Wednesday, January 16, 2013

El Vez Review

This is for a series of posts for Stephen Starr restaurants including:
Alma de Cuba, Barclay Prime, Butcher and Singer, Continental Midtown & Martini Bar, The Dandelion, El Rey, El Vez, Jones, Parc, Pizzeria Stella, Route 6 [1], Route 6 [2], & Square Burger.

Stephen Starr is the premier restauranteur when you think of Philadelphia dining. The number of his establishments is staggering, ranging from Asian Fusion (Buddakan) to British gastropub (Dandelion). Somewhat reminiscent of Union Square Hospitality Group's Danny Meyer in NYC, I find Starr restaurants to be more themed and have, at times, a more relaxed (read: less stuffy) atmosphere.

They're always well-designed, the service is friendly despite clear evidence of in-house training, and the tables are packed! In fact, the GF and I love El Vez so much that at one point, we had a standing bi-weekly reservation at El Vez on Fridays for a few months. Be warned, finding an open table on ... yes ... Open Table is near impossible on Friday and Saturday nights. As of writing this review, the next available reservation was about three weeks away!

But don't let that deter you from checking out this contemporary Mexican restaurant. I mean, check out the motorcycle circling on top of the bar! The vibe is cool, chic, but low key. The atmosphere is bustling and you may need to occasionally strain to hear your friends, but the food and drinks are worth it.

Guavo Mojito ($9)
Bacardi, cruzan guava rum, pink guava puree, lime, and mint

Consider starting off with a mojito. El Vez's twist on the classic is redolent with fresh and slightly grainy guava. This is a cloudy and sweet concoction, with a refreshing kick of rum on the finish.

 Pineapple Canela Margarita ($9 glass / $36 pitcher) 
Sauza blue, triple sec, fresh lime juice, pineapple puree, cinnamon, and spices

But there's nothing wrong with going with the margaritas. The cinnamon rim adds an added element of deep spice, providing a nice undertone to the already smooth and sweet flavors of the pineapple and the 100% agave tequila. The GF and I have tried all the margaritas - but her personal recommendation? The only frozen margarita El Vez offers, which is the blood orange. It's devilishly sweet and refreshing.

But be prepared - once you have one, you'll find that the bill will eventually hit the three digit mark (read: pitchers will, and should, be ordered). Considering El Vez offers reasonable prices for most of their food, I'm sure the pitchers of marg's are where they make most of their cojita (cheesy double pun, I know!).

"Bazooka" Limon ($15.50)
Goat cheese, chile flake, pistachio, roasted tomato

If you're going to get one guac (which I highly recommend you do!), do get the bazooka limon. Be prepared - we're talking about one garlicky blend of creamy avocados, topped with goat cheese with its typical tang, roasted tomatoes that have a nice chew, and pistachios that are crunchy and earthy. This is our favorite guac and it's ordered every time!

Oh and pro tip - if you order guac, you'll get a healthy dose of never-ending tortilla chips and spicy salsa. These chips are made in house and arrive piping hot and crispy.

Macho Nachos ($12.50) 
Shredded steak, black beans, smoked chile salsa, crema fresca, white cheddar, monterey jack

And if you're not a fan of avocado, feel free to order some nachos to whet your appetite. My recommendation? The gargantuan Macho Nachos. The photo belies the size of the plate. It will take up a good chunk of your table. Filled with shredded steak, meaty black beans, chile salsa, it's melded with a blend of tangy white cheddar and monterey jack cheese. This is all topped with some ciltantro, tomatoes, and a white crema. Deliciously filling - you may not need to order entrees after this behemoth. 

But who am I kidding? Onward!

Taco Tasting Platter ($24)
Sea bass, beef, chicken, pibil pork, mahi

You know that feeling. When you can't decide what you want to order. Make the easy (and correct!) choice to go with the taco tasting platter! Going clockwise from the top right and ending in the middle, you'll get the beef, sea bass, chipotle chicken, mahi mahi, and pibil pork tacos. The only taco that El Vez offers that isn't in the platter? The grilled shrimp tacos. But that's ok - this is more than enough!

The beef taco is medium-rare skirt, on top of a layer of creamy refried beans, salsa, avocado crema, and fried onions. Delicious! The GF is more a fan of the sea bass toacos which are perfectly cooked, with a nice char on top. It's atop a creamy sweet potato puree with some grilled scallions and a nice fried jalapeno on top! The chipotle chicken is refreshing, topped with shredding iceberg lettuce, radish, avocados, and a white crema fresca. The mahi mahi tacos are my personal favorite of the quintet though.

In fact - take a look at the innards - filled with meaty, yet flaky white fish surrounded by a nice crispy exterior, this is filling. The pickled red cabbage and chipotle pepper remoulade add a respective vinegary tang and peppery kick to the dish. The creamy avocado is a nice balance in textures as well. And to round out the platter, we have the pibil pork tacos - slow roasted to perfection with a smoky jalapeno vinaigrette which adds a nice kick, while the avocado salsa provides a nice cooling balance to the taco.

El Vez Enchiladas Mixtas ($18.50)

However, if you're more of an enchilada fan - you can't go wrong with the enchilada tasting which presents all three of El Vez's offerings. From left to right, you have the black bean enchiladas, which is the GF's personal favorite - filled with caramelized onions, creamy black beans, chihuaha cheese, and smoked yellow tomatoes. The shrimp enchiladas are filled with sweet corn and topped with oaxacan cheese, roasted peppers, and an almond sauce - this one is typically too salty for my tastes, but the shrimp themselves have a nice snap to them. Finally, we end with the red chile and chicken enchiladas which have juicy chunks of chicken topped with a white crema fresca, radish, and cotija cheese.

Mexican Fried Chicken ($21.50)

I typically don't deviate from the previous dishes, but occasionally I will branch out. Case in point - this Mexican fried chicken. The chicken is dredged in red chili honey which showcases the nice duality of spicy and sweet. The majority of the moist chicken is boneless, making for easy knife and fork eating. The accompanying aji amarillo mashed potatoes showcases a hot yellow chile pepper sauce, which adds depth and spice to cut through the perfectly creamy and buttery potatoes. The blue cornbread is topped with a slab of superfluous butter as the cornbread itself is beautifully moist. I was a bit wary of this as I've previously had blue masa cornbread that was as dense as a hockey puck. El Vez has changed my perspective on blue cornbread, to be sure. The pickled mexican vegetables are fresh, but not as pickled as I normally like. But the chorizo gravy has  nice depth and spices which bring a kick to the overall dish - just in case you need to wake up from the coma-inducing deluge of Mexican cuisine and margaritas.

Overall, El Vez is easily the GF and my favorite location for delicious contemporary Mexican cuisine. Service is always spot on and the drinks and food are always on point. Say what you will about the Stephen Starr empire, they know how to make their diners satiated and salivating for more.

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