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August 12, 2013

Roundup: Our Top Picks For Mexican, Spanish, Central American, South American Dining In Philadelphia

Celebrate Latin culture in Philadelphia through food and drink at restaurants across town. (Photos clockwise from left courtesy Cantina Dos Segundos, El Vez, by G. Widman for GPTMC, Cube Libre)

Craving a tart margarita or spicy platter of mole poblano?

Satisfy your urge for dishes hailing from Mexico, Spain, Central America, South America and beyond with a visit to one of the region’s many renowned Latin restaurants.

From trendy Nuevo Latino restaurants in Center City to neighborhood stalwarts that have been serving up traditional delicacies for generations, you won’t have any trouble finding a wonderful Hispanic meal in Philadelphia.

For more about Philadelphia’s thriving Latino culture, check out Philly Te Ama on Visit Philly.

Read on for our top picks of Latino dining in Philadelphia.

Amada: Jose Garces first restaurant, Amada invokes the essence of a traditional Spanish tapas bar while simultaneously exuding a hip and stylish Bohemian vibe. Dine in the bar or the ever-buzzing dining room from an extensive menu of more than 60 tapas, varying from the traditional — tortilla española, Spanish olives and warm fava bean salad — to the edgy — foie gras flatbreads and artichoke and spinach empanadas.

Alma de Cuba: With its high ceilings, low-lit dining rooms and sleek bar and lounge, Alma de Cuba is at once stylish, contemporary and exotic. Meet for drinks at the first floor bar, where classic Cuban cocktails such as mojitos and daiquiris flow freely, or settle in for an evening of modern Cuban fare including superb ceviches, bold seafood and vaca frita.

Bar Ferdinand: Patrons swoon when they step into the romantic atmosphere of this Spanish tapas venue, now helmed by Philadelphia chef and restaurateur David Ansill. At Bar Ferdinand, Ansill cooks up traditional Spanish tapas, along with creative and daring modern dishes inspired by the diverse regions of Spain. The sherry and sangría wine lists complement the delicious food.

Cantina Dos Segundos: Like its Passyunk Avenue sibling Cantina Los Caballitos, the cantina in Northern Liberties serves creative Mexican fare such as vegan “beef” tacos (made with seitan) and slow-roasted goat, plus endless chips and salsa, flights of tequila, 20 different fruit and specialty margaritas and a fiesta-like atmosphere.

Cantina Los Caballitos: One of the first places to make the neighborhood around East Passyunk Avenue a must-visit (and must-taste) destination, this neighborhood bar draws crowds in search of craft beer, tequila flights and all sorts of flavored margaritas. Regulars often go for the slow-braised goat with pickled onions and vegan fajitas.

Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar: Cuban and Latin cuisine and mojito flavors of all kinds are served in a setting straight out of old Havana at the bi-level Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar. Floorshows and salsa dancing evoke the authentic spirit of 1940s Cuba on Fridays and Saturdays.

Distrito: Iron Chef Jose Garces contributes a great deal to Philadelphia’s Latino dining scene, with half a dozen properties in Center City. He drew inspiration from Mexico City for his brightly colored, fun house-like eatery in West Philadelphia. Distrito serves up chili-marinated lamb chops and hibiscus cosmos to diners sitting in an old VW Bug or swinging on birdcage chairs.

El Camino Real: Texas or Mexico? Local brew or Dos Equis? The transnational menu options seem to go on forever at this boldly colorful hipster favorite that splits allegiances as a barbecue post and border bar. In the warmer months, diners vie for spots at El Camino’s outdoor tables set up right on Liberties Walk.

El Jarocho: Fans lovingly think of this hole-in-the-wall spot as a perfect place to nurse a hangover, thanks to the breakfast-through-late-night hours and its chilaquiles, sopes and free chips and salsa. With everything priced at less than $20, diners can enjoy dishes like barbequed lamb with rice and beans on the cheap. 1138 S. 13th Street, 215-463-2020

El Rey: At Stephen Starr’s Mexican diner in Rittenhouse, El Rey, patrons show up time and again for the casual atmosphere, potent margaritas and fresh Baja-style tacos.

El Vez: Funky, sophisticated and fun, El Vez packs Mex-loving crowds into its colorful 13th Street dining room. Starting with the guacamole is pretty much a must, but then you’ll want to proceed directly to other favorites like the tuna tostadas, lobster and crab tacos, and Yucatan pork tamales.

More dining picks, below.

Isabel: Diners appreciate the artful plating almost as much as the BYOT (bring-your-own-tequila) policy at this Mexi-Cali spot. Margarita mixers come in flavors such as passion fruit, mango and guava.

Jamonera: Business and life partners Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran opened Jamonera on the same block as their buzzed-about Barbuzzo (Mediterranean) and Lolita (Mexican) restaurants. The sexy Midtown Village spot is a Spanish bar specializing in Iberian-style snacks, as well as killer cocktails, wine, craft beer and an amazing list of sherries.

La Calaca Feliz: Contemporary Mexican cuisine based on bold and traditional flavors matches the vibrant colors, rustic features and whimsical murals at this Fairmount neighborhood destination. Not to be missed at La Calaca are the after-dinner tequilas and spiked coffee drinks.

Las Bugambilias: This regionally focused cantina prepares dishes from scratch according to traditional culinary techniques based in Mexican, Spanish and French roots. Time-honored family recipes at Las Bugambilias come from Mexico City, Puebla, Vera Cruz and the Yucatan region, and the décor finds inspiration in the era that begins with the 1911 Mexican Revolution and ends in 1945—the epoca de oro en el cine Mexicano, or the golden age of Mexican cinema.

