Grasshopper tacos: petite, unabashed, four to the plate, each with its flanks akimbo and its centers piled high with splinteringly crisp, garlic-kissed insects—their bellies glistening, their legs a tangle of wiry stiffness. There was no hiding what this was, no glossing over or attempting to disguise the reality of tortillas stuffed with bugs, guacamole, onions and cilantro. It was a deeply respectful rendering of one of the great, underappreciated Mexican treats, and without a doubt the best version of tacos de chapulines I’ve had in years—probably the best I’ve had since first falling for them in Oaxaca itself. Each bite was a nutty, crunchy, subtly sour delight—an aria to antennae; a love letter to the locust-like.
And this is in Manayunk, which, over the years, hasn’t exactly been known as the region’s beating heart of culinary authenticity or bold adventure. But Taqueria Feliz—right on Main Street, in a space that finds its center of gravity at the intersection of Mexican-inspired decor and urban-loft aesthetics—now stands as a beacon of gustatory joy where you weren’t necessarily looking for it.
There are more approachable dishes, too, and they’re just as successful. Rails of tilapia, each ensconced in a tempura-crisp cocoon, anchored my order of fish tacos with a savory snap, set off nicely by radish-and-cabbage slaw whipped up in-house and streaked with a creamy chipotle mayonnaise. A daily special, mushroom sopes, raised the bar with impeccable technique: The masa base boasted a micron-thin exterior crispness that reminded me of the cap on a creme brulee. Sink your teeth through it and into the softer, more comforting pleasures of its giving interior, and feel your toes curl. These were topped with pureed Yukon golds, plancha-cooked royal trumpets and criminis and a bright pickled slaw.
This is a kitchen, under the direction of executive chef Lucio Palazzo, that’s very much on its A-game. Even more complex dishes stand out from the regional crowd: Lamb barbacoa, for example, was a very large if not quite Flintstonian shoulder that had luxuriated in a chili-and-vinegar rub for two days prior to being gently smoked and then roasted in a banana leaf for six hours. It arrived protected by a burnished layer of caramelized flesh beneath which its pulled, tender texture reminded me of the best of Southern barbecue. Accompanied by tortillas, nopales that could have been seasoned more aggressively and an elegant side bowl of garbanzo-studded consommé crafted from the drippings of the lamb’s stint in its leaf, this is among the best barbecue dishes around—not just in the ’yunk, but in the greater Philadelphia area.
Sides follow suit, their every aspect thoughtfully considered: refried beans of memorable depth; black beans and rice just starchy enough yet never heavy; street corn “esquites” all vibrant and lively, each bite leaving a spice-heat tickle at the back of the throat; guacamole practically electric with lime juice and roasted jalapeños.
And, indeed, if you’re a heat-head, there are plenty of options here to satisfy that particular craving—not the least of which is on the drink menu. The three-chili margarita, based on Espolon Reposado that’s been sweetened up with serrano-, fresno-, and poblano-infused simple syrup, is a bright, energizing swig, served in a glass rimmed with piquin and ancho salt. And the house margarita—a happy-hour steal at $5—is concentrated, gently sour and just sweet enough to keep you slurping more than you probably should.
(And if you still want more margarita, I’d strongly recommend the margarita cheesecake, which miraculously avoids falling into some sort of dessert cliche and is actually one of the best cheesecakes I’ve had all year—a lime-bright, pretzel-crusted beauty that I was going to bring home but that, perhaps inevitably, was gone five minutes later. It’s sourced from Sweet Elizabeth’s Cakes, right across the street.)
The service lives up to all of the kitchen’s fireworks: This is one of the most accommodating, professional staffs in Manayunk, able to explain dishes in detail, convey a sense of justifiable excitement without devolving into sappiness, and welcoming no matter who’s joining you. I recently enjoyed a meal here with the family, including my three-year-old and the new one, born five weeks earlier. From the manager to the servers to the bussers, everyone, it seemed, was on top of their game—helpful, gracious and kind, even when the table grew a touch too messy—and living up to the real meaning of the place. Taqueria Feliz, after all, means “happy taqueria.” It’s an accurate moniker for a place I’ll be thrilled to return to—hopping back for those grasshopper tacos, yes, but also for so much more.
4410 Main St. 267.331.5874. taqueriafeliz.com
Hours: Sun.–Thurs., 4-10pm; Fri.–Sat., 4–11pm.
Price range: $1.50–$18.95.
Atmosphere: Urban, sophisticated and laid-back.
Food: Beautifully conceived and prepared, from basics to more adventurous dishes.
Service: Professional, enthusiastic and genuinely welcoming.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014