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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

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Latina-owned restaurant gives Central American food a twist

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Delone holding El Merkury churros, which are a popular menu item. PHOTO COURTESY OF SOFIA DELEON M.B.A. ’17

Sofia Deleon M.B.A. ’17 has loved cooking since she was young and would cook in her grandparents’ kitchen. They lived close to the Central Market, and the fresh colors, smells and spices made it one of her favorite things. 

Born and raised in Guatemala, Deleon moved to the U.S. in 2007 to attend college in Michigan.

“I did my bachelor’s degree at Michigan State, and then worked on the corporate side of food for a couple of years. I moved around and went to California and Florida, and then ended up in Philly, to do my M.B.A at St. Joe’s,” Deleon said.

After graduating, she took her passion for food and her culture to the next level. She started with a series of pop-ups and then a ghost kitchen, a food preparation facility that does delivery-only meals. 

After having success there, Deleon opened El Merkury in 2018 in its first permanent location in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood of Philadelphia. The restaurant’s second location opened in April of this year in the Reading Terminal Market, its original opening date having been pushed back because of the pandemic. 

“We were about to sign that week of the shutdown, and so everything was put on hold,” Deleon said. “It ended up being somewhat better because we got really fortunate with a really good location.”

Deleon wanted to use her restaurant to reflect traditional Central American food, including foods and flavors that are popular in Guatemala and El Salvador. 

“The political landscape was changing, and there was a lot of negativity toward immigrants and Central America as a whole,” Deleon said. “I wanted to make it my mission to change the way people saw Central America and showcase the beauty, the flavors and colors that all these small countries had.”

El Merkury is a “fast-casual” and self-service restaurant with higher quality, made-to-order food that serves a variety of takes on traditional Central American street food. The menu features pupusas, tostados, taquitos and dobladas, including vegetarian and vegan options.

Deleon said El Merkury serves food that is loosely based on what the Mayans ate. Her four key ingredients generally include corn, chilies, chocolate and beans. 

“All of this is not really meant to be super authentic. You wouldn’t find the kind of food that we serve in Grandma’s kitchen. It’s Central American with a twist,” DeLeon said. “So we make something spicier and use different flavors depending on the ingredients that are available and what customers are looking for.”

Amulya Shankar, a customer at the Chestnut Street location, chose one of the popular combo options. Diners can make a combo out of pupusas, tostados and taquitos and dress them up with meat or veggies, salsa, cheese and pickled beets. Plantain chips, cheese-baked rice with jalapenos and corn, guacamole and refried beans are available as sides. 

“I felt like [the food] was really fresh, and I liked it,” Shankar said. “You got to choose a bunch of little things and I’m extremely indecisive. It lets me try everything.”

A popular item on El Merkury’s menu are the churros. Deleon wanted to capitalize on both the Instagramable effect and the versatility of the traditional dessert.

“Churros are very popular in Guatemala, but right now as an ode to Philly, we are doing Philly neighborhood [churros],” Deleon said. “So we have the Chinatown Churro, the West Philly Churro, the Old City. It’s a mix of Philly flavors and Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Hondurian street food.”

The Chinatown Churro has sweetened red beans, condensed milk and green tea powder. The Old City Churro has caramelo, salted pretzel pieces and toffee.

Daliand Velászquez has been working at El Merkury for a few months now. Originally from Puerto Rico, Velászquez said she loves the opportunity to learn more about Central American food herself. She also has started helping in the kitchen and doing some of the cooking as well.

“We try to be creative, and Sofia has been excellent,” Velászquez said. “She has been present in both locations here and at the Reading Terminal location. She’s there working with us a lot.”

With Hispanic Heritage Month drawing to a close on Oct. 15 and Dine Latino Restaurant Week Oct. 11-15, Deleon said it is important to recognize the impact of Hispanic culinary contributions in the U.S. 

“Even if it’s this one month a year when you think about it, still consider the legacy that Hispanics have brought to America,” Deleon said. “It’s good to take a moment and step back and think about the foods that wouldn’t exist if immigrants hadn’t come here.”

El Merkury has two locations: 2104 Chestnut St. and in the Reading Terminal Market on 12th & Arch St.

 

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