Las Cazuelas: A forerunner of the Northern Liberties renaissance, this funky corner BYOB (adorned with a tiny, romantic second-floor balcony) houses an authentic cucina that delivers consistently delicious fare. Among the must-tries at the sunny spot: shrimp ceviche, enchiladas mole and a heavenly flan.

Las Rosas Bakery & Coffee Shop: The scent of fresh-baked pastries and cemitas (Mexican sandwich bread) mingled with the aroma of just-perked Cuban coffee and tres leches lures in a steady stream of all ethnicities. Smoothies, virgin mojitos and Italian breads round out the selection at Las Rosas, owned by a native Philadelphian who has cooked at some of the city’s best restaurants. 1712 S. 8th Street, 215-551-1027

Loco Pez: This proud self-described dive bar gets its vibe by mimicking the food trucks of Los Angeles. Covered in graffiti, Loco Pez, the loosely translated “crazy fish” taqueria, delivers staples like tacos al pastor, carne asada, Mexican and local Philly beers and more than 25 tequilas. Tip: The street dog—basically a hot dog piled with nacho toppings—is a must.

Lolita: Chef Marcie Turney creates contemporary Mexican dishes at this intimate B.Y.O.T. eatery, done up in sultry red and black against a backdrop of exposed brick walls. With renovations coming, lovers of the current incarnation of Lolita should get there quickly.

Los Taquitos de Puebla: One of the few Mexican food establishments to participate in the popular Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market, this traditional Mexican taqueria sticks to its roots by serving only tacos and quesadillas. With mouthwatering dishes like the popular tacos al pastor (pork tacos with pineapple), patrons don’t miss extras like beans and rice.

• Lucha Cartel: From the folks behind Old City bar National Mechanics comes Lucha Cartel, a Tex-Mex-style eatery with a sense of humor. Order up guac, burgers, tacos with plenty of boozy accompaniments, including a nice tequila selection.

Mad Mex: Designed less for the Mexican abuelita than for the college student ready to burn off some post-exam stress with a few margaritas, this branch of mini-chain Mad Mex more than makes up for its gringo appeal with its 20 kinds of burritos (available with curry, vegan cheese and vegetarian sour cream), student-specific happy hours and late night ’rita specials.

• Mexican Post: With two Philadelphia locations, in Old City and near Love Park, Mexican Post keeps crowds satisfied with a solid roundup of Mexican-American standards.

• Mixto: Latin-American and Caribbean plates are the specialty at Mixto, a neighborhood favorite serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Patrons pour in for the mouthwatering mojitos and sensational sangria, along with the fun atmosphere. Bartenders create the non-alcoholic batido de frutas (fruit smoothies) with imported Latin American fruits.

Paloma: Haute Mexican cuisine, or alta cocina, combines French cooking styles and indigenous Mexican ingredients to create dishes like this BYOB’s award-winning crab cake baked in crisp phyllo dough and served with carrot-curry sauce. Desserts at Paloma include the mojito layer cake and many exotic sorbets, including mango-habanero, pithaya, mole and mamey con coco.

Pura Vida: Its name comes from a Central American slogan that roughly translates to “purely life.” The homey food at this bare-bones, pan-Latin BYOB is indeed life-affirming: Caribbean- grilled tilapia and tequila shrimp, ginger chicken soup and ginger-coconut rice pudding. The staff will even mix mojitos or margaritas for patrons who bring their own spirits. 527 Fairmount Avenue, 215-922-6433

Sazon Restaurant & Café: Boasting “inexpensive home-style Venezuelan cuisine” and a 90-percent naturally gluten-free menu, this cash-only BYOB derives its authenticity from an owner who grew up in a family of cooks on the coast of Venezuela. A former volleyball professional, Chef Judy, as she’s known, emphasizes healthy oils, fresh ingredients and a dozen centuries-old arepa recipes. After the meal, diners can indulge in 20 kinds of exotic drinking chocolates, as well as gluten-free truffles. 941 Spring Garden Street, (215) 763-2500, sazonphilly.com

Taco Riendo: With its array of tortillas stuffed with organ meats (tongue, cheeks and head), this casual bring-your-own-bottle (BYOB) spot is an oasis for lovers of offal. More timid eaters can go semi-adventurous with roasted corn on the cob with lime, Mexican mayo, queso fresco and chile piquin or nachos with breaded chicken, chorizo, grilled cactus, cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream, guacamole, jalapenos and salsa. 1301 N. 5th Street, 215-235-2294

• Tequilas: It’s all in the name at Tequilas. The beautifully decorated, upscale Mexican restaurant keeps dozens of fine sipping tequilas on hand to complement the expertly prepared, authentic Mexican cuisine. Plus, keep an eye out for tequila-pairing dinners, which are always an excellent and educational feast.

• Tierra Colombiana: Specializing in authentic Colombian and Cuban cuisine, Tierra Colombiana sits in the heart of the the city’s traditional Hispanic neighborhood, El Centro de Oro, and serves traditional Latin American and Caribbean flavors.

Tinto: Garces’ second Philadelphia hotspot, wine bar Tinto specializes in “pinxtos,” the Basque region’s Spanish- and French-influenced version of tapas.

• 12th Street Cantina: Inside the Reading Terminal Market, 12th Street Cantina serves homemade Mexican classics.

• Xochitl: A cozy Mexican restaurant that boasts a full bar and intimate 30-seat dining room, Xochitl dishes a wide range of modern Mexican flavors — from crab ceviche and short-rib tamale to carnitas and a 24-hour-brined pollo frito.

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