Tucked behind the traffic of East Passyunk Ave sits an unassuming sidewalk sign promising tacos. The inside of Juana Tamale, on the other hand, is anything but discreet.
I’m greeted with the soundtrack of Beyoncé's Renaissance blasting from the speakers. The decor can only be described as Alice in Wonderland meets Day of the Dead meets acid trip: outlandish paintings hanging askew, hot pink walls, and a giant alien space cowboy sign beaming its neon lights. All of this only makes me more excited to try the food.
The menu is concise but everything looks enticing. I order the birria ramen and vegan tamales, and then ask the server (who’s dancing as he takes our orders) for a recommendation, upon which he enthusiastically endorses almost everything. I settle on the Cali burrito with chicken and pay at the register. The dishes are a bit more expensive than expected, but a sign next to the register reminds patrons that a 20% gratuity is added to each meal, ensuring that each employee has access to a living wage. It's part of Chef Jennifer Zavala’s mission of being a positive force in the local community. My group sits down in pink stuffed chairs as a donkey piñata overlooks our table from the window display.
The birria ramen comes with chopsticks and extensive instructions for how to properly prepare and eat it, along with a single birria taco on the side. I pour the hot consommé broth over the ramen and impatiently wait for the cheese to melt. After just one bite, I’m a completely devoted fan. The crunch of the pan-fried corn tortilla goes perfectly with the soft braised beef and buttery, salty cheese interior, and dipping the taco in the consommé is the perfect combination. I would’ve been happy dipping the tacos in consommé without the ramen, which was fun to eat but didn’t contribute much to the dish, and I gladly would’ve skipped it in favor of three birria tacos.
The burrito is crisp on the outside, stuffed full with thick–cut potatoes, acidic and citrusy shredded chicken, and refried beans. It's served with Juana sauce, which is thick, smoky, and delicious, and pairs well with the slight spiciness of the burrito. Since they had sold out of the standard tamales, I opted for the vegan ones, which I was assured were just as good if not better than the meat. I was excited to open up the tamale and see that it was full of poblano peppers and potatoes, earthy flavors which were teased out by a squeeze of lime. The restaurant also offers their birria tacos vegan–style, so everyone can have a similarly transformative taco experience.
The Beyoncé music fades into Nicki Minaj and people begin to clear out for the night, and I decide we haven’t had the full Juana Tamale experience and head back to the counter to order some churros. They emerge from 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—custard filling, the perfect way to end a spicy, savory meal.
On the way out, the server tells me to return soon for one of the restaurant’s frequent pop–ups, where they partner with local chefs and other creative minds for conversation and tacos. If this wasn’t reason enough to return, there are still menu items left to try, like the Mexi–pizza, chicken carnitas tacos, and homemade hibiscus tea. I’ve been telling everyone I can’t wait to take them to this restaurant, and am definitely looking forward to delivering on my promise.
TL;DR: Birria, burritos, and eccentric interior design make for a transformative dining experience.
Location: 1941 E Passyunk Ave
Hours: Thursday through Saturday, 12:00 pm to 9:00 pm. Closed on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.