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Twelve thousand followers and counting were thrilled by a surprise Instagram post last week from chef Jennifer Zavala, announcing she was opening the doors to Juana Tamale, her neon-colored restaurant on East Passyunk Avenue.
After selling out each day, the restaurant closed again temporarily to work out a few kinks. It reopens on Black Friday — and eager customers can expect another rush.
Zavala has spent over a decade in the Philly food scene. She helped open El Camino Real in 2008, and landed as a competitor on Bravo’s “Top Chef” the following year. She exited early, but her unabashed style and unrepentant attitude earned her many local fans. That flair is on display at the new spot.
“For those of you who know Jenn, you’ll see her personality at every turn in the restaurant,” said Lauren McFadden, who did Juana Tamale’s interior design. “And for those of you who don’t — well, now ya know!”
A proud Latina chef of Mexican-Italian heritage, Zavala has cooked at several of Philly’s top kitchens; launched a bright pink food truck; caused a kerfuffle over meatballs that dared be vegan; and helped introduce Philadelphia to birria tacos, the stuffed and griddled corn tortillas served with a side of consomme.
Zavala also recently made a name for herself as the “tamale lady.” Since the end of her popular series at Underground Arts this spring, her followers have been eagerly awaiting a place to fill their cravings.
They’ll find it at the new restaurant, where all her past experiences come together. “This is my love letter to my life. This is my legacy,” Zavala said at a preview event, “and I can’t wait to serve each and every one of you.”
Here’s a look at what to expect when you go.
For many items on the concise menu, it’s all about that dark, rich, glistening broth. You can choose to get it different ways: in tacos or as soup, and with queso and/or beef.
The birria ramen ($18) is currently made with Korean-style thin noodles, but will soon be upgraded with noodles from Neighborhood Ramen. It’s served in a styrofoam cup and is accompanied by a single beef birria taco and chopsticks for maximum slurping.
Queso birria tacos (3 for $21) are overstuffed with burnt cheese (the best part) along crispy tortilla edges and come with a small cup of consomme. Any version will have you tempted to sip the broth in its entirety.
For a bite of SoCal, try the puerco con chili verde tacos. The pulled pork is cooked medium, still pink and juicy, accompanied by peppers, cilantro, and onion.
Not into meat? Grab vegan tamales ($5), softly steamed handmade masa pockets from Pennsylvania’s Sherwood Seeds’ Oaxacan green corn, filled with collard greens, plump chickpeas, and diced yam. Or, order vegan wings ($12) or churros ($3) for a snack to go.
Future plans include adding a tortilla machine for even more authentic masa creations.
There’s no official drink menu — it’s BYOB — but there are Jarritos Mexican sodas available to grab.
South Philly neighbors Stickman Brews will be on-site during select weekends, offering three to four of their 30 beers to pair with meals. (their First World Problems farmhouse ale makes a great complement).
If space is an issue, take your beer and tacos around the corner to the brewery’s Mifflin Street taproom. Otherwise, consider bringing your own beverage.
Look for detailed beer announcements on Instagram: @StickmanBrews.
An artist by trade, McFadden is a longtime friend of Zavala, and she channeled the chef’s energy into the restaurant’s design.
Peep the FDR Skate Park boards used as shelves, or the wood planks propping the upcycled ordering counter and giant wood-carved red-and-yellow menu board.
You can’t miss the blinking six-foot neon “Oaxacan dancing man” by neighbor business Electroromanic, displayed on a purple wall. Or the framed personal photos from Zavala’s own collection, like the graffiti-covered van that kickstarted her tamale business, hanging in the bathroom.
Friends and partners helped refurbish existing furniture to match the brightly-colored aesthetics. The result is like dining inside a world where Beetlejuice meets street culture meets tattoo shop. Get into it.
Ordering and hours
Important note: No menu modifications are allowed. What’s on the menu is what’s available, and it comes the way it comes.
The restaurant is counter service, with both cash and card accepted. There’s no delivery, and no online ordering. A 20% gratuity will be added to each check, which helps provide a living wage for staff.
A mom of two herself, Zavala set hours to not only support work/life balance for herself and her staff, but also the neighborhood. She said she’s focused on making food that’s “approachable and attainable” for families and workers.
To that end, there are different hours for each of the three days a week Juana Tamale is serving. Lunch is the bet on Thursdays, when it’s open 11 a.m to 5 p.m. Kids and students can drop by after school on Fridays, when the doors are open 3 to 8 p.m. Saturdays are prime for dinner, with service from 4 to 9 p.m.
The triangle patio park outside of United Savings Bank will be an unofficial off-site seating option. And if restrictions return to dining inside this winter, Zavala said the front windows are ready to function for pick-up orders.
Address: 1941 Passyunk Ave.
12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 25
11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 26
11 a.m to 5 p.m. Thursdays
3 to 8 p.m. Fridays
4 to 9 p.m. Saturdays