The area bounded by Eighth and Fourth streets and Snyder and Oregon avenues has no official name, but you might as well call it the United Nations. To the west it’s still thickly Italian, and to the east stretches South Philly’s shamrock settlement, but between them Cambodian dress shops shoulder Mexican groceries, and Buddhist temples rise like giant lemon-and-tangerine confections.
It’s a diverse ecosystem down here, and one that’s been enriched by a relatively recent influx of Central Americans like Felipe Cortez, who moved to South Philly from Guatemala City in 2009. Four months ago, he turned a defunct pizzeria into El Costeñito, a wee eat-in/takeout whose name means “young boy from the coast.”
Windows frame Costeñito’s corner building at the intersection of Sixth and Oregon, a new trading post of Latin-Caribbean and coastal Central American cooking in a city that sorely, surprisingly, lacks both. Here, blue flames lick sauté pans of cayenne-red tomato sauce and smiling Honduran women pinch pupusas. Like the passport of a rainforest preservationist or coconut tycoon, Costeñito’s menu bebops between Cuba, El Salvador, Puerto Rico and Costa Rica.
The warm pupusas were leopard-spotted pillows filled with a mix of classified cheeses (“If I tell you I, have to kill you,” says Cortez) and a fried-pork paste called chicharrone. A pair of the stuffed Salvadoran tortillas reclined on curtido — shredded, lightly fermented cabbage. Pulled chicken hid inside flaky, buttery pastelillos, the Puerto Rican name for empanadas. Fried orbs of papas rellenas cradled smoky seasoned ground beef inside soft layers of potato.
Snacks like these — anointed with triple-chile hot sauce and thin tomato salsa and washed down with house-brewed agua jamaica and tamarindo — are Costeñito’s forte. Meanwhile, the mofongo was dry and oddly bland, lacking the punch of garlic to offset the starchy sweetness of the mashed plantains, and the chicharrone de pollo didn’t have the resonance of its garlic-and-lime marinade. Try the pernil instead, slices of oven-roasted pork laced with soft fat and crispy skin. Like most of the entrees at Costeñito, the pernil comes with rice and a simple salad, but the heaping portion of meat rendered them untouched. That generous spirit, at prices that don’t top $12, earns Cortez’s shop a spot on my takeout rotation.
2654 S. Sixth St., 215-339-5222, costenito.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Appetizers, $2-$7.95; entrees, $6-$12; desserts, $3.