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The Philadelphia Daily News

Go Latino At 5th & Lehigh -- Find Gifts, Food & Festivities

By BECKY BATCHA -- For the Daily News

6 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Philadelphia Daily News. All rights reserved.

THE LATINO business corridor formerly known as El Bloque de Oro has a new name these days: El Centro de Oro Business & Cultural Arts District. To go with that, community leaders are making a new, vigorous effort to attract downtowners up to 5th and Lehigh in North Philadelphia.

You won't confuse North Philly's slice of island life with the sparkly old-Havana theme park, The Quarter at Tropicana, which just opened in Atlantic City. Although you can see revitalization happening before your very eyes, with murals being painted and storefronts getting face-lifts, El Centro de Oro is still more gritty than pretty. That's gum on the sidewalk, not magic fairy dust, and it looks like it's fixin' to stay.

On the other hand, the businesses and cultural institutions that anchor the 5th Street business corridor between Lehigh and Allegheny are among the better "secret finds" to be found in the city right now. These include: a top-flight restaurant as yet unravaged by the foodie hordes, a music store so cool they should sell souvenir T-shirts, a serious arts center so hip that it does sell tacky souvenirs - just in case you forgot to stock up in San Juan - and a whole new world of junk food waiting to be discovered.

We knew that last one would get your attention.

This weekend, El Centro de Oro is tossing in some extra incentives for adventurous holiday shoppers, including an arts and crafts market, an important new archaeology exhibit and some Aztec dancing. (People in feathers strutting around - sound familiar?) There's also a night of gallery-hopping, plus repeat performances of the Latino holiday tradition known as parrandas: like Christmas carols, but con gusto.

No, gusto isn't cheese - maybe you want to bring a friend who speaks just a few words of Spanish.

They've got rhythm The music store Centro Musical is both a mainstay of the local Puerto Rican community and a destination for Latin music fans citywide. You can't exactly call it an "institution" - it's too lively and loud for that stodgy label. But the store certainly deserves a spot on every Philly-phile's list of Cool Places To Get Around To Visiting Eventually...One of These Days Real Soon...Maybe When the Eagles Have a By-Week.

For Christmas, Centro Musical's broad selection of Latin CDs is one good reason to get your backside in motion toward SEPTA's 47 bus, which stops right at 5th and Lehigh. Owner Wilfredo Gonzalez carries a phenomenal range of salsa, merengue, bachata, slow drag and reggaeton discs, and his friendly staff can recommend popular recordings for a starter set in any genre.

The store's musical instruments are another attraction, especially for families with children (and good soundproofing). For young guitar students, Centro Musical carries dozens of three-quarter-size guitars ($45 to $90). Gonzalez also stocks the simple, inexpensive percussion instruments that are signatures of Latin sound, like the guiro, the claves, and of course, the maracas. Any of these would be a hit under the tree, unless you were hoping for a silent night.

Centro Musical, 464 W. Lehigh Ave., 215-425-7050. Open 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and on Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m.-9 p.m., with Christmas season hours from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. on Sundays.

Atencion, shoppers The cozy Julia de Burgos Books & Crafts Store at Taller Puertorriqueno serves a wide range of shoppers. For readers, the store's selection of Latino and bilingual books is a draw, with new releases by writers like Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Serious art buyers can pick up work by nationally recognized talents like Marta Sanchez.

For crafts buyers, there are Puerto Rican vejigante masks in every price range, starting at $35 for a dainty horned creature and going up to $600 for a McMansion-scale piece. The well-chosen Latino crafts selection also includes painted wooden Mexican nichos (festive mini-altars to hang on the wall, $25 to $65) and homespun Puerto Rican jibaro dolls ($25) that pay homage to field hands.

Nostalgic islanders can stock up at the store's Puerto Rican souvenir case, filled with flags, key chains, El Coqui memorabilia, and an assortment of other items more typically associated with the San Juan airport gift shop.

Holiday shoppers will find a good selection of Latino Christmas cards, including the tropical Pava Prints line ($7.50 to $15 for a box of 10 cards) and several designs by local children who participate in Taller's young-artist program ($6.50 for six cards). The one thing Taller doesn't sell is stamps, the assumption being you can track those down on your own.

Julia de Burgos Books & Crafts Store at Taller Puertorriqueno, 2721 N. 5th St., 215-426-3311. Open from 2 p.m.-6 p.m. on Tuesdays, and from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on Wednesday through Saturday, with a one-hour break from 1 p.m.-2 p.m. for lunch. The store will also be open during evening holiday celebrations this Thursday and Friday and Saturday.

One greasy spoon, hold the grease Think of the Puerto Rican restaurant El Bohio as the Famous Fourth Street Deli of North 5th Street. It's the place where Philadelphia's Latino powerbrokers, like state representative Angel Cruz, rub elbows with their powerbase over steaming bowls of homemade chicken soup - in this case full of fat noodles, called fideo, instead of matzoh balls.

