When the economy came crashing down in 2009, it brought Kim and Edgar Alvarez's crab cakes with them - at least for a moment.
Those cakes were among the signature items at the couple's former prepared foods store, the Delaware Market House in Gladwyne. But once the recession prompted enough Main Liners to start cooking more for themselves, the Alvarez' business, which thrived on small pleasures like fresh chicken salad and sirloin broil, suddenly went "completely off the deep end," says Kim.
It was a sorry moment for Gladwyne take-out addicts, perhaps, but has turned into a boon for Mount Airy, where the resilient Alvarezes have resurfaced with Avenida, a Latin-inspired neighborhood restaurant well-cast for a neighborhood that can use all the good flavors it can muster.
Germantown Avenue has never quite lived up to its potential as a dining destination - and neither, for that matter, has the Cresheim Cottage, the charming stone colonial (circa 1748) that Avenida now occupies. But then again, this stretch of the avenue in Mount Airy has recently cobbled together a respectable string of go-to eateries, from such standbys as the pubby McMenamins and the BYO classic Umbria to the artisan beer and pizzas at Earth Bread + Brewery and the solid bistro fare of the Wine Thief. Could Avenida finally break the Cresheim's culinary curse? Just when its long tradition of bad food was steadily improving under the previous owners, a protracted road construction project along Germantown Avenue more or less did them in.
Based on two lovely recent meals in the Cottage's vibrant new incarnation, during which the now colorful dining rooms and leafy back patio bustled with crowds sipping tropical cocktails and nibbling fragrant moles and pork pibil, I'd say Avenida is on the right track. With entrées ranging reasonably from $15 to $20, this husband-and-wife chef team has clearly learned its recession lesson on affordability.
More important, the opportunity to have their own restaurant (with partner Wayne Zukin) has motivated Edgar, who's been on the line in kitchens as diverse as Striped Bass, the Black Sheep, and Beaujolais (the bistro run long ago by Kim), to finally draw inspiration from his native Guatemala.
The flavors are similar to those of neighboring Mexico, albeit with subtle twists, like fresh oregano in the lime-tinged guacamole. But don't expect anything overly rustic here, or for that matter, any polished Nuevo Latino fusions along the lines of Distrito or El Vez. Alvarez simply does a nice job of presenting straightforward modern dishes built on good ingredients with a pleasant Latin flair.
Crema-striped black bean soup, pureed for half an hour until it has the texture of black silk, exudes the exotic warmth of toasty cumin, clove, and smoky chipotle chiles. Fresh snapper ceviche has just the right texture - firm, but not rubbery - and the tart spice of its lime-serrano cure has the boozy splash of tequila and aged Guatemalan rum.
The cornmeal-crusted calamari could be a shade more tender, but they come with a spicy garnish I found impossible to resist, flash-fried jalapeños and vivid green tomatillo sauce. Likewise, the queso fundido, a crock of black beans, chorizo, and poblanos gratinéed with Chihuahua cheese, was irresistible with a warm side of cloth-wrapped tortillas.
There were occasional moments when the Latin accents were too timid. The lime-splashed Latin wedge, for example, was just a bit boring. I would also have liked a bit more ancho chile punch rubbed into the seared duck breast - though what it really needed was less cooking: our requested "medium" arrived shriveled and gray. Go with "medium-rare" next time.
For the most part, though, the Alvarezes' kitchen satisfied with steady execution, including house-made desserts crafted by Kim, like the crisply fried churros with chocolate-canela sauce, or the parfait of chocolate and horchata mousse, or the lovely upside-down peach cake with caramel that we all fought over.
The service was friendly and well-informed - except when delivering the plates, when food-runners seemed perpetually confused. And while Avenida has the right idea with its bar (tropical cocktails, good rum and tequila, affordable South American and Spanish wines), it could do so much more with its list as the restaurant grows.
For the moment, it is Edgar's savory fare that is really the reason to visit. The long arms of grilled octopus had a tenderness that showed the virtues of a slow simmer in Tecate beer and Coca-Cola. I would have preferred if the ribs had been smoked rather than braised, but I loved their earthy red mole sauce so much, I didn't mind the fall-apart meat texture.
The moles are mild but also subtly complex, and they're among this kitchen's best efforts - the closest Avenida gets to genuine Guatemalan home cooking. That red mole, brewed from a trio of peppers, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and Ibarra chocolate, is especially good when slathered onto chicken Michote and wrapped in a plantain leaf for slow steaming. A green mole is crafted for the tender pulled shreds of the braised pork pibil, the bright acidity of tomatillos balanced by herbaceous cilantro and the richness of milled sesame and pumpkin seeds.
Alvarez is understandably cautious in pushing authenticity too far for this mainstream crowd, even with something as simple as steak. He used to cut his sirloin Central American-style - along the grain, rather than against it - a method that trades tenderness for flavor and consistency. I came to appreciate that bargain as I chewed my way through a savory-but-resilient sirloin streaked with tangy chimichurri. But clearly, others didn't. A few weeks later, Avenida was serving a New York strip cut handsomely like an American steak.
Given the Striped Bass pedigrees of both Edgar and Kim, the seafood dishes here were, not surprisingly, very good. A moist fillet of seared red snapper came striped with a zippy tomatillo salsa, bright with lime and tingling with serranos. The biggest curiosity, though, were the ribs of the Brazilian pacu fish - an enormous 60-pound cousin to the piranha, which arrived on my plate as crisply seared strips of skin and mild but memorably savory meat, curving on long bones beside coconut rice and tamarind-ginger sauce.
For less-adventurous eaters, meanwhile, there are always the Alvarezes' crab cakes, two pan-sauteed pucks of sweet and lumpy meat that seemed to harmonize perfectly with their garnish of fresh corn salsa and a roasted garlic tomato sauce. At home again with their new Latin twist, and a lovely new address, these crab cakes and Avenida, I think, should have some staying power.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews El Rey near Rittenhouse Square.
Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.