photo credit: NICOLE GUGLIELMO
El Mezcal Cantina
When El Mezcal Cantina took over the restaurant at the corner of Point Breeze and Wharton in South Philly, they inherited two things: a space large enough to host several family reunions at once, and a large, wood-fired oven. They’ve filled the dining room with rows of mezcal, colorful calaveras, and TVs blasting the Mexican Music Channel. As for the oven, it frees you from making the impossible decision between tacos and pizza.
Inside the casual Mexican restaurant, sombreros hang from the ceiling, regulars sing along to Vicente Fernández during Happy Hour, and murals on the wall depict scenes of farmers harvesting fresh agave. They don’t take reservations, so you’ll just have to take your chances coming with a group or date for a round of nachos and carne asada. If there's a wait, you can linger at the long bar with a margarita, or grab one of the few sidewalk tables that get crowded when the weather is nice. But the dining room offers a chatty scene, great views of the aguachile bar, and seats near the flickering oven that’s responsible for tortillas, pizzas, and just about everything in between.
El Mezcal does traditional takes on tacos, aquachiles, fundido, and tlacoyos. But what sets them apart is their twist on staples, like tajin-coated chicken wings and pizzas that are topped with garbanzo puree, cilantro, and epazote oil. Dishes come with lots of ingredients here, but the meat or seafood continue to be the main attraction. For a bigger group, prioritize the tacos de trompo, the la paz aquachile, and the pastor pizza that’s covered in stewed pork, cilantro, and onion. Not only is it pretty to look at, but like everything here, it’s fantastic to taste.
Even on their buzziest nights, it still feels like an easygoing hangout where we can bring a few friends, discover our favorite añejo, and never have to decide between tacos and pizza.
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The guacamole comes with toasted beet and cactus tostadas that complement the chunky avocado. It’s not a groundbreaking recipe, but it’s big enough for four, is smooth and mildly spicy, and shows off the draw of the place: anything coming out of the oven.
This small plate appeals to all of your senses. A beautiful blend of mahi mahi and shrimp are swimming in the tomato-lime broth. You’ll get the unmistakable scent of earthy serrano peppers, along with a great crunch from the tostadas. We could eat this every day.
Camarones a la Parilla
This is the only raw bar option that doesn’t come with a tostada. But when you mix jumbo shrimp, a zesty lime sauce, and a spicy corn blend, it doesn’t need anything extra.
Tacos De Trompo
You get three tacos per order here. Their version of al pastor comes with the classic toppings of cilantro, pineapple, and onion. The adobo pork is tender and the subtle sweetness from the pineapple makes it all one glorious bite.
Al Pastor Pizza
Topped with marinated pork, cilantro, onion, salsa, and pineapple, this 14” pizza is savory, sweet, and dripping with Oaxacan cheese. The crust is really thin and airy–don’t rely on it to be a filling solo main. But it works as a stop on your way to a few of the shareable steak dishes or skewers.
Molcajete a la Parrilla
One of the menu’s largest items is also one of the best. It's a cauldron of cheese that’s packed with tender ribeye, chipotle chicken, chorizo, and enough smoky shrimp that you can skip your need for groceries for a day.
There are lots of margarita flavors here, like guava and spicy mango, and they can all be made with tequila or mezcal. They’re beautifully blended, have the citrus-to-sour ratio down to a science, and can be made on the rocks or frozen.
If they had some sort of punch ticket giveaway once you had this dish five times, we’d get the prize on day five. This combination of tender ribeye, stuffed poblano, jalapeños, and spicy salsa yucateca is ideal for two. The steak is well-seasoned and you can use the tortillas to sop up the juices or make your own taco.