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Cantina La Martina delivers the most thrilling Mexican flavors in Philly

Dionicio Jimenez, an unsung hero of Philly’s food scene signals a hopeful future for Kensington.

El Machete, a long quesadilla stuffed with al pastor negro, is served at Cantina La Martina, a new restaurant on Kensington Avenue, in Philadelphia.
El Machete, a long quesadilla stuffed with al pastor negro, is served at Cantina La Martina, a new restaurant on Kensington Avenue, in Philadelphia.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

When I parked my car on D Street on the way to brunch, I unexpectedly stepped onto a sidewalk littered with used syringes. They led an alarming trail to nearby Kensington Avenue, where the Somerset El station remains a magnet for people openly seeking and using drugs as part of the city’s opioid epidemic. I had come to this corner to try an important new restaurant, Cantina La Martina.

This four-month-old newcomer would be remarkable no matter where it landed, because Dionicio Jimenez, an unsung hero of Philly’s food scene for nearly a quarter century, has finally made his ownership debut at age 47 — and is delivering the most thrilling Mexican flavors in the city.

A refreshing aguachile of raw shrimp comes submerged in a citrusy chile broth turned vivid green with hoja santa. An aguachile de coco of tuna fanned over creamy coconut milk infused with habanero spice takes on a hint of smoke from a torched swirl of avocado. Sublimely tender shreds of barbacoa-style cabrito, goat marinated in pulque then braised for 15 hours with beer and avocado leaves, tumble with meaty ayocote beans over a handmade plate from Jimenez’s native Puebla.

And then there is El Machete, an 18-inch long quesadilla variation made here only for lunch from fresh masa shaped like the iconic blade. It comes with three fantastic salsas — earthy salsa macha; habanero-lemongrass; electric green salsa cruda — and the protein of your choice. There isn’t a wrong move, but the Pastor Negro, a beguilingly dark riff on pork al pastor marinated with the charred chile paste of Jimenez’s Oaxacan mole negro, is extraordinary.

El Machete is the kind of dish that can send a thousand cars from across the region in search of distinctive culinary treasure. But the fact that journey will bring diners to this troubled corner makes Cantina La Martina all the more compelling as a potential game changer.

The restaurant’s existence is partly the product of circumstance, because this property owned by developer Shift Capital was the most versatile situation that Jimenez as a first-time owner could afford. The handsome barroom with a coffered ceiling and exposed brick walls lead to an expansive, fenced-in patio where weekend festivities are often bumping with live Mexican bands. Such a space would be unattainable in Center City, where Jimenez has spent his career working for others at El Rey, Xochitl and Vetri.

But as word spreads of Cantina La Martina’s virtues, the implications of its potential success are both complex and promising for the Somerset section of Kensington, which has become disinvested due to the continuing failures of the city to address the neighborhood’s drug and poverty problems.

No single restaurant can shoulder the burden of beating back an opioid crisis that is an American epidemic that stretches far beyond Kensington. But one great restaurant that is integral to its community can be essential in tipping momentum. Few corners juxtapose the challenges and possibilities as dramatically as the spot where Cantina La Martina’s colorful banners flutter in the breeze beneath the El trains rumbling overhead.

“This neighborhood deserves good things,” says Bill McKinney, a longtime Kensington resident and executive director of New Kensington Community Development Corporation. Those caught in the web of drug activity reflect only a small minority of this community, he says. And a restaurant like this “can lead to significant change and be an opportunity to bring out residents who’ve been locked down behind closed doors for years.”

But to truly thrive there, he said, those neighbors are the clientele a restaurant must win over, not the outsiders who come and go, biding their time until gentrification fully takes over.

“If you come with an eye to serve those existing residents first, we’ll do anything we can to support you,” said McKinney, who now comes weekly. “That’s why Taco Tuesdays are important — $2 tacos are a price point local folks can afford. They’re less likely to have the bone marrow (entree) at dinner.”

Jimenez’s tacos, which normally sell for $9 to $12 for three on the lunch menu (and $1 each for nightly happy hours between 5 and 7 p.m.), are always an incredible value considering the craftsmanship and depth of flavors that they showcase, from that sultry pastor Negro to the chipotle-braised octopus with cauliflower. Tacos cradling tender morsels of cochinita pork that have been baked inside banana leaves with achiote and citrus were among the best I’ve ever tasted. The lunchtime-only nachos with carnitas that had been braised in milk and herbs was also epic, its savory chunks and toasty chips laced with salsa roja and molten Chihuahua cheese.

