Israel Nocelo in the dining room of his forthcoming restaurant

Israel Nocelo in the dining room of his forthcoming restaurant

Danya Henninger

New Latin American street food BYOB coming to Point Breeze

“Tacos should never touch a plate,” La Mula Terca co-owner Israel Nocelo insists. “You hold the tortilla in your hand, put it together, and eat it right then.”

Will a menu of seasonally-changing Latin American street food plus bespoke cocktail recipes be enough to draw Center City crowds to a Point Breeze BYOB?

La Mula Terca co-owners Israel Nocelo and Arturo Lorenzo are counting on it.

Their confidence is obvious in the translation of their restaurant’s name — the Stubborn Mule — and it’s also well-founded.

Nocelo, 33, has been mixing upscale drinks for over a decade, starting first in NYC and then at Positano Coast. Last year he was appointed head mixologist for the Zavino-Tredici restaurant group (a job he’ll keep), so he’s got a proven ability to please posh palates.

Lorenzo, 44, has the other side of the coin covered. Four years ago he took over Mexican coffee shop Cafe Y Chocolate (née Cafe Con Chocolate), a critical darling that’s maintained its popularity despite its non-buzzy location on Snyder between 21st and 22nd. The new spot will open directly across the street at 2053 S. Beechwood St.

Both men are natives of Puebla, Mexico, but the cuisine at La Mula Terca will pull inspiration from all over Latin America.

“I’ve been developing this menu in my head for years. It’s based on what you eat at the markets there,” says Nocelo, who for a time returned to Mexico City to work under renowned chef Enrique Olivera and has traveled to South America. “I’m tired of seeing the same stuff everywhere [in Philly]. To be honest, you open the menu and it’s all tacos. That became a little boring to me.”

Nocelo's red snapper ceviche

Nocelo's red snapper ceviche

Instagram / @inocelo

He’s excited about simple dishes done right. Look for fresh fruit like mango or jicama with house chile-lime salt, various montaditos (think crostini), corn esquites (not mushy, he promises) and guacamole made tableside. Ceviches and tiraditos will be made with just three or four ingredients and plated simply, not fussed over.

Most of the food will be small plates, ranging from $5 to $10, but Nocelo does plan a few entrees. A Brazillian-style skirt steak with chimichurri, for example, and crispy fish a la talla — fried whole and served on brown paper with a wedge of lime, just like on the side of the road in Acapulco.

Although there’s no taco section, the partners have already hired a woman whose sole job will be making tortillas from scratch. They’ll be served with various platters of fillings — carnitas, pulled pork — so diners can build tacos for themselves.

“Tacos should never touch a plate,” Nocelo says. “You hold the tortilla in your hand, put it together, and eat it right then.”

Speaking of plates, Nocelo isn’t a fan of the heavy, brightly colored dishes used by many taquerias: “It could be five-star food, but if you serve it on those plates, it doesn’t get respect.”

A salad of nopales (cactus), avocado and squash blossom

A salad of nopales (cactus), avocado and squash blossom

If La Mula Terca’s plateware will be relatively fancy, the interior is not — but it is carefully conceived. Walls of the sunny, 30-seat dining room are covered in alternating faux brick and real pine fencing, with driftwood art as accents. Light fixtures are covered in upside-down silver water buckets. The idea, per Lorenzo, is that “you’re in the field with the mules.”

Though it’s BYO, drinks have received plenty of thought. A mixologist friend of Nocelo’s will run the front of the house and be on hand to create custom recipes from whatever spirits customers bring along, using special salts, tinctures and fresh juice mixers. A variety of stemware will be kept in stock, from large burgundy wine glasses to slim champagne flutes. Non-alcoholic specialties will include té de manzanilla (corn silk tea with raw honey) and cafe frio chiapas (cold brew coffee shots). For dessert, there’s nieve de limón (lemon water ice).

Nearly all the kitchen equipment is in already place and most major permits are in hand, so the partners say to expect a late July/early August launch.

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