsa around potatoes and cheese. The plump prawns al ajillo took a puff of smoke from the mezcal used to flambé the garlic butter and lime sauce.
But what sets this menu the most apart are Tellez’s plant-based twists on traditional Mexican dishes. Like the pastor’s tacos made with cauliflower marinated in pineapple and guajillo salsa before being roasted on a spit and shaved in the blink of an eye. Or oyster mushroom carnitas cooked in epazote flavored oil.
I was particularly drawn to the mixiote, a packet of roasted banana leaves which, in Tellez’s hometown, often features rabbit or lamb. At Sor Ynéz, the leaves unfurled like a gift from the vegan gods. When the fragrant steam cleared, a bed of red rice was piled high with chayote, celeriac, kale and crunchy fried onions moistened with a chipotle broth and smoked eggplant, the pulp of which had melted and thickened the sauce.
There is still a lot of room for improvement. The desserts aren’t quite as satisfying as the savory dishes — the cheesecake-heavy flan, the weirdly chewy vegan churros. Service is on the rise, but also spotty, including the complete lack of mention during my first meal that a 20% service charge had been automatically added, resulting in the awkward unraveling of a double tip inadvertently.
I am all for this increasingly popular service fee model, especially with a restaurant as forward-thinking and full of potential as Sor Ynéz. But progress, sometimes, is a process. Alexis Tellez’s blue tlacoyos — and so many other dishes here — are already worth the trip.
The Inquirer does not currently give bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
1800 N. American St., 215-309-2582; sorynez.com
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 11 p.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, 11 p.m.-5 p.m.
Plates: $8 to $25. An automatic 20% service charge is added to the check.
Drinks : There’s a list of creative and refreshing cocktails made with mezcal and tequila, like the Frida, a margarita riff with charred corn, the hibiscus Juana, and the mint Rosario. There is also a small selection of Mexican wines and craft beers.
All major cards.
Ample free parking in the lot.