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De Leon is making a name for herself and Mayan culture in Philly by opening up a second space in the Reading Terminal Market. Photo: 
De Leon is making a name for herself and Mayan culture in Philly by opening up a second space in the Reading Terminal Market. Photo: AL DÍA News.

How El Merkury came out of the pandemic to land at Reading Terminal Market

The popular Guatemalan eatery is out to dish more history with every bite in one of Philadelphia’s most iconic eateries.

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There’s something about Hispanic food that delivers a history lesson with every bite. 

From corn masa to the spiciest chiles, and the immensely satisfying taste of tamales, Hispanic culture is responsible for an abundance of delicious food.

Guatemalan food is no exception and Sofia De Leon, owner of El Merkury in Center City wants Philly locals to know that.

When she immigrated to the United States from Guatemala to attend college at Michigan State University, she thought she wanted to work behind the scenes in the food business.

“I worked with companies like Hormel and McCormick, I lived in San Diego, West Chester, and Miami, I moved from job to job and ended up in Westen PA”, Deleon explained to AL DÍA News in a recent interview.

She eventually stayed in Philadelphia as she started working for her Master’s Degree at St. Joseph’s University. 

“I realized I did not want to work behind the scenes anymore, I wanted to do something with food,” said Deleon.

Real motivation came at the beginning of 2016, when the Trump administration took control of the White House and many Americans began to find hate towards hard-working Hispanics.

“I wanted to change the mentality of what people think about immigrants. I wanted to prove to people how beautiful Hispanic culture is,” said Deleon.

With that thought, Deleon decided to focus on food as a history lesson for curious locals.

“I started doing pop-ups all over the city, then I did catering,” she said.

As soon as she got wind of a space opening up in Center City, she jumped on it.

“I decided I wanted to make it fast-casual for people who are on the go because there are a lot of offices on Market St. which means a lot of people are always on the go,” she said.

Deleon started creating dishes that reflected her Latin American heritage and has since become a success.

“It went so well in the beginning, we offered churros, and that was my mom’s idea,” said Deleon. “She was so excited about the churros being a success. Not a lot of people are familiar with churros and that is a big part of Latin America.”

The restaurant was booming and new faces were entering every day. 

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Deleon’s business pivoted.

“There was no more office crowd, no more lunch rush,” De Leon said.

As the number of COVID-19 cases continued to flourish throughout the city, she and other organizations decided to rely on each other during the uncertainty.

Deleon also believed that now was the time to give back to the community that gave her that opportunity of opening her Guatemalan restaurant. 

“We started bringing food to frontline workers, brought food to the suburbs, made meal kits. We did everything we could to basically stay alive. And here we are,” she said.

As the vaccine rollout now pumps into higher gear, all of her hard work might be paying off.

Deleon recently shared the exciting news with Philly by announcing that she will be opening up a second space for El Merkury in the historic Reading Terminal Market.

Her space will feature authentic, prepared foods that exhausted customers can take with them to feed their families.

“It has been in the works for a year and a half,” she said. “Initially, it was going to be a Guatemalan grocery store and then we changed it to a deli, and last year we were going to literally sign the lease until covid happened.”

For the most part, she is excited to be expanding her brand by adding a truly unique deli to the Reading Terminal Market.

“Horchata, tortillas, baleadas. People can experience our culture, which is something that I’ve been wanting to do since the beginning,” said Deleon.

Some people may not know what baleadas are, but that should not stop them from ordering the Honduran staple.

Baleadas were created in the northern part of the Central American country and is composed of a flour tortilla that has been put on a fire grill, filled with mashed fried red beans, thick creamy white cheese, then closed like a taco.

Another blessing that Deleon has given Philly is a love for churros. 

“It was my mom’s idea,” she said.

Her space at Reading Terminal will be devoted to churros as well.

“They can bring a quart of salsa, refried beans, and chicken, like a deli. It’s all prepared here but they can take it home to feed their children,” she said.

Ahead of the new opening, many locals are looking forward to De Leon’s churros, which are full of crunch on the outside, but light and fluffy on the inside.

“We are so glad that people love our churros,” she said.

One is called, the Mayan chocolate churro, made to order over vanilla soft serve, dark chocolate sauce, chocolate chunks, cocoa powder.

Or if you are feeling adventurous, try the Doblada, a Guatemalan version of an empanada — corn flour pocket with your choice of savory filling. Served with salsa, pickled onions, slaw, and cotija cheese.

Check out the rest of Deleon’s menu, where you can pick up your order, or use GrubHub as a delivery service.

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