It seems improbable in this age of food enlightenment in our cosmopolitan city that anyone might not yet be familiar with the pleasures of a carnitas taco. But on the frontier of swiftly changing neighborhoods like Port Richmond, where Fishtown-style gentrification is arriving fast in the working-class enclave best known for kielbasa smokehouses and Polish pierogi, the culinary conversations are changing.
“Someone just yesterday was like, ‘How do I eat this?'" said Jose Jesus García, 39, the Toluca-born co-chef and co-owner of Nemi, a bright new Mexican cantina that replaced a short-lived corner bar called Fat Machine Pub. “Well, you fold it — just like eating a pizza — and give it a bite.”
The woman, whom García described as a middle-age Port Richmond native, apparently loved it. I can’t imagine another outcome. Nemi, which opened in January, already is making some of the best tacos in town, with especially supple handmade tortillas and a knowing touch with toppings that reflect a well-honed level of refinement. The tender chunks of Michoacan-style carnitas pork shoulder, slow-braised with oranges, condensed milk, and Mexican Coke, are perfumed with dusky hierbas de olor, an aromatic trio of oregano, bay, and marjoram.
The carnitas is among the most traditional flavors at Nemi, though García and his partners, manager Alejandro Fuentes, 31, from Puebla, Mexico, and co-chef Jasper Alivia, 49, who was born in the Philippines, aspire to a more contemporary vision of what Mexican cuisine can be, inspired by Cosme in New York. That’s a lofty goal, and Nemi, which derives from the Aztec language of Nahuatl and means “live,” is not there quite yet. But you get hints of that ambition in their playful riffs on al pastor, the complex guajillo-pineapple marinade tinted with achiote, cumin, and clove usually associated with stacks of pork roasting on a turning spit. It’s used at Nemi instead to flavor fish for ceviche and infuse slabs of pork belly for tacos.
Called CDMX, in homage to Mexico City, the pork belly is marinated for a day, then slow-braised to render the fat before it’s crisped on the plancha and topped with grilled pineapple, cilantro, and punchy habanero salsa. When you pinch a thick slice between the warm folds of those velvety tortillas, all the textures going off inside — crunchy edges, firm fleshy strips, tropical marinade melding with the lip-coating gloss of liquefied fat — are thrilling.
That might be a novel mouthful for some less-adventurous eaters, but it’s less of a seismic gentrification shock than, say, watching beloved old Polish institutions like Syrenka and Krakus Market stumble and disappear into the seemingly interminable road construction that has ripped up Richmond Street. Just down the block, a well-funded gastropub called the Lunar Inn — with its $13 burger (actually quite great), house pickles, vintage vinyl DJ nights, and an attached bottle shop called Tiny’s selling $40 natural wines — tells you all you need to know about this neighborhood’s direction. The hipsters are coming! No, they’re already here.
Nemi is poised at a fascinating crossroads, not simply between the neighborhood old-timers and redevelopment boomers marching north from overflowing Fishtown and Kensington, but also the restaurant dreams of a Mexican immigration wave that’s already transformed South Philly for the better over two decades, and whose first generation has now matured into an entrepreneurial force.
Fuentes and García, who both came to Philadelphia as teens and worked their way up through Cuba Libre and Lucha Cartel, where García is still executive chef, decided with Alivia (a former executive chef at Cuba Libre, now a consultant with the SoMo restaurants) to plant their project in Port Richmond precisely because it was not nearly as saturated with Mexican food as the rest of Philly.
There are certainly good prospects to the south in Fishtown-Kenzo, with Que Chula Es Puebla, El Taco Riendo, as well as Loco Pez, Hefe Tacos, and Sancho Pistola’s. But by gambling on Port Richmond’s virgin taco territory, with real estate prices that allowed them to buy the bricks, they’ve afforded themselves the luxury to create a concept with a different aesthetic for a Mexican restaurant than we’ve seen to date. They’ve gone light on the kitschy clichés of hanging serapes, flashing cerveza signs, and mariachi motifs, opting instead to keep their bi-level space sleek, clean, and modern, its white walls warmed by walnut-color wood floors traced with dark stripes. Modern Mexican tunes from the alt-rock band Jaguares pulse through the air on the toasty aroma of freshly frying tortillas alongside boleros and ranchera classics from Luis Miguel and Javier Solís — a playlist curated by Fuentes, who also guides the personable service and runs the bar.
His drink list is built around a common template — lots of tequila, multiple margarita variations, and lager-centric beers. But it’s executed with finesse, the cocktails well balanced with fresh juices and vivid accents (love the spice of muddled ginger dancing around the Mezcalita’s smoky edge), and even a Michelada with more complexity to its clamato-beer blend than most I’ve tasted.
The menu during these opening months is not yet as revolutionary as it someday aspires to be, though simple touches, like a spiced-coffee reduction added to the mayonnaise that glazes the grilled corn elote, gives a tasty hint at the creative potential.
And García and Alivia, who take turns running the kitchen while they work their other jobs, do a fine job of lightly elevating familiar items, from tacos to enchiladas and ceviches, with a stylish touch and original twists that make them compelling.
