For more than a decade, Jennifer Zavala plied the local food truck and pop-up eatery circuit. Besides tamales, she offered many Philadelphians their first taste of birria tacos — corn tortillas filled with stewed meat, grilled crispy in skimmed fat on a flattop, and served with a cup of consommé for dipping.
Six months after Zavala left her last vending arrangement, at Underground Arts in Callowhill, she has taken another turn in her culinary career, at the big bend of East Passyunk Avenue near Broad Street in South Philadelphia.
Zavala opened her first brick-and-mortar, Juana Tamale (1941 E. Passyunk Ave.), a Southern California-meets-South Philadelphia taqueria whose atmosphere, designed by Lauren McFadden, is as bold as her personality.
Zavala said she always wanted her own restaurant but dreaded dealing with the city’s bureaucracy. “And the pressure,” she said. “I cook and sold stuff out of the van. That’s the easy part. The hard part is responsibility, taxes, payroll — that’s stuff I have tried to avoid. The pandemic has offered an opportunity to put myself out there, in a sense like, let’s try to do things differently.”
Zavala, never a shrinking violet whether the topic was cooking with cannabis or the propriety of serving vegan meatballs at a South Philly meatball contest (she got death threats), has also joined the ranks of restaurateurs setting new terms for their businesses as the pandemic eases.
For now, Juana has limited hours and is open three days a week (Thursday to Saturday). This will give her better life balance (two kids, husband Chris Feher). It also will allow her to continue catering, every restaurateur’s bread and butter.
Zavala said that to pay her workers a living wage, she is automatically tacking a 20% tip onto every check. Her menu prices, she acknowledges, are not cheap; an order of three substantial birria tacos is $21. To save on labor, she is offering counter service and not full service. She also is not, at least initially, paying commissions to the Grubhub/UberEats/DoorDashes of the world, so you have to walk in. No phone orders, either. And as the menu proclaims beside a winky emoji: “Absolutely no modifications of any kind.”
To save on prep, she has kept the menu tight: birria beef, birria vegan, and West Coast-style pork tacos; vegan and beef tamales; Caesar salad atop chicharonnes; vegan wings; churros; and queso birria ramen, which gets you a foam cup of ramen noodles in consommé with a zesty combo of beef, cheese, and green onion. Let it sit for a bit and the ramen sucks up the soup while the other ingredients get all gooey. You get a queso birria beef taco on the side.
Zavala, 43, led a nomadic existence before her arrival in Philadelphia 13 years ago. Her 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.”
Zavala moved to Wilmington, N.C., later following her mother to Southern California. That’s where she embraced her Latin heritage for the menu at Cha Cha’s, a restaurant she opened two decades ago in Long Beach.
After heading back east to North Jersey, her next stop was Philadelphia, where she joined with Owen Kamihira to open El Camino Real in Northern Liberties. At the same time at the end of 2008, 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.
Juana’s posted hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, 3 to 8 p.m. Friday, and 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday. For Thanksgiving week, Juana will be open noon to 6 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.