Central American Food Finally Hits Philly
Have you ever had cuisine from Guatemala? Costa Rica? Other Central American countries?? Whether you have or haven't it's time for you to try the unbelievably authentic Guatemalan cuisine from El Merkury.
Having opened just two months ago El Merkury on the corner of 21st and Chestnut has the cutest decor, wonderful customer service, and delicious bites.
I had the privilege of sitting down with chef & founder Sofie Deleon who is the brainchild behind this new hot spot.
What was your upbringing like? How did it affect your cooking?
I was born and raised in Guatemala where both my parents were very understanding and extremely supportive of me finding myself, and my passions. I actually was the only granddaughter so I can distinctly remember my grandfather spoiling me with attention in the kitchen. Whenever I wanted to bake a cake, he was more than willing! I also was given an ice cream machine by my brother when I was only 14. The funny part is, he gave it to me so I would make him ice cream all the time, but what ended up happening was I started to make the ice cream in large batches and sold it throughout high school for a little side catering gig.
What was your schooling like?
I went to Michigan State for my bachelors and studied food industry management. I moved around a bit after graduation, first to Miami, then West Chester PA, then Delaware, and then I got my MBA at St. Joe's in Philly. I've actually only been in Philly about 5 years.
What was your dream job growing up?
I thought I wanted to be a financial broker on Wall Street. I always dreamt of one day living in New York and having a cool Manhattan apartment. But at the same time, I've always loved cooking, yet thought it was only a hobby. I started thinking maybe I'll cook professionally when I retire or when I have a lot of savings. Quickly though I realized that by the time I'm 40 or 50 I'll have so many commitments that the time to open a restaurant is now or never.
What's your current inspiration?
My country - Guatemala. It's amazing. There are so many colors and flavors. I know it's a very small country but within it there are 27 departments (states) and each one has such a different feel and cuisine. I just want to make 'em proud.
What was your experience like at the pop up you had in Garage?
Overall, great! I wanted to start testing the concept of Central American street food and that was a great place to start. Everyone loved it which is what moved along the creation of the new El Merkury restaurant. Shout out to Angelica the manger there who was awesome!
How did you pick the location of your restaurant?
I was looking for the perfect spot for a YEAR. I wanted a turn key place in a good central location, close to businesses for the bustling lunch hour, but also near residences so the place opts as a perfect dinner spot, too. The owning of this property actually ended up being fate. I had met the previous restaurant owner of Agno months before at an event and now its full circle because now El Merkury is here!
Okay now onto more "fun" questions. Are you ready?
Yes bring 'em on!
What's the best meat dish on the menu?
Enchilada tostada. It's amazing.
Corn on the Cob, Churro in Vanilla Ice Cream, Taquito, Veggie Enchilada Toastada - ALL SO good
How 'bout best veggie dish?
Hmm I'd say the cheese and beans pupusas. They're just so tasty! And the Aroz con elote, too!
Most unique thing on the menu is...
I'd have to say the pupusas. It's like putting two tortillas together, filling them with veggies, meat, or cheese, and then grilling them. Really big in Guatemala and hopefully soon-to-be-big in Philly :)
What food do you eat most often?
Omg I live on coffee! Can I say that? Seriously almond milk lattes are my go-to. For actual food I'd say homemade plantain chips. I'm always caught snacking on those.
What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten?
Well this is a weird experience overall, but I was studying abroad in Japan and at 5am our guide took us to a fresh Japanese market and I ate all sorts of dried seafood and fish WAY too early in the morning.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
I was very skeptical of career coaches, but I met one once and he said I'll help you, what's your goal? I replied saying I already have a dream and he said well then you're already ahead of 99% of people. That conversation sparked such motivation.
Whats one thing you would want to change about the restaurant scene in Philly?
Nothing -- the restaurant scene is very open and welcoming. I've lived in many cities and I think Philly is the most welcoming and supportive of local places.
What do you see coming in the next year for you as a chef? Any new locations?
First is hiring more people! Who knows maybe I'll have a churro-only store within Reading Terminal Market or in University City.
Is there anything you'd like to add for readers in Philly to know?
A part from the food and everything, we have a mission. One of the reasons I chose central American street food was to represent the smaller countries in a GOOD light especially because of the current political situation. There’s a lot more to these countries than the negativity the media portrays.
El Merkury was so unbelievably tasty and I super, super appreciated all of the vegetarian options. The churro was out of this world, the corn was spiced PERFECTLY, the veggie enchilada toastada was delicious, but the biggest surprise (in the BEST way) was the squash taquito. It was so crispy and salty on the outside, but savory and almost sweet on the inside.
El Merkury is open M-F 11am-9pm, Saturday 12pm-9pm, Sunday 12-7pm. Whenever you're in the neighborhood next I URGE you to taste all the amazingness inside the most adorably decorated and authentic Central American restaurant.