Around Philadelphia, the flavors of South
America emerge from the unlikeliest corners
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TED NGHIEM
When Pope Francis—formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires—visits Philadelphia the last weekend of September, he’ll have plenty of options for fare to remind him of home. There’s Alma de Cuba, a bustling restaurant off Rittenhouse Square, or Gavin’s Café, a nondescript Argentinean eatery tucked between apartment buildings in the Fitler Square neighborhood.
In the pope’s home country, food is a big part of the culture. Bakeries carry endless trays of breakfast and teatime staples including croissant-like medialunas and butter-layered bizcocho. Beef makes up a significant portion of the diet, shared at an asado, or traditional Argentinean barbecue.
And of course, there are empanadas and dulce de leche, the latter of which Manuel Sanchez, an Argentinean friend of mine, describes as “our Nutella.” For Sanchez, his heart belongs to empanadas, though. “Different regions prepare them differently and everyone says they have the best recipe,” he says. “But they lie; my grandma does.”
In honor of the pope’s impending visit, I went in search of these delicacies in Philadelphia—and found them in some unlikely places.
Picture a French croissant, flaky, buttery and crumbly. Now, shrink it by half, remove the flakes, add a touch of sweetness in a precise halfmoon package and you’ve got a medialuna, at least the version served up at Gavin’s Café. The café offers them plain—and they certainly don’t need any flourishes—but you can also order one with dulce de leche or with ham and cheese in a sandwich known as a mafalda. I ordered a pair of the plain, and good thing too, because the toddler with us ate one in its entirety before I had a bite. This pastry is often accompanied by yerba mate, a drink similar to tea that the pope is known to enjoy. In fact, the two are so frequently paired, there’s a phrase for it: Mate y medialunas means, roughly, “Let’s grab coffee.”
Of all the Argentinean-inspired foods I went looking for, empanadas were the easiest to find around Philly. Empanadas are hand-rolled dough filled with meats and vegetables prevalent in most places around the country. “Empanada literally means ‘wrapped in bread’ but this description does not do justice to the wonder of this Argentine staple,” writes Louise Carr de Olmedo, a British journalist living in Buenos Aires, on her blog, The Real Argentina. At Cantina Los Caballitos in South Philly, the perfectly fried pockets come three to an order and stuffed with savory fillings like mushrooms with cheese or pork with olives.
Beef is central to many South American cultures, and it’s no different in Argentina, with its more than 200,000 cattle operations and annual per capita beef consumption of 140 pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To find this flavor in Philly, I went to Mixto, a Washington Square West restaurant with a cuisine described as a mixture of Cuban, Latin American and Caribbean flavors. The churrasco Argentino lives up to the promise—eight ounces of skirt steak doused in a lemony chimichurri sauce bursting with herbs. The beef is served with rice, beans, sautéed vegetables and butter-drenched bread, plenty for two hungry people—or one hungry pope.
These filled, grilled flatbreads central to Colombian and Venezuelan cuisine happen to be the house specialty at Delicias, a Latin American– inspired food truck. Here, the corn patties are made by hand and griddled until they’re crisp and fluffy. If Pope Francis makes a stop here, he’ll have his choice of arepas fillings, including black beans, braised chicken, seafood and garlic-marinated pork.
You could be forgiven for conjuring a Linzer torte when you see this traditional Argentinean cookie. In general appearance—two sugar- frosted bookends to a thick layer of filling—there could be some resemblance. But take one bite and any likeness dissipates. The alfajores I tried, made by online baker Chúgar Bakery (chugarbakery.com) and sold at Hummus Grill in University City (only this Hummus Grill, not the others), taste like biting into butter transformed in the best way possible, a Latin version of shortbread with dulce de leche filling. You only need one of these cookies to satisfy your sweet tooth. You can also purchase them online from owner Ligia Richter, a third-generation Honduran woman with a background in classical French cooking who uses her grandmother’s recipe as a basis for her cookies.
DULCE DE LECHE
Argentineans seem proud of dulce de leche; it’s added to many sweets, as filling or drizzled on top. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, it tastes like caramel’s long-lost cousin, made by caramelizing sugar in milk. Its creamy sweetness transforms when swirled through ice cream, as it comes in Alma de Cuba’s chocolate cigar. The dessert is playful and inviting, a rich mousse cigar with a crunchy outside, accompanied by a cinnamon cookie “matchbook,” sugar “matchsticks” and that ice cream—which easily stands on its own. If you’re lucky enough to get some of the pure dulce de leche in a spoonful, let it linger on your tongue, melting into nothingness. For moments after it disappears, its velvety flavor lasts.
ALMA DE CUBA
1623 Walnut St.
Chocolate cigars, $9
CANTINA LOS CABALLITOS
1651 E. Passyunk Ave.
526 S. 4th St.
Arepas, $16–$23 for three, price varies depending on filling
2536 Pine St.
Medialunas, $2; mafaldas, $4
3931 Walnut St.
1141 Pine St.
Churrasco Argentino, $26