As a Californian, I’ve been made pretty happy here by the sheer novelty of Ivy League architecture and the concept of seasons. But, as a Californian, West Philadelphia has heartlessly carved out a void in my torso. It hasn’t taken any vital organs (as I feared it might have) — but it has given me nothing in the way of Mexican food.
My guess is that East Coasters are a bit tired of the Woe is Me, I am Without a Satisfactory Burrito diatribe that inevitably spews from the mouths of those who used to live closer to the Pacific Ocean. I really don’t blame Northeasterners for being annoyed, but mainly because they can’t possibly sympathize given that their upbringings unfortunately occurred east of the Mississippi. When I feel like being diplomatic, of course, I say that East Coast Mexican food (a la Don Memos) isn’t worse than that of the West Coast — I just say that it’s just different. But deep down I know that the choicest Mexican sustenance comes from thousands of miles away. Call me a foodie-litist, but good Mexican food was a precious staple of my pre-Penn diet. This lack of comida auténtica put a noticeable damper on my freshman year.
Recently though, I ate a burrito that was pretty damn good on the corner of 13th and Ellsworth (Yeah, I didn’t know where Ellsworth was either until I looked at a map) at a restaurant called El Jarocho. It was in South Philly, a place where you’ll find people who think Center City dwellers are yuppies. It feels real. It’s refreshing to see people who put the “neighbor” in neighborhood.
One of the things I love most about Penn is that it’s located in reality. What I mean by this is that after a long night of studying the theories of long-dead white guys in timelessly beautiful libraries (this does not include Van Pelt, for the record), you are forcefully subjected to the grounding experience of walking back to your room on grimy sidewalks. When it comes to reminders that theory is not the same as reality, nothing really compares to seeing a homeless man sitting on the street. In short, Penn is a far cry from the insulated, Disney-esque dreamlands of Stanford and Princeton.
A glorious side effect of living in this reality is that there are non-collegiate resources to tap into. There’s surely a Penn Bubble, and it’s eye-opening to take a trip to Center City, where real people are doing real things. But recently, when I found myself in South Philly, I came to a pretty stunning realization: Center City is a bubble too.
So what I urge you to do tonight is the following. Instead of going to Aqua (again), go on Yelp, find a restaurant in South Philly that has good ratings, take a 25 minute Septa ride, and pop two concentric bubbles. When I did this, I was rewarded quite generously. I found my El Dorado in the form of respectable Mexican food. Maybe you feel like your current Penn existence is complete and thus have no reason to wander farther than Hill. But there’s just as good of a chance that you’re missing out on something that didn’t even occur to you. A sheltered life inside bubbles may at times be a blissful one, but there’s something more substantial lurking in the great beyond.