Alexis Tellez’s heart still beats with the spirit of blue tlacoyos.
Those oblong masa boats made from heirloom blue corn — crispy on the bottom, fluffy inside, and sublimely earthy — remind him of what his mother, Guadalupe Tellez, would cook when they arrived to New Hope almost two decades ago.
Today, at age 26 and now executive chef at Sor Ynéz, he layers his tlacoyos with black beans and a spicy cactus salad cooked the way his mother taught him — a tribute to Nezahualcóyotl, the city in the state of México he left as a child. But then there is also a Michoacan-style carnitas learned from his father. A sikil pak pumpkin seed puree (which Tellez has dubbed “Mayan hummus” on the menu) from his family in Tlaxcala.
But what of the “alt-pastor” made from spit-roasted cauliflower glazed in guajillo spice? Or the steamy banana leaf bundle of a typically meaty mixiote filled with … vegan treasure? They are equally the products of Tellez’s personal history as a DACA Dreamer who’s been steeped in American culture every bit as much as his Bucks County-born girlfriend, Brielle Appleton. They met while working at the Carversville Inn, and her pescatarian ways, along with her formerly vegan brother, compelled Tellez to create some inventive approaches to meatless dishes using traditional Mexican techniques.
“My family has grown and I want to please for everybody,” Tellez says. “My goal is to be part of the growth of Mexican food in Philadelphia.”
There have been few moments more ripe for that kind of ambition in Philly’s history. More than 20 years into the great migration of Mexican immigrants to South Philadelphia, that community is hitting its entrepreneurial stride with an ever-growing repertoire of taco thrills, tamales, and soulful Capulhuac-style barbacoa. Year-old arrivals such as La Llorona on West Passyunk nod to Oaxaca (try the tlayuda) and the breadth of agave spirits beyond tequila. El Molino Tortilleria has brought fresh tortillas and great birria to West Ritner Street. Carlos Aparicio, previously chef behind the Tredici restaurants, is soon to open El Chingon on S. 10th Street. Jennifer Zavala’s birria pop-up sensation, Juana Tamale, is expected to open an East Passyunk storefront this month.
There is more new Mexican energy bubbling now beyond South Philadelphia than ever — some more successful than others. Carlos Molina and his wife, Michelle Zimmerman, recently moved their 14-year-old cantina, Las Bugambilias — along with its reliably satisfying molcajete, cochinita pibil, and grouper Veracruz — to a handsome new location in Old City formerly occupied by Farmicia. I’m also a fan of the snazzy new location for El Purepecha in the former Brick and Mortar, now with a liquor license, stellar chorizo sopes, and a carnitas-stuffed burrito mojado that’s one of my favorites.
Stylishly moody Añejo has drawn a lively crowd to its Northern Liberties perch on the Piazza, but the food was unremarkable at our recent brunch, where its refusal to even bother brewing coffee was also perplexing. Almost as disappointing was La Chinesca, because its potential is so much greater. I loved this energetic revamp of a former 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 register at my visit, it tasted like no one there knew how to cook either Mexican or Chinese flavors particularly well, let alone meld them in meaningful ways.
I didn’t have especially high expectations for Sor Ynéz, either, based on my lukewarm experiences with its smaller downtown sibling, Cafe Ynéz. But owner Jill Weber, who also has Jet Wine Bar and Rex 1516 (soon becoming Rex at the Royal), has stepped up her design and concept game at this venture in Kensington. It sits behind the gates of such an isolated industrial island, the massive warehouse her husband Evan Malone converted into his second NextFab studios (“a gym for inventors”), that it is a pleasant surprise anything of culinary interest could exist there.
But Sor Ynéz extends like a colorful al fresco oasis into this fenced-in parking lot off North American Street, with a patch of artificial grass ringed by umbrellas, string lights, dining cabanas, and pulsing Mexican pop tunes. With a plate of jicama and mango salad splashed in tangy house chamoy sauce to munch on, and the minty tequila tumbler of a Rosario in your grasp (or perhaps the Frida with its charred corn garnish), this feels like an unexpected vacation.
Weber, an archaeologist who is a consulting scholar for the Penn Museum, has a long-standing interest in Mexican culture (as well as Mexican godparents). She tapped Miguel Antonio Horn, the local artist behind recent projects like the floating head in Spruce Street Harbor and the ContraFuerte sculpture of gargantuan figures clinging to a parking garage beside Reading Terminal Market, to design the spaces. Teal and rose-colored plaster walls set the colors for a vintage casona mansion vibe in the restaurant’s 45-seat interior, while Mexican hammocks laced across the ceiling add an undulating textural warmth to its industrial box. Weber also commissioned an intricately beaded portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the 17th century feminist nun-philosopher, to give the restaurant’s name a face.
It was the hiring of Tellez, though, that lends this project a talent to build its contemporary identity on.
This menu can bog down a bit when it lingers over some of the obligatory burritos and tacos that recall the Cal-Mex cuisine Tellez used to cook at Loco Pez. But he is clearly aiming to dig deeper, especially in the reimagination of his father’s Michoacan-style carnitas — a hunk of Green Meadow Farm’s pork confit in lard (vs. the braised carnitas more commonly seen in Philly), served alongside flavorful whole pintos, fresh tortillas and punchy habanero-carrot salsa.
I admired Tellez’s work with various tortillas, infusing them with pureed cactus for green quesadillas stuffed with stretchy Oaxaca cheese and squash blossoms. I coveted the tang of molten Chihuahua cheese for his queso fundido, which got a smoky boost from Green Meadow’s bacon and snappy shishito peppers. The Michoacan-style escabeche of onions and carrots balanced the richness of enchiladas rolled in guajillo salsa around potatoes and cheese. Plump shrimp al ajillo took on a whiff of smoke from mezcal used to flambée the garlicky butter and lime sauce.
But what most distinguishes this menu are Tellez’s vegetable-forward revamps of traditional Mexican dishes. Like the pastor tacos made with cauliflower marinated in pineapple and guajillo salsa before it’s spit-roasted and shaved to a toothsome snap. Or the oyster mushroom carnitas cooked in epazote-scented oil.
I was especially taken with the mixiote, a bundle of pit-roasted banana leaves that, in Tellez’s hometown, often harbors rabbit or lamb. At Sor Ynéz, the leaves unfolded like a gift from the vegan gods. When the fragrant steam cleared, a bed of red rice was piled high with chayote, celery root, kale, and crunchy fried onions moistened with a saucy broth of chipotle and smoked eggplant, whose pulp had melted and thickened the sauce.
There is still plenty of room for improvement. Desserts are not nearly as satisfying as the savory fare — the flan too cheese-cakey dense, the vegan churros oddly chewy. The service is trending up, but also uneven, including the total lack of mention at my first meal that a 20% service charge had automatically been added, resulting in the awkward untangling of an inadvertent double tip.
I’m all in favor of this increasingly popular service fee model, especially with a restaurant as forward-thinking and potential-filled 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 is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
1800 N. American St., 215-309-2582; sorynez.com
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 4-9 p.m.; Saturday, 11-9 p.m. Sunday, 11-5 p.m.
Plates: $8-$25. There is an automatic 20% service fee added to the check.
Drinks: There is a list of creative and refreshing mezcal- and tequila-based cocktails, like the Frida, a margarita riff with charred corn, the hibiscus-blushed Juana and minty Rosario. There is also a small selection of Mexican wines and craft beers.
All major cards.
Ample free parking in lot.