A tiny 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 quietly last November on an East Passyunk side street, was one of three Philly restaurants named among the country’s best.
The other two Philly restaurants on the list, including renowned Thai restaurant Kalaya in Fishtown, and buzzy Center City French bistro My Loup, came from already well-known chefs who received James Beard Foundation awards or nominations this year.
And just as at the James Beard Awards this year, neither Delaware nor South Jersey was featured.
El Chingon chef-owner Carlos Aparicio said he was floored to see his little taqueria and bakery included among the best in the country.
“It’s overwhelming,” Aparicio said, “But it’s good overwhelming. … It took a lot of work, a lot of sacrifices. Personal sacrifices, financially, emotionally. Everything.”
More Philly restaurant awards: A Philadelphia restaurant was named best in the country at the James Beard Awards
El Chingon took years of hard work to open
El Chingon is the first restaurant that the Puebla-born chef could call his own.
Aparicio spent decades working in other Philadelphia restaurant kitchens, including stints baking at some of the more prominent Italian and French restaurants in Philadelphia.
But about three years ago, he and his family began selling Puebla-style cemita sandwiches as a sidewalk pop-up, even as Aparicio held down a day job as chef of a suburban pizza restaurant. For years, in spare hours of the evenings and mornings, he and his family built out the little restaurant they would one day open.
When El Chingon finally cracked its doors, Aparicio leaned on his baking strengths.
This meant dense and seeded house-baked bread for his cemitas, which arrive loaded up with meat and with papalo herbs grown in the restaurant’s own garden. Sweet, crisp and colorful concha breads filled with nutella and strawberries. A pizza pop-up featuring Mexican flavors.
And, of course, multiple versions of pork or beef carefully layered onto a vertical spit and cooked to caramelized perfection, the same way they do it in the Lebanese-influenced state of Puebla.
But Aparicio's Puebla-style tacos arabes also come with a longtime pizza baker's touch: His housemade flour tortillas arrive with the light sourdough tang of fermented dough.
El Chingon came to the New York Times' attention after a food editor was invited by a friend
Times food editor Nikita Richardson had first praised El Chingon in April as part of a travel guide to the city. She'd been invited to the little restaurant, she wrote, by a friend.
In naming the restaurant among the best in the country in September, Richardson gushed over the “springy” bread on his cemita sandwiches, the lime-cured scallop and fiery spice of Aparicio's aguachile, and innovative tacos that included vegetarian tacos arabes made with mushrooms.
“El Chingon doesn’t clamor for attention or traffic in gimmicks,” she wrote. “It’s simply a neighborhood restaurant, albeit one of the highest order.
The newspaper had sent a photographer earlier this year, but Aparicio said he was still stunned to find himself listed among the best restaurants in America.
His phone and social media accounts quickly filled with messages from reporters, and from chefs 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 it all out,” Aparicio said.
Philadelphia's Kalaya and My Loup also named among the best restaurants in the country
The top 50 list also featured Philadelphia Thai restaurant Kalaya, whose chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon was named the best chef in the Mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Awards earlier this year.
Her restaurant moved last year from a small South Philly restaurant into a large, cocktail-filled Fishtown space.
Times writer Brett Anderson praised Suntaranon’s “forcefully spiced, luminous cooking,” in particular the “flower-shaped shaw muang, the fiery venison curry and the goong phao, with its grilled freshwater prawns.”
Whimsical French-influenced restaurant My Loup, from chef Alex Kemp and much-hailed Her Place supper club chef Amanda Shulman, was praised for the “twists, turns and surprises” of a seasonal menu that might careen from a seafood platter to a pork chop with peaches to soft-serve ice cream topped with Teddy Grahams.
El Chingon does also host the occasional ambitious, multicourse Mexican tasting menu with visiting chefs. Laborious specials from regional Mexican cuisine pop on and off the menu, and appetizers include higher-end aguachiles and ceviches.
But the little restaurant also maintains a bustling takeout business for its taco platters, and cemita and mollete sandwiches, which might fill you up for anywhere from $12 to $18.
Aparicio doesn't expect that El Chingon will go upscale any time soon, even with attention from local and national outlets.
“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 USA Today Network reporter in the broader Philadelphia region, covering culture, food, equity, science and why the 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: South Philadelphia Mexican spot one of top 50 US restaurants, says NYT