Global City: The Mexican Traditions of Kennett Square

By Amy Strauss / Photography By Nina Cazille | June 01, 2016
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Taco Trio from El Ranchero
El Ranchero’s taco trio featuring chicken, seasoned pork and steak

In the heart of the Brandywine River Valley, 30 miles southwest of Philadelphia, you’ll discover the Mushroom Capital of the World. Also known as Kennett Square, this suburban town has been home to the nation’s largest commercial mushroom industry for the last century. But there’s another side to Kennett Square: not only is this southern Chester County community overflowing with mushrooms—it produces one million pounds per week—it’s also one of the best places in southeastern Pennsylvania to discover authentic Mexican food.

Back in the 1960s, Kennett Square became a magnet for men from Guanajuato, Mexico. They came in large numbers to work on the mushroom farms. By the 1990s, it wasn’t just working men coming to the region for jobs. Many Mexican families immigrated to this one-square-mile town. Today almost half of Kennett Square’s residents (more than 6,000 people) are of Mexican descent. The next time you find yourself in mushroom country, check out these five restaurants—plus one specialty grocery and an ice cream shop—that honor Kennett Square’s rich Mexican heritage.

LA PEÑA MEXICANA

Just off downtown’s main drag is Kennett Square’s leading taqueria. La Peña Mexicana’s brightly colored facade is as vibrant as the food itself. Tacos here are the real deal—hold the lettuce, tomato and cheese. Tender hunks of braised beef tongue and smoked pork chop keep lunch interesting, while monumentally portioned burritos covered in tomatillo sauce or chilaquiles speckled with paper-thin radishes can feed the whole family at dinner. No matter what time of day, opt for the huarache loaded with marinated, shredded pork. Its handmade, fried masa base comes smeared with refried beans and topped with chopped onion, cilantro, lettuce and sour cream.

EL RANCHERO

On the southern tail of State Street, you’ll find Josefina Niño’s strip-mall restaurant, a friendly outfit that’s been slinging tacos for 27 years. Its nondescript entrance leads to an interior whose walls come to life with antique Mexican pottery and other colorful cultural artwork. Her operation is a true family affair, with her daughter, Diana Zavala, managing service in the dining room and her father, Jose Niño, acting as a jack-of-all-trades in the back of house. Order the tacos al pastor. The juicy pork is prepared shepherd-style by marinating it for hours with chile peppers and pineapple and then cooking it on a vertical rotisserie.

Salsas
La Michoacana Ice Cream
Seasoned Pork Huarache
Photo 1: Taste of Puebla’s chips, salsas (salsa verde, pico de gallo) and guacamole with lime-cucumber margarita
Photo 2: La Michoacana ice cream cone featuring avocado and sweet corn ice creams sprinkled with chile and cinnamon powders
Photo 3: La Pena’s huarache with seasoned pork

TAQUERIA Y CARNICERIA GUADALAJARA EXPRESS

Butcher Humberto Garcia can fulfill your carnivorous fantasies with his well-stocked case. He carries dry-aged ribs and marinated steaks as well as harder-to-find choices like tubs of chicken feet and rendered pork fat. We haven’t been this excited about a butcher shop in a long time. The chicharrónes (pork cracklings) and tocino (bacon) here are worth a trip to Kennett Square. After your shopping spree, head to the taco counter at the back of the store. Stick with all things meaty—i.e., anything you spied in the butcher case—and you’ll be impressed. The campechano (“hearty”) taco combines both beef and pork.

EL NAYARIT MEXICAN FOOD STORE

At the opposite end of the strip that houses Guadalajara Express, visit the area’s best Mexican grocery store. In stock at the no-frills shop you’ll find more than 20 varieties of dried chiles, El Sombrero corn tortillas (made locally in Avondale), jugs of horchata and Mexican sodas, and other traditional finds. Most alluring is their inventory of uncommon produce, especially cactus, available—as is everything here—for a steal of a price.

Dining Room
Food Truck
cacti
grilled fish tacos
Photo 1: El Ranchero’s dining room
Photo 2: El Ranchero’s food truck
Photo 3: Fresh cactus and other produce in stock at El Nayarit Mexican Food Store
Photo 4: Michoacana Grill fish tacos loaded with cabbage and pico de gallo

LA MICHOACANA ICE CREAM SHOP

More than a decade ago, three former Kaolin Mushroom Farm workers—Noelia Scharon, Juvenal Gonzalez and Manuel Rodriguez—dreamt up an inventive ice cream shop that featured traditional Mexican flavors they couldn’t find north of the border. Along with Rodriguez’s wife, Martha, the ice cream–churning crew set up a pocket-sized shop steps away from the center of town, building its reputation on flavors like sweet corn, avocado and mamey (a tropical fruit). Homemade paletas (ice pops), bolis (pushups) and fresh-fruit water ices round out the menu of frozen treats. Save room for the mangonada—a mix of mango water ice, lime juice and chile, to be enjoyed through a candied-tamarind straw.

MICHOACANA GRILL

La Michoacana’s second operation was born to keep the crew busy during the off season. Opened in October 2011, the counterservice taco joint allows guests to choose ingredients and watch as staff build their platters right before their eyes, Chipotle-style. The simple menu may be Kennett’s most abbreviated—burritos, tacos, quesadillas, nachos and salad bowls—but the options are endless. The ultra-tender tilapia taco, loaded with thin shreds of slaw, jalapeño slices and a from-scratch hot sauce, might be the finest taco in town.

Green Hot Sauce
Green hot sauce stewing at Michoacana Grill

TASTE OF PUEBLA

Head to the south end of Kennett Square to catch Mariana Castaneda bustling in her Puebla-inspired kitchen. Castaneda and her husband first came to Kennett Square in the 1980s. For 25 years they worked at Kaolin Mushroom Farm, until they decided to “retire” and open a restaurant. Their dinner-only spot is the ideal place to grab a post-work barstool and snack on heaps of pico de gallo with chips. Request some Tajín spice (a Mexican seasoning of chile peppers, salt and dehydrated lime juice) around the rim of your lime-cucumber margarita and stick around for dinner to marvel in Mariana’s mole poblano, a rich sauce made from dry chile, ancho and sesame seeds, served over chicken or pork.

MICHOACANA GRILL
201 S. Union St., Kennett Square
610.444.8979
michoacanagrill.com

LA MICHOACANA ICE CREAM SHOP
231 E. State St., Kennett Square
610.444.2996

EL NAYARIT MEXICAN FOOD STORE
520 S. Union St. # D, Kennett Square
610.444.3412

LA PEÑA MEXICANA
609 W. Cypress St., Kennett Square
610.925.2651

EL RANCHERO
305 W. State St. # 3, Kennett Square
610.925.0122

TAQUERIA Y CARNICERIA GUADALAJARA EXPRESS
520 S. Union St., Kennett Square
484.348.4014

TASTE OF PUEBLA
201 Birch St., Kennett Square
610.444.5085
tasteofpuebla.com

Article from Edible Philly at http://ediblephilly.ediblecommunities.com/eat/global-city-mexican-traditions-kennett-square
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