(PHILADELPHIA) — After nearly 30 thirty years in the restaurant business, Chef Juan Carlos Aparicio-Torres is passionate about authenticity and not interested in short cuts.
This adherence to his values has fast-tracked him to culinary fame. His first restaurant, El Chingon, a Mexican-style diner in the East Passyunk neighborhood of South Philadelphia, has just earned a spot on The New York Times 2023 list of the Best Restaurants in America, a mere 10 months after its official opening.
While Aparicio-Torres recognizes the prestige of this placement, he attributes the success of El Chingon, a Spanish term meaning someone who is “cool, great, or amazing,” to his community. “I share this accomplishment with my family and all my employees,” said Aparicio-Torres seated at a table as his restaurant prepares for opening, “You don’t plan for this kind of opportunity.” El Chingon, indeed.
That’s because for Aparicio-Torres, he would not have been able to make his unique mark on the culinary world without his childhood in San Mateo Ozolco, a small town in the Mexican state of Puebla. It was here where he learned how to make corn tortillas with “masa” from his family’s mill and where he fell in love with the “cemita,” an iconic Mexican sandwich that is now a specialty at El Chingon, with dough made daily at the restaurant.
With ingredients for the restaurant still sourced from his hometown, including a fresh batch of “champurrado,” a Mexican hot chocolate made with crushed blue corn and sugar that this reporter was able to taste, Aparicio-Torres doesn’t just want to feed his guests – he wants to share his story.
“I could easily give you a tortilla that I bought at the store, but that’s not what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to replicate the one simple thing that I ate as a kid. Those memories, I want people to feel them too.”
While his Pueblan heritage is crucial to his culinary identity, Aparicio-Torres has made a name for himself in Greek, French, Asian, and Italian restaurants throughout Philadelphia and New York. El Chingon may be his first time cooking Mexican food professionally, but Aparicio-Torres credits his current success to the expertise learned in these restaurants.
“People ask me ‘Why didn’t you open up a restaurant 20 years ago when you first came [to America]? Why just now? I wasn’t ready. Without knowing real cooking techniques, I wouldn’t have been able to do something unique and different.”
Many customers come to El Chingon not fully aware of the restaurant’s distinct Pueblan origins and often expect a menu with more Americanized Tex Mex items. Through it all, Aparicio-Torres maintains a confidence in his menu that keeps him from bending to any of these pressures.
“My menu has a lot of diversity. If you want to come in and try new things, I have that. If you want to stick to what you already know with tacos, I have that. Some people come here and as soon as they see we don’t have a rice and beans dish, they leave. It’s more important to me that we’re doing good quality food and making flavors that people will enjoy. At El Chingon, I’m making food that I would want to eat, that my family would want to eat.”
Aparicio-Torres is adamant about keeping El Chingon a family restaurant. With a staff made of majority Mexican employees, his first concern will always be the joy of his Pueblan community in South Philadelphia.
“I built this place for my community. El Chingon is a representation of all of Philadelphia, it’s not just a little corner. It’s out there. It represents Philly and I represent El Chingon.”