Owner Rosa Reyes opened El Bohio 30 years ago, after cooking at the Latin Casino during the Rat Pack era. His neighborhood restaurant is homey and inexpensive, but still the kind of place Sinatra would call a classy joint: the tables, the floors - even the white walls - are spotless. The kitchen refreshes its coffee pots constantly. Reyes steam-cleans his sidewalk every day.

Newcomers to Puerto Rican cooking might try any of the roasted meats on the menu, with El Bohio's famed rice and beans and a couple tostones (crispy, fried plantain patties) on the side. Roast chicken and roast pork are both popular. A platter costs about $9. More adventurous eaters might like the stuffed potato balls or stuffed plantain, both filled with savory ground beef.

For dessert, El Bohio's custards, like flan and rice pudding, are justifiably famous. The restaurant's milky, high-octane cafe con leche, at $1 a cup, may be the best coffee bargain in town.

El Bohio, 2746 N. 5th St., 215-425-5991. Open Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 7 a.m.-2 a.m., and Sunday from 7 a.m.-11 p.m.

!Yo, sweet tooth! Your handy Daily News Spanish-to-English Snack Dictionary

Coquitos - coconut macaroons, also atDelicia's Bakery, 2861 N. 5th St.

Frituras - meat-filled pastries to eat on the go, sold at Diaz Meat Market, 2837 N. 5th St.

Mantecados - fat sugar cookies, sold at Delicia's.

Pastelillos - puff pastries with guava jelly filling, alsoDelicia's.

Tembleque - coconut custard, sold at El Bohio, 2746 N. 5th St.

Tornillos - like Italian cannoli, but fatter, at Delicia's.

Uva - grape, as in Old Colony Uva Grape Soda, sold cold at Diaz Meat Market.

You've seen the mural, now patronize the artist The east-west cross streets on the 5th Street commercial corridor are newly vibrant with murals commissioned by the Mural Arts Project and the Hace Main Street Program, including "Las Piraguas" at 5th and Lehigh, a tribute to Puerto Rican water ice vendors by local artist Danny Torres. Torres and fellow muralist Jose Ali Paz will sell some of their smaller paintings at the "Arte in the Hood" holiday arts and crafts market at 2708 N. 5th St. this Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Another prominent muralist, Cesar Viveros, will exhibit at the nearby "Impacto Latino" newspaper office, at 2732 N. 5th St., as part of the neighborhood's monthly Second Friday Art Night in the Barrio.

Botanica manners: a primer Outside the barrio (Spanish for neighborhood), you don't run across many "botanicas" - the name for a store that sells ritual items, like candles and statuary, to practitioners of the Afro-Caribbean religion Santeria. On North 5th Street, there are two botanicas within a block of each other: Las Botanicas, at 2805 N. 5th St., and La Botanica Variety Store, at 2726 N. 5th St.

Of the two, La Botanica Variety Store is more tolerant of curious nonbelievers, according to Juan Gutierrez, business district manager for neighborhood's Hace Main Street Program. The bright, airy market is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. A helpful guide sheet taped to the counter reminds buyers which candles to burn and which biblical Psalms to recite to accompany specific prayers - a blue candle and Psalm 80, for example, to invoke peace at home.

While some of Santeria's ritual items look playful - like the "Run Devil Run" seven-day candles, and the "Money House Blessing" aerosol spray - Gutierrez says they are used reverently by worshippers. In a botanica, you don't need to whisper like you're in church. You do need to show respect.

Owner Ramona Hernandez also notes that secular shoppers can't expect miracles from their purchases. "If you don't believe, they aren't going to work," she said.

This weekend on 5th Street: Thursday, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The Julia de Burgos Books & Crafts Store, at 2721 N. 5th St., screens Banco Popular's annual Christmas video, with parrandas (caroling) to follow. Free.

Friday, 4 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. "Arte in the Hood" holiday market at Hace Commercial Center, 2708 N. 5th St., with items for sale by dozens of local artists and craftspeople.

Friday, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.,Taller Puertorriqueno's Lorenzo Homar Gallery opens a major exhibit of pre-Columbian artifacts from Puerto Rico's native Taino culture. Free.

Friday, 6 p.m., The Mexican dance troupe Ollin Yoliztli Calmecac performs at Julia de Burgos Middle School, 401 W. Lehigh Ave.

Friday, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monthly Art Night in the Barrio, with visual artists displaying at several locations, including theWatts Aerobic Studios at 2712 N. 5th St., the Impacto Latino newspaper offices at 2732 N. 5th St., and Raices Culturales Latinoamericanas, at 2757 N. 5th St.

Friday, 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Christmas party at Taller Puertorriqueno Education Building, 2557 N. 5th St., with food and parrandas. Admission: $5.

Saturday, noon to 6 p.m., "Arte in the Hood" holiday arts and crafts market, Hace Commercial Center, 2708 N. 5th St.

Saturday, 3 p.m.. Author Marta Moreno Vega reads from her work at Taller Puertorriqueno, 2721 N. 5th St.

Saturday, 5 p.m. Parrandas (caroling) through the neighborhood, with snacks along the way atEl Bohio and merry-making atCentro Musical, among other stops.

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