Chef Jennifer Zavala’s food-trucking, pop-upping, Top Cheffing, cannabis-cooking culinary career is taking yet another turn:
Zavala, known through her Instagram handle @foxyladychef, has signed a lease at 1941 E. Passyunk Ave. to house Juana Tamale, a permanent location for the birria tacos, tamales, and other Mexican food she had been selling recently at Underground Arts.
She hopes to open in September. The new spot, across from Pistolas Del Sur between Juniper and Broad Streets, previously was Figs & Olives and Mediterranio Pizza. It’s also just a few blocks from the home she shares with her husband, Chris Feher, and sons Santino, 15, and Oscar, 5.
Juana’s casual counter setup will call for a menu of about six items served Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, plus brunch every other Sunday. Zavala also will continue her off-premises catering.
With “family sprinkled around the country,” as Zavala put it, she has been able to lead a nomadic 43 years.
Zavala’s parents — her father is Mexican-born and her mother’s heritage is Bulgarian and Russian — met in Montana, where she lived until she was 8. After her parents split, her mother and stepfather moved the family to Connecticut, where she grew up. She learned to cook while waitressing at It’s Only Natural in Middletown, Conn., a vegan-vegetarian-macrobiotic restaurant whose slogan, Zavala said, was “Friends don’t let friends eat meat.”
“From there, I was able to pivot,” she said. She moved to Wilmington, N.C., but later followed her mother to Southern California. That’s where she embraced her Latin heritage for the menu at Cha Cha’s, a restaurant she opened in Long Beach.
Years later, Zavala went east again, to Jersey City, N.J. When Santino’s father needed to relocate to help his mother, who was living in Mount Laurel, Zavala had a choice: Live in South Jersey or Philadelphia. “I couldn’t do Jersey,” she said.
In Philadelphia, she joined with Owen Kamihira to open El Camino Real in Northern Liberties, which opened in December 2008 after they toured Mexico for inspiration. At the same time, she was shooting Season 6 of Bravo’s Top Chef, in which she competed against Jennifer Carroll, then working for Eric Ripert at the former 10 Arts and now co-chef-owner of Spice Finch.
Zavala left El Camino Real for restaurant chef jobs, including Xochitl and Interstate Draft House, plus the Cherry Bomb Bus (a rock-and-roll-theme food truck done up in bubblegum pink), a tamale truck, and catering — some laced with cannabis activism.
“I’ve done some pretty unconventional things, and obviously I think my free spirit kind of navigated my career,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to travel and do some crazy things in my time, and I feel like this is the homestretch.”
She said she signed a three-year lease. “My goal is just to work hard and as fast as I can,” she said. “If we do well enough, I would like to open one more spot after a year of being open. And then we’ll see what happens after that. Who knows?”