A Latin American restaurant gives a touch of originality to Central American cuisine
Sofia Deleon MBA ’17 has enjoyed cooking since she was young and would cook in her grandparents’ kitchen. They lived near the central market, and the fresh colors, smells and spices made it one of his favorite things.
Born and raised in Guatemala, Deleon moved to the United States in 2007 to study at the University of Michigan.
âI did my bachelor’s degree at Michigan State and then worked in the corporate food industry for a few years. I moved and went to California and Florida, and then I ended up in Philly, to do my MBA at St. Joe’s, âDeleon said.
After graduating, she took her passion for cooking and its culture to the next level. She started with a series of pop-ups, then Ghost Kitchen, a food prep facility that offers meals on delivery only.
After achieving 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 this year in the reading terminal market, as its original opening date was pushed back due to the pandemic.
âWe were close to signing this closing week, so everything was put on hold,â Deleon said. âIt ended up being a bit better because we were very lucky with a really good location. “
Deleon wanted to use his restaurant to reflect traditional Central American cuisine, including foods and flavors popular in Guatemala and El Salvador.
âThe political landscape was changing and there was a lot of negativity towards immigrants and Central America as a whole,â Deleon said. “I wanted to make it my mission to change the way people view Central America and showcase the beauty, flavors and colors of all these little countries.”
El Merkury is a ‘fast-casual’, self-service restaurant offering premium, cooked-to-order cuisine that serves a variety of traditional Central American street food. The menu features pupusas, tostados, taquitos, and dobladas, including vegetarian and vegan options.
Deleon said that El Merkury serves food that is loosely based on what the Mayans ate. Its four key ingredients are typically corn, peppers, chocolate, and beans.
âThis isn’t really meant to be super authentic. You won’t find the kind of food we serve in Grandma’s kitchen. It’s Central America with a twist, âDeLeon said. âSo we’re making something spicier and using different flavors depending on what ingredients are available and what customers are looking for. “
Amulya Shankar, a customer at the Chestnut Street store, chose one of the popular combo options. Diners can make a combo of pupusas, tostados and taquitos and dress them with meat or vegetables, salsa, cheese and pickled beets. Plantain chips, cheese rice with jalapenos and corn, guacamole, and refried beans are available on the side.
“I felt like [the food] was really cool, and I liked it, âShankar said. âYou have to pick a bunch of little things and I’m extremely undecided. It allows me to try everything.
A popular item on El Merkury’s menu are the churros. Deleon wanted to capitalize on both the Instagram effect and the versatility of the traditional dessert.
âChurros are very popular in Guatemala, but right now, as an ode to Philly, we’re doing the Philly neighborhood [churros]”Said DelÃ©on.” So we have Chinatown Churro, West Philly Churro, Old Town. It’s a mix of flavors of Philadelphia and Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran street food.
Chinatown Churro contains sweet red beans, condensed milk, and green tea powder. The Old City Churro has caramelo, salted pretzel chunks, and caramel.
Daliand VelÃ¡szquez has been working at El Merkury for a few months now. Originally from Puerto Rico, VelÃ¡szquez said she loves the opportunity to learn more about Central American cuisine itself. She also started helping in the kitchen and doing some of the cooking.
âWe try to be creative and Sofia has been excellent,â said VelÃ¡szquez. âShe was present at both places here and at the location of the reading terminal. She works a lot with us.
With the end of Hispanic Heritage Month on October 15 and Dine Latino Restaurant Week October 11-15, Deleon said it was important to recognize the impact of Hispanic culinary contributions in the United States.
âEven if it’s a month a year when you think about it, always think about the legacy Hispanics have brought to America,â Deleon said. âIt’s good to take a moment, take a step back and think about foods that wouldn’t exist if the immigrants hadn’t come here.
El Merkury has two locations: 2104 Chestnut St. and in the Reading Terminal Market on 12th & Arch St.