|THAT'S A WRAP: A Nicaraguan specialty, El Gallo Pinto's nacatamales are hard to beat.|
In South Philadelphia, our ethnic dining dollars tend to flow out of our pockets and directly into the coffers of two distinctly different groups, both of which hold down more real estate than Prudential Fox & Roach: the Mexicans and the Vietnamese. But while these gangs, armed with their verde-drenched enchiladas and their spring roll-topped vermicelli bowls, duke it out for sub-$10 dominance, other contenders have been able to break into the fray below Washington, quietly cooking their own native specialties for a core audience sharp enough to know exactly where to go.
One of the absolute best entries in this category is El Gallo Pinto, a three-month-old Central American grocery and eatery under a set of sky-blue awnings at Seventh and Federal. Dania M. Hernandez Vallecio, a native of the city of Ocotal in northwestern Nicaragua, has lived and worked in Philly for a dozen years, but branched out on her own in July. The modest cook would never tell you this, but she is putting out some of the most distinctive home cooking in all of South Philly, where cultures and cuisines can't help but back into each other, tapping bumpers more often than the vehicles attending the 24-hour double-parking convention up and down Ritner.
Named after the comida tipica rice and beans that has a place in pretty much every meal of her native country (Costa Rica and Honduras, too), El Gallo Pinto is a groceria first, and you'll concede as much the first time you step in. Several narrow aisles feature shelves stocked with canned food, shampoo, diapers and cleaning supplies. Plastic-wrapped pink and purple umbrellas dangle behind the cash register. There's a sparsely wienered hot dog roller on a small table up front, next to a tiered produce rack filled with potatoes, tomatoes and onions. But this is a restaurant, too, in case you weren't able to tell by the lone glass-topped four-top up front. Peek in back, behind a queso fresco-filled deli case, and you'll find the one-person kitchen.
Though you'll sometimes see her working the counter, messing around on her BlackBerry or watching baseball on the mounted flat-screen when it's slow, the kitchen is where you'll most often find Vallecio, in an apron and silver flats, bouncing from station to station like a pinball in a hair net, shredding cabbage, holding careful court over a deep fryer or jiggling the handles of sauce pans. This isn't the fastest food in the neighborhood, because there's only one person making everything. But just kill some time by browsing the store's soccer jersey selection or peruse the Honduran cookies, because it's damn well worth the wait.
Start with the namesake gallo pinto, steaming hot and served with a side of meat upon request — we got tender ropes of marinated carne asada, perfect for pulling apart with your hands and pulling away from a greedy friend. (The mottled white rice/black bean mix, savory, stewy and near-impossible to stop eating after that first forkful, is so named since the dish resembles the coat of a spotted rooster, or gallo pinto.) For the chancho con yuca, pieces of bone-attached pork rib are cooked in a pan to absorb a mild tomato-based sauce, and served with a tomato-topped salad and starchy, off-white hunks of boiled yuca (cassava), Nicaragua's version of a side of potatoes.
Meat lovers — you kind of have to be one to eat here; there's no seafood on the menu — should definitely get the chicharonnes, salty and deep-fried pork belly hunks whose sheathes of pigskin become a chewy, jaw-busting foil for fat and meat after coming out of their hot oil bath. Wrap them up with a shot of hot sauce in the thick Maseca flour tortillas Vallecio makes herself, which also serve as a crispy coat for tacos dorados, flauta-like cylinders stuffed with tender shredded chicken and placed over a cold, ketchup-drizzled salad of cabbage, jalapeño and onion. Further the fryer love with maduros, gorgeously caramelized plantain coins served with strips of crumbly white cheese.
While it's pretty hard to go wrong here, there are two dishes you absolutely must try. Stop by on a weekend for the first, Vallecio's rejuvenating sopa de res, where potato, carrots and greens meet fatty sections of oxtail in a bay leaf-scented broth so captivating that it's almost at odds with its comfort-food compatriots. Then there are the Nacatamales Nicaraguense, the $4 wonder dish responsible for forever ruining the Mexican corn husk tamal for me. Order one and you'll get a once-strung-up plantain leaf, its insides bursting out onto the plate like a delicious deleted scene from Alien — fork through the creamy (thank you, lard!), light-yet-substantial yolk-yellow masa base and you'll find bits of succulent pork, rice and tomatoes, plus whatever other add-ins the kitchen feels like tossing in that day. It's such a satisfying, smile-inducing dish that Vallecio says her best customers tend to show up in the a.m. and order two — one for breakfast, one for lunch. See you in the morning.