You can tell something special is going on inside of El Tenampa before even walking in. The storefront is grand and at night lights up the whole block. Inside the door, you find a spacious but typical Mexican grocery store with spices and produce, and a fútbol game on TV that the cashier and a couple patrons are watching.
Backtracking a bit, I had recently been so disappointed with South Slope in general, with Carmelita Deli & Grocery severely declining about two years ago, and Guerrero Food Center going out of business. Now I think I know the reason for both, and it is El Tenampa. I walked in about two months ago to find the nice dining room and expansive kitchen. I had the nagging feeling that I recognized all the people behind the counter and then it struck me, these are the people that used to run tiny Carmelita.
Grab your bottled drinks up front and pay at the grocery cashier (unfortunately no alcohol can be consumed in the dining room), or buy a $2 homemade jamaica or horchata in the back, get in line at the counter and peruse the menu. On a weeknight after the dinner rush, you might have the place to yourself. On a weekend day or night the dining room will be filled with Mexican families, screaming babies, and boys chasing each other. You'll be lucky to find a seat.
At Carmelita, tacos started at $1.50 and later were $2. Here they sell $1.75 pequeños and $3 grandes, which are a bit larger than your usual taco and give you access to the all-important condiment bar with homemade red and green salsas, guacamole, peppers, radish, and cucumbers.
Highly recommended is the al pastor (above), which you can see on the spit in the back, something that they sorely lacked at their previous home. The dish at the bottom is full of pineapples soaking up the spices and pork fat, and some of those make it into the final product, always a pleasurable taste combination.
The list of taco ingredients is long and just right, a combination of proven winners, recommended favorites, internal organs and parts of animal faces. Highly suggested is the tripa (below two photos, tripe), which is also a joy to watch being grilled and chopped.
All grande taco plates are served with delicious roasted onions, reason enough to order the big ones over the little (below). They take as much pride in these sides and condiments as they do in all the exquisitely prepared meats.
They serve a full range of antojitos here, starting with the enormous tostada ($4.50, below), shown here with suadero on top, as well as plenty of lettuce cheese and cream. I added the lime and salsa, which all made for a toppling massive mess that was not even close to being finger food.
Also a joy are the delicate sopes ($4.50, below) which are also larger than most and made with a very small grilled soft tortilla and thin layer of beans. These were delicious enough to get me wanting to go up to the next step and order huaraches ($9 for three) to get even more from my base.
I have now had three cemitas ($8, below) here, and they all have been phenomenal. The addition of white cheese, fresh avocado, and chipotle is a mouth pleaser any day of the week. The version below is milanesa de pollo, and all the slippery ingredients did not stay nicely stacked like this for long.
Ask what they have before getting emotionally attached to one of their soups as many nights they might only offer one. The caldo de res con verduras ($6, below small version) is delicious in its simplicity, the broth taking its flavors from simple stock. The fatty beef is stacked on top with a potato, corn on the cob, and a turnip.