It’s so gratifying to see how far Jimenez has come since he first arrived in Philadelphia 24 years ago after walking thousands of miles from San Mateo Ozolco in Mexico. He started as a dishwasher, with a dayshift with Philippe Chin and a night gig at a then-unknown new restaurant called Vetri. Owner Marc Vetri eventually made Jimenez his sous-chef, helped him become a U.S. citizen and included him in a portrait of his crew on the cover Il Viaggio Di Vetri, Vetri’s first cookbook. Another cook in that photo, Michael Solomonov, hired Jimenez as his first head chef at Xochitl in 2007, though his inexperience with cooking Mexican food professionally at that moment was still apparent.

“My background was in Italian cuisine!” says Jimenez, who still flexes those skills with Mex-Italian hybrids like the sublime special of ravioli filled with huitlacoche and black truffles in brown butter epazote sauce, or his twist on Vetri’s chocolate-polenta soufflé, accented here with pasilla chile and a garnish of tomatillo marmalade.

Jimenez fully refined his Mexican repertoire over his 12 years as executive chef at Stephen Starr’s El Rey, and now, without the constraints of corporate bureaucracy, his cooking feels more personal, more powerful, and more nuanced. This is especially apparent at dinner, where he puts a pause on tacos in favor of elaborate entrees that draw inspirations from across Mexico.

And yes, bone marrow is featured in a Oxaqueño surf-and-turf, a crispy tlayuda topped with chapulines, shrimp, Oaxacan cheese and steak that, at $30, is by far the most expensive item on a menu where entrees hover in the low-$20s and below. That includes a spectacularly tender Chomorro pork shank with chochoyote masa dumplings, squash blossoms and a smoky adobo braise that comes with or without chicatanas, the crispy ants traditionally harvested during Mexico’s rainy season that add both texture a hint of anise to the sauce.

There are superbly tender shrimp Nayarit, whose citrusy, and garlicky guajillo sauce was inspired by a trip to the Pacific Coast. The same plump shrimp come rolled inside tortillas at lunch beneath a lightly creamed salsa verde that made for a memorably delicate enchiladas Suizas.

But then comes Mis Tres Amores, Jimenez’s stellar take on three moles that get ladled in tri-tone stripes over juicy batons of delicately grilled chicken. There’s the amazingly complex Oaxacan negro made with 30 ingredients — chiles, nuts, fruits, spices and herbs — that get roasted in a pan to ashes, then ground into a black paste with Mexican chocolate. The ivory colored mole de Novia, traditional to celebrate the bride at weddings, is blended from almonds, plantains, fresh chiles, allspice and white chocolate. The deep brown Poblano is a beautiful tribute to his home state, rich with roasted ancho and mulato peppers, animal crackers, cloves and cinnamony Abuelita chocolate. In a city now full of great moles, this platter is a highlight.

Cantina La Martina, named for a favorite song by Antonio Aguilar, is still in its early days with plenty of room for growth. Jimenez does not yet have the kitchen staff numbers to make all the tortillas in house. He can use more shade in the vast back yard. And while the cantina’s starter bar does serve a range of fine fresh juice-based cocktails, like the refreshing Cantaritos, it does not yet have the deep tequila and mezcal collections that some Center City venues boast.

But the essentials are in place, including warm service overseen by general manager, Tina Stanczyk, an El Rey alum who regards Jimenez as a father figure: “I said I’d never work in the restaurant industry again unless it was for Dio.” She’s also been coordinating the restaurant’s early fundraisers for community organizations that support people experiencing poverty and addiction like the Simple Way and Prevention Point.

“I think they’re trying,” McKinney says of the restaurant’s early efforts to connect with the neighborhood.

Jimenez, meanwhile, who now lives above above the restaurant, is cooking his heart out, down to the piloncillo syrup-soaked pancakes for dessert made with blue corn from San Mateo Ozolco. The flavors of the town he left 24 years ago now seem alive and fresh in this festive barroom and breezy Kensington backyard. No doubt, the world just outside this oasis remains deeply troubled. But Cantina La Martina is a triumph for D Street — and all of Philadelphia.

Cantina La Martina

2800 D St., 267-519-2142;

Lunch Monday and Tuesday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Wednesday through Friday beginning at 10 a.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday, 4-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.; Sunday, until 9 p.m.

All major cards accepted.

Full bar built around a modest but growing tequila and mezcal collection and drinks blended with fresh juices.