Powelton Village may lack a true village center but it does have Lancaster Avenue and 36th Street—a corner where the green line trolleys rumble past storefronts, where pedestrians stroll by on their way to work and you feel part of a neighborhood separate from the rest of sprawling West Philly.
Zocalo, the authentic Mexican eatery that anchors the corner, has a lot to do with Powelton’s sense of place. For years, this neighborhood institution has been serving up high-class Mexican food in a cheerily remodeled Victorian, complete with a bright bar up front and a comfortable patio out back. With its always-fresh cuisine and airy interior (not to mention that patio), we knew Zocalo was the perfect choice for a light Mexican lunch that wouldn't put us to sleep on a beautiful spring day. Apparently, not many others had the same thought. We were surprised to see the dining room mostly empty. Just two other tables were occupied, and the patio—where we had hoped to sit to enjoy the sun—was not yet open. We settled for a table by the large front window and looked over the menu.
One appetizer immediately stood out. The Xik-il-Pak, ($7) a Mayan pumpkin seed dip served in a traditional stone mortar, looked good on paper and was even better on our plate. The nutty bite of pumpkin seeds was accented by a sprightly kick of lime juice, fresh cilantro and just enough habanero to give it some heat.
Zocalo offers a prix fixe lunch special, with any dish on the menu plus a soup or salad for just $10. We took advantage of the deal and enjoyed a variety of dishes.
The Ensalada de Hongos Selvaticos ($8.50 on its own) was a treat—a heaping mound of fresh greens topped with sautéed portobello and domestic mushrooms, dabbled with garlic dressing and spiced up with chile peppers. Paired with a bowl of tortilla soup (tasty, if a bit thin), it was a more than adequate lunch.
The Empanadas de Queso ($8.50) offered crispy fried corn masa turnovers filled with creamy goat cheese, served with a lively tomato salsa. Considering the (deep) fried factor, too many of these stuffed goodies could easily have brought on a case of postprandial torpor. With just two on the plate, though, we could appreciate the self-indulgence without fearing food-induced fatigue.
We had never tried cactus before, so we also opted for the Ensalada de Nopales ($8.50), a salad topped with fresh grilled Nopal cactus tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper. The cactus had a mild taste and a gummy texture similar to okra. A light vinaigrette, tomato salsa and thick, chunky guacamole finished off the salad nicely.
Though we had to return to work on our visit, we should note that Zocalo also makes for a great happy hour destination. We recommend the Pablotini, a concoction of tequila, orange liquor, Rose’s Lime and—get this—a habenero pepper that will leave your taste buds burning (but satisfied).
For more information about Zocalo, call 215-895-0139 or visit www.ucnet.com/zocalo/.
Originally published on April 27, 2006