When 12th Street Cantina opened in 1982, it was the first and only Mexican stand in Reading Terminal Market and also one of the first and only Mexican restaurants in the whole city.
At that time Mexican food was so rare in cheesesteak-land that owner David Fetkewicz simultaneously started a Cantina wholesale Mexican foods importing business, in part to supply his stand.
As the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo 2017 fast approaches, there are a plethora of Mexican food options around town, including national chains like Chipotle and Qdoba. But few are as fresh, fast and affordable or offer the range of options as 12th Street. (On May 5, these options will include a special short rib taco special and complimentary cactus pear punch.)
Stand founder Fetkewicz had prior restaurant experience in Colorado but his wife, Michele Leff, had earned an MBA with the idea of becoming a business consultant until one day Fetkewicz burnt his hand while making caramel for flan and Leff jumped behind the stand. That was the start of a culinary adventure that has grown and expanded into a high-volume, off-premises catering and a corporate café management business. But almost everything sold at the stand is still made fresh in Reading Terminal Market, says 12th Street executive chef Jon Jividen.
The pulled pork on their taco bar is seasoned with onion, whole chipotle chiles, garlic, bay leaf and a blend of Mexican seasonings and cooked for five hours (rather than pulled out of the freezer and defrosted as it might be at a national chain). The chicken is breast meat marinated in achiote paste and other spices and then baked.
“Because we make everything right here, we know what’s in our dishes,” says stand manager George Ambos. As a result, vegans and celiac-sufferers can dine here without fear: Most dishes are gluten-free and can be made vegan simply by asking stand workers to hold the cheese.
“People who have trouble with onions: That’s a bit harder,” Ambos admits.
The taco bar moved from the back counter to front and center during one of two recent stand “freshenings” which also introduced new decor and tweaks to the steak and fish taco recipes: Both are grilled and the latter gets lots of Yelp props, as does the naked burrito bowl (the menu describes it as “the burrito you love without the tortilla”). Their guacamole and tacos were singled out in two of the stand’s four Best of Philly magazine awards.
Ambos answers questions about what to get with questions. “If people are really hungry, I’ll recommend an enchilada. If they’re checking out a lot of places in the Market and just want to try a little something, I’ll recommend a taco. If they’ve got to get in and out of here in a half-hour, a burrito or a salad.”
These dishes are actually just one of three aspects to the 12th Street business. The stand also sells Mexican grocery items and takeout, the latter from a side refrigerator case. It contains some of 12th Street’s more unusual dishes (the popular grilled shrimp and asparagus salad with cilantro vinaigrette, and the spinach and corn casserole are two for-instances), as well as offerings unique to Puebla, the place in Mexico where the Cinco de Mayo celebration of the Mexican army’s May 5, 1862 victory over French forces began (such as 12th Street’s chicken mole enchiladas).
The “grocery shelf” on top of that case is the place for Cinco de Mayo do-it-yourselfers Even many standard supermarkets now carry queso fresca cheese but 12th Street also has the much harder-to-find queso cotija and oaxaca, as well as masa flour, chorizo sausage, and blue corn, wheat and spinach tortillas. Or leave your Cinco de Mayo party food preparation to 12th Street’s on-site catering operation.
The stand started out doing a lot of takeout: Today most offerings are eaten on-premises, says Jividen. This could partly be because of the other thing 12th Street offers that’s in the Market at peak hours: Its own seating.
12th Street Cantina, Avenue B and Ninth Avenue, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun., 215-625-0321.
Carolyn Wyman is the Market's news correspondent and operator of the Reading Terminal's bi-weekly Taste of Philadelphia Food Tour (www.tasteofphillyfoodtour.com).