The modern olive oil industry has been plagued by fakers with adulterated products. Criminals, basically. There is, however, an elaborate system to legally import and sell the genuine article. New to Philadelphia’s 9th Street Italian Market, Cardenas Oil & Vinegar Taproom plays strictly by the rules, not accepting any imports lacking proper documentation.
Cardenas is wedged between packed stores of cord-bundled cheese logs and sausages, butcheries, colorful fruit and vegetable carts, boisterous food vendors, small cafés, the smell of fresh seafood on luminous chunks of ice and awnings casting deep shadows onto a sidewalk stage of bustling commerce.
Irene Kuehn, Cardenas’ sales manager, twists the key to unlock and pulls down silver chains to lift open a metal security screen. The clanking sounds announce the store is open on a warm, sunny fall morning. She arrived a bit late due to a 2½ hour drive from North Jersey. “You can never tell how long it will take,” she says, so she usually stays in Philadelphia with her daughter, Laurissa Cardenas (“a marketing genius”) and son-in-law, Carlos, putting in a four-day work week.
Last summer, the Cardenas family and friends banded together to demolish a former check cashing store, carting out 7,000 pounds of concrete rubble from a hand-poured concrete bunker contained within. After three months, while working other full-time jobs, they opened their specialty olive oil store in August. Co-owner Carlos Cardenas is excited to be in the midst of what he sees as a renaissance in the Italian Market, citing a new French Chocolatier shop and Spanish tapas restaurant in the wings.
Inside now, the walls are lined with rows of gleaming, stainless steel cisterns (fusti) with spigots. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) flows here from Tunisia, Greece, Spain, Italy, Turkey, and the USA (California). The various pure, green-gold olive oils are alternately described as “grassy,” buttery,” and “peppery.” Flavor-infused olive oils such as blood orange, for example, are also on tap.
“It’s about healthy living, healthy eating, being conscious of taste–connecting with food,” explains Kuehn, offering chunks of bread for dipping in small tasting cups. Cardenas carries some 50 different varieties of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, all devoid of preservatives or any treatments you would consider unnatural. The known health benefits of consuming these products (regulation of blood pressure and sugar levels, antioxidants) are not incidental to the Cardenas business model. “We are committed to health and well being,” says Kuehn. She wants people to feel at home in their space, to play with and explore their products including tapenades, mustards, and mined salts. Slow down, taste mindfully. Kuehn does not rush people out the door.
Kuehn spent years in international business, walking away ten years ago to escape the stress. Yet she missed the contact with people from all over the world. “Artists, writers, chefs, all kinds of characters,” as Kuehn describes Cardenas’ clientèle, bring her back into contact with diversity.
Cardenas dark (and white) balsamic vinegars range widely from Pomegranate Dark, to Black Walnut, to Bittersweet Chocolate Orange. Though not reductions, these liquids pour in slow motion, like molasses in winter. Blanket pricing of all their bottled oils and vinegars at $17.95 each (for 12.7 oz) makes it easy from a business and customer standpoint. The streamlined store is as clean, bright, and simple as their business concept. Maybe the cool fluorescent lighting is a tad clinical for such an earthy enterprise. But it’s refreshing to hear Kuehn say, “we will never over-complicate the store.”
A visit to Cardenas Oil & Vinegar Taproom isn’t a pretentious exercise thanks to Kuehn’s friendly engagement with customers–her sincere interest in one-on-one conversation is an important part of the customer gaining an education. One can learn to distinguish the subtle tastes Cardenas has to offer and still emerge a regular person.
Do yourself a favor, though. You know that sparkling, clear plastic bottle of “Pure Wesson 100% Natural Vegetable Oil” you bought the other day at the supermarket? Save it for loosening up the ol’ bicycle chain or barn door hinges then head to Cardenas for a real culinary adventure.