Their ceviches, no doubt inspired by their Nuevo Latino time at Cuba Libre, are a fantastic way to start. The bracingly tart agua chili of snapper is piled high in a pungent lime marinade with crunchy jicama and potent habanero spice. The tiradito al pastor, which marinates cobia in the same spice blend as the pork belly, gets a quick sear on the plancha that adds a toasty note to its spice.
The guacamole plays no tricks. It’s simply made fresh to order, with more than a couple of avocados per plate lit with raw serrano spice and lime, plus the optional pomegranate seeds garnish that adds extra bursts of juicy tartness. And though it might not seem like a big deal, the simple act of making the tortillas in house (something many of my South Philly favorites don’t bother with) adds a handmade elegance that can lift some basic items to the next level. Like that steel crock of molten queso Chihuahua topped with crumbles of chorizo perfumed with the aroma of extra smoked paprika. Or the mini-quesadillas filled with stretchy warm Oaxaca cheese laced with the lemony herbaceousness of fresh epazote leaves.
The enchiladas rojas are another straightforward dish that benefits from the extra handcraft, the softness of those tortillas providing an earthy canvas to absorb the complex shades of rustic spice from multiple chilies, from the smoky pasillas to the fruity guajillos, the brightly spicy puyas, and tangy smoke of chipotles in adobo. A similarly complex depth can be found in soup form in the rust-color sopa Azteca, whose tomato-pasilla broth was filled with tender chicken, crunchy tortilla strips, and Oaxaca cheese.
Of course, the tortilla bonus is most evident with the tacos, but it was the elegance and focused flavor combinations there that impressed me most. Like the crunchy onions that contrasted the garlicky flank steak. Or what are easily some of the best fish tacos in town, the batons of paprika-marinated mahi-mahi suspended in a cloud of Modelo Negra batter tinged with Valentina hot sauce that layered one zesty layer upon another inside one crisp and flaky bite. Nemi also is mindful of the vegetarian preferences of many of its patrons and answers with a fried cauliflower and radish taco that delivers a deeply roasty, savory crunch.
The first few months have admittedly been a calibration period for the Nemi crew, sizing up both the limitations and limitlessness of their diverse audience, and it’s clear they’re still evolving.
The cheese-welded sizzle platter of mix-and-match fajitas is a safe harbor for the Aramingo Avenue Applebee’s crowd, who’ll find Nemi’s version both competitively priced and far superior. I wouldn’t choose it, though, over some of the more exciting specials, like the tamarind-glazed strip steak, which incorporates some Asian crossover ingredients that resonate with Alivia’s background and that hints at fusion instincts that are a certainty moving forward. A coconut-splashed Filipino cousin to ceviche called kinilaw? Happening. Duck heart adobo tacos? “Definitely,” says Alivia, who also does a solid job with coffee flan, milky tres leches, and fryer-fresh churros for dessert.
García plans to dive even deeper into reinterpreting his own Toluca traditions, including his abuela’s mole verde, a green sauce that will pair with both chicken and a new Brussels sprouts taco that’s in the works. I’m sure that’ll raise eyebrows from both taco traditionalists and newbies alike. But Nemi has earned my optimistic trust: Whatever that next bite is, it’s going to be a pleasant surprise.
2636 E. Ann St. (at Thompson St.), 267-519-0713; nemirestaurant.com
Philly’s blossoming Mexican movement has made a stylish northern landing in fast-evolving Port Richmond, where bracing ceviches, supple handmade tortillas, well-crafted cocktails and a handsome revamp for an old corner bar has produced a corner cantina with a bright modern touch. The three restaurant-scene veterans behind this project, including two from Mexico, have created an appealing destination that melds authenticity with warm service and a modern touch (including some Asian fusion touches from the Filipino co-chef-partner) that avoids clichés at neighborhood-friendly prices.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Guacamole; chips and house salsas; elote with coffee mayonnaise and chile piquin; queso fundido with chorizo; quesadillas with Oaxaca cheese and epazote; tiradito al pastor; agua chile de pescado; sopa Azteca; enchiladas rojas; tacos (carnitas; Chihuahua steak; baja baja fish; CDMX pork belly; vegetarian); tamarind N.Y. strip steak; tres leches; coffee flan special; churros.
DRINKS A growing collection of agave spirits — including 30 tequilas and 10 mezcals — anchors the cocktail-centric bar with multiple well-balanced riffs on the margarita based on fresh fruit juices and confident Mexican twists on other classic cocktails. Try the mezcal- and ginger-infused Mezcalita, or the Mexican Old Fashioned that swaps out añejo tequila for whiskey, or one of the better balanced Micheladas I’ve tasted. There is a small but solid beer list offering local craft labels and Mexican brands, plus a small selection of basic wines.
WEEKEND NOISE Aside from the enjoyable contemporary Mexican soundtrack, the noise level has been manageable.
IF YOU GO Dinner Monday through Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, until 10 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Lunch (beginning June 2) Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Dinner entrées, $10-$20. Steak is the outlier at $24.
All major cards.
Reservations suggested, especially weekends.
Not wheelchair accessible. There are two steps at the front door and the bathroom is not accessible.