If you’re a foodie in the City of Brotherly Love, you know the name Jennifer Zavala.
From her time on Bravo’s Top Chef, to introducing the city to Birria Tacos (a traditional ancestral soup or stew made from a combo of chili pepper-based goat meat adobo and spices, and cooked at a low heat), to affectionately being known as “the tamale lady” around town — Zavala has certainly made an impact. So much so that she has garnered 12,000 followers on Instagram, all of whom were surprised when she announced that her newest eatery, Juana Tamales, would be opening a week-and-a-half early. After taking a short break, the latest eatery from the popular chef reopened on Black Friday.
The name Juana Tamales comes from her days of selling tamales illegally and her father’s pet name for her, which is “Juana.” As the release states, Zavala says that her restaurant is a mix of SoCal meets SoPhl. “The thing I love about Cali is that they are very much a renegade, street-food community. You can sell anything on the streets of SoCal tamales, water ice, fresh fruit, etc… There is no street food culture in Philly, but there is a street culture here and I have the pleasure of marrying these two vibes together.”
And to do just that, Zavala asked designer Lauren McFadden to help make her vision possible. McFadden, whose work is known around the city and who also holds a career as a mechanic, was inspired by Zavala’s personality. “I was very inspired by how loud the logo was, and once I saw how much joy it brought Jen, I knew that I had complete freedom to be as bold as I dared to be,” McFadden said. “It’s like Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse meets Alice In Wonderland.”
Local influences also play a big part in the menu. The release states that along with McFadden, the local line-up consists of: Food vendors Smith Poultry and Sherwood Seeds (who grew 7 acres of Oaxacan corn to use for masa for the tamales), Stickman Brews, Electro Romantic, local-visual artist Mike Wert (Bing Bing, Pizza Plus, Pizza Brain, Circles and Squares), and even down to a local union worker (“Thanks Colin,” says Zavala) who helped fix some HVAC issues. Dominick Financial is providing workers with resources for healthcare.
But the dishes ultimately are inspired by Zavala’s Mexican heritage.
While at this new gem in East Passyunk, which opened up in the former home of Fig & Olive, Zavala promises that although the lines will be very long, her staff is prepared to get everyone in and out in a timely fashion since it’s a take-away/made-to-order establishment.
Menu items include queso birria ramen (boasting beef, cheese, cilantro, consomme, green onion and sesame seed, served with one queso birria beef taco); queso birria beef tacos (consomme, cilantro, onion, lime and salsa, served on a corn tortilla); queso vegan birria tacos (with plant-based cheese, cabbage, chickpea and yam, served on a corn tortilla); vegan wings (buffalo, chili and honey flavored served with vegan ranch); churros (with various hot fillings); and, of course, tamales. Tamales range from vegan rajas (roasted poblano, onion, tomato and corn) to beef chili Colorado (beef in red chile).
When asked about why opening this place means so much to her, Zavala says, “I’ve said yes to everything. From fetish field day, Oz Fest, to quinceaneras, to punk shows, to Firefly, and food was the center of those opportunities that brought me here today. All of my past experiences are in my food. This is a love letter to my life. This is my legacy, and I can’t wait to serve each and every one of you.”
As the release states, the restaurant’s hours are Thursday from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., Friday 3 p.m. – 8 p.m., and Saturday 4 p.m. – 9 p.m. In the near future, Juana Tamale will open for “Guest Chef, Trap Brunch,” which will feature your favorite trap music set to the delicious delicacies of Juana Tamale. Zavala plans to have a guest-chef residency for these brunches, as a way to highlight all the amazing chefs in this city.
For more information, visit Juana Tamale’s Instagram page @juanatamale