Michael T. Regan
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Don't bother to call Las Bugambilias: It's likely no one will answer the phone. At least that's what happened when my party repeatedly attempted to secure a table ahead of time. Luckily, it's still possible to walk into this new Mexican restaurant on South Street and get a seat — for the moment, at least. (And no, they don't take reservations.)
Las Bugambilias — named after the Spanish word for bougainvillea — is as bright and sunny a place as its climbing flower inspiration. The walls, some yolk yellow and some exposed brick, are covered with imagery from Mexican films and Frida Kahlo reproductions. Folk art, dolls and fresh flowers add splashes of color. Owner Carlos Molina, a onetime chef at the venerable Mexican restaurant Tequila's, has filled his tiled tabletops with imported dinnerware; every detail, right down to the amber-rimmed glass goblets and circle-shaped ceramic saltshakers, is fiesta-tastic.
Both in atmosphere and menu offerings, Las Bugambilias fills an important niche in Philly's Mexican restaurant continuum. It's got the by-the-book authenticity of any of South Philly's taquerias as well as the more gracious, have-a-few vibe of Molina's former place of employment. Here, you have the best of both worlds — the closest equivalent might be Northern Liberties' Las Cazuelas, but Las Bugambilias has the advantage of a bar.
Said bar offers a range of tequilas and a small list of wines, plus some house cocktails flavored with horchata and pineapple juice. I really liked the eponymous La Bugambilia, made with champagne, homemade cherry and strawberry syrup, and agavero, a tequila blend thought to have aphrodisiac qualities. It's refreshing and not nearly as cloyingly sweet as it sounds.
My first real love here was the duo of salsas, a crisp, cool pico de gallo, and a wine-dark, pasty number, made from chipotles and chiles de arbol, with a supremely smoky bite. The tortilla chips, which were nothing special in and of themselves, went quick with these two scoopables.
Rather than focus exclusively on one region, the cooking crisscrosses through Veracruz, Oaxacan and Yucatan cuisines. One of few "bar snacks" — curious only because the bar itself can only seat about four — is crepas Mexicanas, and it does just fine as an appetizer. Thin rolled crepes, blanketed in avocado crema and melted Chihuahua cheese, are stuffed with everyone's favorite corn smut, huitlacoche, which oozes out, startlingly black and sweet. (Though it's becoming a more common sight around town, it still offers a novel thrill.)
In the sopas de mariscos, smallish shrimp and white flakes of fish embellish an opaque tomato broth that's thick and tangy. Sopes, rounds of griddled cornmeal, are topped with pickled cactus flowers (nopales), lettuce, avocado and crumbled queso fresco — little saucers of varied textures. Queso oaxaca, an elasticky white cheese, comes molten in a cazuela, oven-browned and speckled with crumbled chorizo, along with a basket of ever-so-slightly dry flour tortillas.
Nothing was more dramatic than our molcajete, a large lava-stone bowl with legs, which runneth over with skirt steak stewed in bubbling, chile-spiked tomato sauce capped with melted cheese. The dish comes with more tortillas for wrapping up hot bits of meat and gravy, which you can only do when you get over the shock of having a volcanic cauldron on your table.
Another memorably presented dish consisted of pork medallion slices rolled with a stuffing of almonds and currants, and layered with a fried slice of plantain. Served with their side of pureed squash flavored with coconut, these have the savory-sweet appeal of turkey and cranberry.
The chicken mole is, in a word, masterful. A tender, boned breast is cut into slivers and lavished with a thick mahogany gloss before being dusted with sesame seeds. The mole is chocolately and cinnamon-y with equal hints of chile-bitterness and smoke, achieving that sublime but elusive balance that would befit an offering to gods. Or, at the very least, a true mole lover.
The only underachiever is the cochinita pibil, slow-braised pork, which should rightfully be the most coveted dish on any table. Bugambilias' version looks great — golden with achiote, falling to shreds when forked — but it is a shade too dry and stringy.
Molina's wife, Michelle Zimmerman, makes the in-house desserts, which are all deceptively delicious — though not in the Seinfeldian sense. The tres leches, a pale beige wedge of sponge that seeps cream (one of the three milks involved) is surprisingly chocolately, with the rich cocoa flavor almost hitting as an aftertaste. Coconut flan, a cool disk of custard, is infused with tropical sweetness. A very rustic, homey-looking "nut cake" turns out to be a banana bread-like concoction, embedded with walnuts and raisins and topped with a baked cake crumb crust.
A word about the service: It was especially good for a new restaurant. Our servers clearly had the smooth ease of experience, but they also displayed the attentiveness of a young operation looking to gain customer loyalty (bringing out a complimentary second version of a still-being-perfected cocktail we ordered; offering shot glasses of mulled cider with dessert). My only request is that someone answer the phone over there — because I expect they'll be getting more calls soon.
148 South St.,215-922-3190
Tue.-Thu. and Sun., 4-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 4-11 p.m.; closed Monday
Appetizers, $5-$8; Entrées, $14-$21