As the tortilla chips crumble, Chestnut Hill has mostly missed out on the Mexican revolution that has brought an influx of more authentic flavors to so many corners of Philadelphia over the last decade. Avenida, which offered hints of that, recently closed. So, can the new El Poquito be the enchilada answer to Chestnut Hillers' margarita dreams?
It depends on what you're looking for in a Mexican restaurant. If you're an adventurous type craving the rustic power of handmade mole tamales, earthy barbacoa, and pancita tacos found in many of South Philly's low-frills taquerias, El Poquito is not for you.
If you're hoping for something with a little more mainstream gloss - but not as phony as, say, a suburban Don Pablo's - El Poquito delivers a solid, simplified translation of the nueva cantina style popularized by Jose Garces at Stephen Starr's El Vez and, later, his own Distrito.
From the earthy tortilla soup to several fresh ceviches and short-rib-stuffed enchiladas glazed in an intriguing black mole, there are enough recognizable threads here that the Garces connection is legit - albeit with a Chestnut Hill-tempered twist.
Co-owner George Atterbury and chef Andrew Sabin had key roles in the Garces empire. Atterbury was director of operations for Garces' restaurants at Revel (including a taco-focused version of Distrito), and later the entire restaurant group. Sabin cooked with the Iron Chef for nine years, worked on Garces' cookbook (The Latin Road Home), and helped open Distrito with Tim Spinner, who went on to open his own successful trio of modern Mexican restaurants.
El Poquito does not dare take as many risks as Spinner's La Calaca Feliz (still my favorite nuevo Mexicano), or even his more casual Taqueria Feliz in Manayunk (home of the grasshopper taco).
Most everything about this noisy four-month-old cantina, from the rustic-chic decor with an exposed wood barrel ceiling and dangling Edison lights to the somewhat muted spice levels in the cooking, has been tuned to Germantown Avenue's more conservative tastes.
But that does not mean El Poquito lacks genuine qualities that serve its local audience well. The menu is simple and affordable, with entrées topping out at $15 (the priciest sharing platters are $32). But almost everything is made from scratch to order. That includes the tortillas, though these fresh masa rounds were often too thick and brittle to delicately wrap the overstuffed tacos.
The kitchen's execution is a little inconsistent - especially with seasonings that generally erred on the bland side. But when El Poquito is on, and that was more often than not, we found the meal satisfying enough to be a plus for a neighborhood in need of more diverse dining options - not to mention a list of good tequilas.
The guacamole is mashed fresh throughout the night, and, as a result, avoids the frigid chill that dims prefab dips at lesser places. The best rendition, on our second visit, was zingy with chiles and lime. The big tray of nachos, a little dull in meal one, also picked up the spice volume on a second visit, with colorful confetti of red and green chile rings doing their best to give a little Baja spice swagger to the gringo molten jack and cheddar.
The salsas aren't shy: the roasty salsa roja was assertive with dried chiles de arbol spice; the cilantro-brightened pico de gallo was juicy and fresh. A creamy smoked onion salsa - a left-field twist on ranch dip - required a couple of dunks to recalibrate my taste buds. But they quickly came to appreciate the onions' deep smoke and buttermilk's twang.
The ceviches feature simple preparations that highlight good seafood - tenderly poached shrimp chilled in a tomatoey sauce sparked with Valentina spice and the surprise crunch of crushed corn nuts; a sweet dice of ruby raw tuna in a citrusy, sweet soy marinade that could have used just a flicker more heat.
The calabaza squash soup was also too sweet for my tastes at the first meal, but was perfectly balanced on a revisit, crunchy with spiced pepitas. The tortilla soup was fairly classic, mild-mannered but earthy with a background of charred peppers and old tortillas buzzed into the masa-scented broth. The enchiladas were spot-on favorites, including the tender short-rib rolled up beneath a mole that balanced the canella, nuts, fruits, and dried chile spice with just enough sweetness; and a "verde" bright with tomatillo satisfyingly stuffed with black beans, poblanos, and cheese.
El Poquito's tacos, frustratingly, are not yet a strength. The brittle tortillas are an issue. But so is consistency of the fillings - our carnitas were flavorful and moist one night, plancha-seared hard and chewy another. The tortilla-fried fish tacos featured a nice chunk of flaky cod, but the overall taco was dry.
We had more satisfying results with the house-made chorizo, mixed with smoked peppers and beer. I loved also the sharing platter skirt steak "al carbon," a fan of guajillo-marinated beef served with real frijoles (that is, with lard) and charred scallions. The crispy quinoa tacos were also more than consolation for the veggie crowd. The cuminy black-bean-and-grain patties offered a satisfying falafel-like taco fusion that was among the menu's best bets.
El Poquito goes out of its way to welcome young families, though the purple crayon sunk at the bottom of our water carafe was a little too kid-friendly for me. (Management, understandably mortified, promptly gave us a replacement.)
El Poquito has more than enough good tequilas (Siembra Azul, Chinaco, Kah, Herradura) to wash any soupçon of Crayola from my palate, plus a palate-buzzing shot of house-made sangrita. The straight margarita was not impressively made - lacking enough sour from fresh squeezed lime, too much bitterness from pith in the mix.
So I went for the kitschy "beergarita" instead, a cactus-stemmed grande goblet of frozen key lime margarita crowned with an upturned pony bottle of Dos Equis that fed the tequila slush like a brisk lager spring. I know, I know. A resort drink like that is a gringo gimmick if there ever was one. But it was so slurpable I predict El Poquito's newly opened patio will become Beergarita-ville soon enough.
And the food, though certainly not as compelling as many of my other Mexican favorites, will be far better than it needs to be.
VERY GOOD (2 BELLS OUT OF 4)
8201 Germantown Ave., 267-766-5372; elpoquito.com
If there's a feeling of Distrito-lite at this lively new Mexican cantina in Chestnut Hill, it's because owner George Atterbury and chef Andrew Sabin are both key Garces Group alums. The menu is simple and familiar, with appealingly straightforward tacos, enchiladas, and ceviches that can sometimes feel a bit too tame for gringo taste buds. But there are enough fresh, honestly hand-crafted flavors to accompany the excellent tequila list, friendly (if not always sharp) service, and a stylish reclaimed-chic rehab of the rambling old Chestnut 7 space and its big outdoor patio to become a worthy neighborhood asset to Germantown Avenue's restaurant row.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Guacamole; nachos; ceviches (shrimp and tuna); sopa de tortilla; tacos de quinoa; tacos de chorizo; skirt steak tacos al carbon (for sharing); short-rib enchiladas; enchiladas verdes; platanos; refritos; fruitas con crema; churros.
DRINKS A typical cantina setup focused on margaritas, tequilas, and beer. There are more than enough good tequilas (Chinaco, Casa Noble, Siembra Azul, Kah) and mezcals (multiple Del Magueys, Illegal, Vago) to keep it interesting with a spicy fruit chaser of house sangrita, plus several good craft beers (Allagash, Sixpoint, Anderson Valley) to bolster the typical Mexican lagers. The margaritas, meanwhile, are made with fresh lime and Espolon tequila, but weren't well-balanced in the final mix. Try the key lime-spiked frozen version for a more familiar taste, or crown it beergarita-style with an upturned pony of Dos Equis (also available with a craft beer upgrade).
WEEKEND NOISE A barrel-shaped ceiling amps an already boisterous room to an incredibly noisy 96 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less).
IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (abbreviated menu, 3-5 p.m.)
Entrees, $9-$15 (Sharing entrees, $18-$32).
All major cards.
Small rear parking lot (accessed off Hartwell Street) has 14 spaces.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Gran Caffè l'Aquila.