Friday, August 12, 2011

Cucina Zapata

Wedged between a parking lot, an overpass and hulking Drexel buildings, Cucina Zapata has carved out a tasty niche for itself amidst the crowd of food trucks jostling for attention at 31st and Ludlow. Though they’ve only been open for a few months, the Thai-Mexican fusion truck has already conquered the Philadelphia Vendys (where they earned People’s Choice) and built a sizable—and wholeheartedly devoted—following.

Cucina Zapata’s appeal starts with a vibrantly painted truck, a riot of purple, orange and neon green, with their name spelled out in glimmering silver graffiti across the front. Among the boring white trucks that compete with it, Cucina Zapata sticks out like a brilliant, upbeat thumb. It exudes a homegrown chic; it’s cool without trying to be, from the ceramic cats and box of plastic fruit on the ledge to the hastily scribbled chalkboard menu.

Robert Zapata, who takes orders and makes drinks, is friendly and personable. He makes it a point not just to remember your face, but also the trivial details you’ve mentioned in past snippets of small talk. Show up a few times, and he’ll cheerfully inquire about school and work and future plans.

However, I wouldn’t recommend braving the lunch rush unless you’re willing to wait for a while. Cucina’s staff hasn’t quite adjusted to a growing demand; with only two people working, they sometimes get behind when there’s a long line. Ordering can get chaotic if he doesn’t take names, occasionally leading to mix-ups and misunderstandings. It’s a testament to the food that people tough it out, even when they’re standing in office clothes under a pounding Philly summer sun. If you don’t want to wait, come early (they generally open at 11) or late (they close either at 5 or when they run out, whichever comes first). Just be warned that they may be out of some of the more sought-after items later in the day.

None of this (not the decor, popularity, or affable customer service) would matter if the food weren’t good. Happily—triumphantly—it is. Cucina’s brand of Thai-Mexican cuisine is a delicious blend of spices, crunchy vegetables and well-seasoned meat. It sits at the intersection of the unexpected and the familiar: witness the Tilapia burrito ($6), stuffed with fried fish that’s breaded with Cap’n Crunch and doused in spicy peanut sauce. At two for $5, the heaping tacos are a delectable bargain. There are two options: chicken satay or Thai short-rib. Both are packed with lettuce and tomato and topped with delicate slivers of avocado, and both make a filling, zesty lunch, but I prefer the chicken because the meat is better quality. (The beef is a little chewy). I’m not as big a fan of the Sweet Potato Chicken Curry ($6). Served over sticky rice, it becomes a bit bland after you’ve eaten half of it. Then again, this could be due to its enormous portion size. Finish your meal off with an iced Thai tea or coffee ($2): sweet and refreshing.

This is what street-food is supposed to be about: a deep-seated sense of community paired with affordable, innovative (without being contrived) fare. Cucina Zapata’s twitter proclaims: “Remember when you were like, Damn, I could go for some Thai food in a taco? Well, here it is. You’re welcome.” While most of us can safely say that that particular thought had never previously crossed our minds, I’m so glad it crossed theirs.

--Kiley Bense

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