Pull up a bench. West Philly’s Taco
Angeleno is dishing up a taste of LA.
Photography by Rebecca Mcalpin
West Philadelphia’s iconic foods are quick, portable, and—like the neighborhoods you find here— eclectic. Think Fu-Wah’s tofu hoagie, Carrot Cake Man’s oversized cupcakes, and Satellite Cafe’s kale smoothie.
Just west of 50th Street on Baltimore Avenue is a strong new contender for a spot on this list: Taco Angeleno, Vanessa Jerolmack’s Los Angeles–inspired food cart.
Taco Angeleno sits on a space in the Cedar Park neighborhood that Jerolmack transformed from a trash-strewn vacant lot into a minimalist yet cheerful outdoor dining space, with picnic tables, pots of succulents, and raised beds bursting with tomatoes in late summer.
“My site is the true California experience for me,” Jerolmack says of her al fresco setup. “That’s what I miss [about LA], just being outside and eating.”
When Taco Angeleno opened with regular hours last year, it was hard not to forgo making whatever I had planned for dinner at least one night a week in favor of a walk and tacos.
A ball of energy contained in her cart, Jerolmack would be hustling between the flat top griddle and poking her bandanna-clad head out of the cart’s front window to greet customers with a bright, outsized smile.
In a place like Cedar Park, where changing demographics and rising rents can clash with the area’s neighborly vibe, new businesses can be regarded with skepticism. But since the opening, the community has embraced Taco Angeleno.
“I love being outside, two blocks from my home with people that I recognize,” says Brooke Blough, a regular patron. “People walk by, they come in. This is a prime example of why I love Cedar Park and why I love West Philly.”
Jerolmack knows she has to strike a balance when pricing her products and marketing her business to appeal to her diverse neighbors. “There’s a delicate system in the neighborhood—people can tell where [they’re welcome],” she says.
She and her husband Doug bought a house in Cedar Park in 2007, but the lot behind their backyard was a nuisance for years— overgrown with weeds and used as a trash dump. Not long after a shooting occurred outside the lot, it went up for sale. The Jerolmacks got a loan from a family member, and it was theirs.
With help from the Dorrance H. Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprises, a crash course in the taco business working in the kitchen at Fishtown’s Loco Pez, and that boundless energy—Jerolmack did much of this pre-opening work while pregnant with twins—Taco Angeleno became the neighborhood’s new destination for cheap, al fresco eats.
Like one of the West Coast businesses that has been her inspiration, In-N-Out Burger, Jerolmack keeps the menu at Taco Angeleno simple: slow-cooked pork, beef, and chicken or seitan tacos on corn tortillas and a do-it-yourself toppings bar featuring a selection of hot sauces, herbs, and fresh and pickled veggies: the perfect combination of rich-and-spicy and bright-and-crunchy. But that’s it—no cheese, no lettuce, no sour cream.
“People are weird about their tacos,” Jerolmack says. “They are crazy about their tacos, actually. They’re so specific, and they think they know the best taco and they think you’re going to fail them. And not a single person has left [here] without a huge smile.”
Jerolmack cooks at the Center for Culinary Enterprises, just a half mile north of her site. When I arrive at the center to talk tacos, the spicy aroma of braising meat leads me to her workspace. Pans of chicken, beef and pork are already bubbling away in the oven. I’m here just in time to see Jerolmack make her seitan recipe. A former vegan, she started eating meat again when she developed the Taco Angeleno menu.
“Watch,” she says, pouring a pitcher of broth into a bowl of powdery vital wheat gluten. She stirs, and the mixture quickly binds into a sticky mass before going into a simmering stockpot. “And then I boil it, and that’s where seitan comes from.”
Several timers beep, and chicken thighs, pork shoulder and brisket come out of the oven. Jerolmack peels off the foil covering each pan and sends them back in for a quick scorch on high heat, carnitas-style. Like everything else about Taco Angeleno, these recipes have been simplified to just a few essential elements. Bold flavors are coaxed out of tough cuts of meat; the chicken is treated with a tinga-style mixture that includes tomatoes and tomatillos, and the beef is swimming in a smoky, magma-colored ancho chile sauce.
Jerolmack is Mexican, but her family has lived in the United States for five generations, with roots in Texas as well as California. The inspiration that led to Taco Angeleno came after she returned to East LA after college. “There’s every Central American and South American thing you can think of, as much as Mexican—every country is represented in that area. So for me, it’s a mixture of all those different cultures and styles of food. That’s the LA taco to me.”
Take curtido, a pickled cabbage slaw flecked with carrot and onion that sits alongside the chopped cilantro, grated radish and lime wedges on the cart’s narrow toppings bar. It’s traditionally served atop the Salvadoran pupusas (thick corn tortillas) Jerolmack loved in her hometown, but is a good topping for tacos as well.
“My pico de gallo, my salsa and my chips, that’s stuff I grew up with—that’s all Tex-Mex. My family was from the Texas area, so that’s a different style. Then you have the whole vegetarian thing too. That’s very healthy, very California.”
Sitting at Taco Angeleno’s picnic tables, you can look into the Jerolmacks’ backyard. Doug will bring their twins, now toddlers, through the gate to say hi to their mom and play with neighborhood kids whose families have popped in for dinner.
“I get a real kick out of it,” she says of working so close to home. If you ever doubt my sincerity or if I care about this neighborhood, I live right there. I show people, you can see my house. And they just look at me differently, and they kind of respect the business a little bit [more].”
5019 Baltimore Ave.