Philly food and drink scene

Breakfast tacos land in Center City at the new El Cafe — and they’re worth seeking out

Don’t sleep on the Mexican pastries, either.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
danya

Breakfast tacos are one of the world’s most perfect morning meals. If some Philadelphians aren’t familiar, it’s not really their fault. It hasn’t been easy to find them in the central part of the city — especially not great ones, especially at an early hour.

That all changes this week with the launch of El Cafe, a new counter-service shop from the crew behind acclaimed Fishtown restaurant Suraya.

The ground-floor cafe at 31 S. 19th St. (between Chestnut and Market) starts serving at 8 a.m. daily, which is the first point in the tacos’ favor. Second bonus: they’re served on tortillas made in house from heirloom Mexican corn, and those have a great taste and texture all on their own.

Chorizo taco at El Cafe

Chorizo taco at El Cafe

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

These tacos are not cheap: the simplest one is $4.50, and they go up from there. But the ingredients are luxe, and the construction is deliberate. One makes a good snack, while two or three is enough for lunch.

Each taco is built around an over-easy fried egg, with a jammy golden yolk that spreads umami everywhere as soon as you bite in. (You can ask for scrambled if you prefer; not a bad idea if you’re taking them to go.)

On top of the egg goes a layer of lightly grilled hoja santa, a wide-leafed plant that’s a staple in Mexican cooking and tastes kind of like sarsaparilla. Its herbal flavor is a great foil for the rest of the pile — which is as savory as you want it. There’s one option that includes just cheese, another with black beans, and a third with crumbled chorizo. You can add a bite of creamy cool with avocado for 50 cents extra.

Four housemade salsas

Four housemade salsas

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Recommendation: Don’t fill up so much on tacos that you don’t have room for sweets.

Pastry chef James Matty, who is also behind Suraya baked goods, has created a display case unlike almost anything else in Center City.

His take on conchas, the lightly-sugared sweet bread served throughout Mexico, is like a brioche given extra fluff. It’s even better dipped in the housemade chocolate, thick and gritty and full of floral spice.

Vanilla concha, banana pastry and housemade chocolate dipping sauce

Vanilla concha, banana pastry and housemade chocolate dipping sauce

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Another don’t-miss option is the ojo de pancha, which is like if you took a dollop of banana bread, stuffed it with sweet cream cheese filling and surrounded the whole thing with a ring of flaky pie crust.

Order a Stumptown coffee or iced horchata to go with and you’ll create a flavor memory that lasts throughout the day.

Pastry chef James Matty overlooks his chocolate, ground in house from cacao beans

Pastry chef James Matty overlooks his chocolate, ground in house from cacao beans

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, the cafe is the first of a trio of restaurants in the Pod Philly boutique hotel. All of them are projects from Defined Hospitality, the fast-growing restaurant group that, in addition to Suraya, runs Fishtown’s Pizzeria Beddia and the cocktail bar R&D.

The Mexican theme stretches throughout their Center City foray. Next week will see the opening of Condesa, a 140-seat full service restaurant on Pod Philly’s ground floor, and later this fall will bring the launch of rooftop taqueria call El Techo, with a giant retractable glass roof.

No reason to wait for those, especially if you’re a morning person. Head over to El Cafe and start your day right.

El Cafe has a few tables. Behind it is Condesa

El Cafe has a few tables. Behind it is Condesa

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Want some more? Explore other Philly food and drink scene stories.

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