Run, Don’t Walk, for Juana Tamale’s Birria Tacos

Tucked behind the traffic of East Passyunk Ave is an unassuming sidewalk sign promising tacos. Juana Tamale’s interior, on the other hand, is anything but understated.

I’m greeted with the Beyoncé soundtrack Renaissance loudspeaker blasting. The decor can only be described as Alice in Wonderland meets Day of the Dead meets acid trip: outlandish paintings hung askew, bright pink walls and a giant alien space cowboy sign beaming with its neon lights. All of this only makes me more excited to try the food.

Photo courtesy of Sophie Poritzky

The menu is concise but everything looks enticing. I order the birria ramen and vegan tamales, then ask the waiter (who dances while taking our orders) for a recommendation, to which he enthusiastically approves almost everything. I settle on the California chicken burrito and pay at the checkout. Dishes are a bit more expensive than expected, but a sign next to the register reminds customers that a 20% tip is added to every meal, ensuring every employee has access to a living wage. It’s part of Chef Jennifer Zavala’s mission to be a positive force in the local community. My group sits on pink cushioned chairs while a donkey piñata hangs over our table from the display case.

The birria ramen comes with chopsticks and step-by-step instructions on how to make and eat it properly, as well as a single birria taco on the side. I pour the hot broth over the ramen and wait impatiently for the cheese to melt. After just one bite, I’m a completely devoted fan. The crispiness of the pan-fried corn tortilla pairs perfectly with the mild braised beef and the salty, buttery cheesy interior, and dipping the taco in the consommé is the perfect combination. I would have been happy to dip the tacos in consommé without the ramen, which was fun to eat but didn’t add much to the dish, and I would have happily skipped in favor of three birria tacos.

The burrito is crispy on the outside, stuffed with thick potatoes, sour and lemony shredded chicken, and refried beans. It is served with a Juana sauce, which is thick, smoky and delicious, and goes well with the light spiciness of the burrito. As they had sold out the standard tamales, I opted for the vegan ones, who assured me they were just as good if not better than the meat. I was thrilled to open the tamale and see it was full of poblano peppers and potato, earthy flavors that were teased by a drizzle of lime. The restaurant also offers its vegan-style birria tacos, so everyone can have a similar transformative taco experience.

Photo courtesy of Sophie Poritzky

The Beyoncé music fades into Nicki Minaj and people start going out for the night, and I decide we haven’t had the full Juana Tamale experience and go back to the counter to order churros. They come out of the back warm and covered in cinnamon sugar. Suddenly I’m hungry again. The crunch of the churro gives way to a soft interior filled with a sweet but not cloying cream filling, the perfect way to end a spicy and savory meal.

As I exit, the server tells me to come back soon for one of the restaurant’s frequent pop-ups, where they team up with local chefs and other creative minds for a chat and tacos. If that wasn’t reason enough to return, there are still menu items to try, like Mexican pizza, chicken carnitas tacos, and homemade hibiscus tea. I’ve told everyone I can’t wait to take them to this restaurant and I can’t wait to keep my promise.

TL; DR: Birria, burritos and quirky interior design create a transformative dining experience.

Location: 1941 E Passyunk Avenue

Hours: Thursday to Saturday, 12:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Closed on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Price: $$

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