Cucina Zapata Is All About Fusion
Today Luncher Alex is at a fusion food truck for lunch.
By now, any food-obsessed Philadelphian probably knows that the Drexel campus is a hotbed for top-notch truck food. There’s killer falafel, juicy steak sandwiches, thin-crust artisan pizza, and a whole lot more. One of the most exciting entries in the scene is Cucina Zapata, which offers a departure from the now common combination of Korean and Mexican (set off by Los Angeles’ trailblazing Kogi truck), with Thai-Mexican fusion. Happily, the results are delicious.
The truck itself, covered in colorful graffiti with Zapata’s name, might remind you of Tyson Bee’s, the similarly graffiti-ed outlet on the nearby Penn campus, whose menu has more of a pan-Asian bent. But your buck goes farther in quantity and quality at Zapata, where plates from a small menu of curries and tacos are filling and cost no more than $6. It parks on the food truck-filled alley that is Ludlow Street between 31st and 32nd. We entered through a pedestrian plaza on 32nd between Chestnut and Market – just look for the opening between the two academic buildings and walk all the way down – this guy is the easternmost truck.
The wait for the food was surprisingly short, given the large crowd assembled outside the truck. A curry (which we’ll get to in a minute) came out almost instantaneously, while tacos took a bit longer. A pair of chicken satay tacos cost $5 (or $3 apiece). The tacos were hearty, the two large enough for a meal, and loaded with a hybrid of cabbage slaw and pico de gallo, spicy mayo, and fresh avocado. Beneath all that was a bunch of tender chicken swimming in a light-brown satay sauce. And I mean swimming – the sweet, peanuty sauce spilled out of the taco from the first bite, always playing nicely against the slaw and the spicy mayo. As a crowning detail, each tortilla was lightly griddled, adding a dimension to what, when too cold and bready, can seriously hold a good taco back.
The other type of taco offered was a Thai short rib taco, and unfortunately it was less impressive. All was the same but the meat, the taco’s crowning sauce, and an added sprinkle of peanuts. The slaw was just as fresh and the tortilla just as appealing, but that sauce, creamy and green, was surprisingly mild. And the meat was tough and dry (“Rhino meat,” a particularly harsh friend called it). It’s possible we just got a bad batch, but I think I’ll stick to the chicken tacos in the future.
The good news is that the short rib taco was redeemed – and then some – by the sweet potato chicken curry. Cucina Zapata offers a rotating roster of Thai-style curries, and this one was definitely the best choice on the day’s menu. The fragrant, orange curry gave off deep Thai flavor, just slightly spicy, and surprisingly sweet. Hearty chunks of sweet potato floated throughout, as did bite-sized pieces of chicken, moist and tender where most in this kind of dish are dry and overcooked. I found it at least a few steps above what most of us think of as street food, even at the street-friendly price of $6. And it was enough for a big meal, served with steamed rice and literally overflowing from its styrofoam container.
So is Cucina Zapata worth the trek to Drexel’s campus and down this food-infested alley? If you’re ordering the curry, I say the answer is a definite yes. While tacos were more of a mixed bag, the chicken was tasty and filling enough to warrant a trip back, for sure. Add that to a menu capped at well under $10 and the friendly, surprisingly quick service, and the deal is sealed.
THE + (What somebody who likes this place would say)
- Surprisingly well developed flavors from a truck
- Good portions at good prices
- Chicken shines in various preparations
- That curry. Damn!
THE – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)
- Tacos aren’t extremely remarkable
- Containers literally overflow with curry
- Rhino meat!
Cucina Zapata, 31st and Ludlow Streets, Cucina Zapata on Facebook