The urban pioneer is a reclusive yet reliably hungry sort. Once the soil of his edgy neighborhood is ably tilled for rebirth, he will then forge even farther, seeking new frontiers for burritos and craft beer, in order to avoid the crowds that inevitably follow in his extremely cool wake.
All points head north when it comes to finally fashionable Fishtown. Or at least the five-point intersection of East Norris, Susquehanna, and Cedar, where, according to Joe Beckham, anyone who gets lost in northern Fishtown's intricate web of rowhome streets eventually lands.
It makes perfect sense then for Beckham, owner of the Rittenhouse nightlife spot called Alfa, to park his new Mexican gastropub, Loco Pez, right on a corner of that convenient crossroads. Poised at Fishtown's northern border in one of the neighborhood's formerly infamous old-school nuisance bars (called Crazy Fish), the loosely translated Loco Pez is now a depot of kitschy cool '70s decor. With framed shag needlepoints, faux-paneling walls, and a wallpaper collage of Mexican comics, and plenty of 20th-century hits on the jukebox, this is the affordable taco haven where the recently arrived young locals can burrow deep into Fishtown profonde, far from the increasingly touristic hubbub bustling along Girard Avenue.
It's where my pals Robert and Alison know three-quarters of the crowd on a given night (not to mention all the bartenders). And nearly middle-age hipsters in stubbly sideburns, flannel, and knit caps, like the dude behind me, feel free to belt out "Where Eagles Dare" along with the Misfits on the soundtrack while sipping their sangrita-spiked michelada beers. No one is offended by the salty directive spelled out in a vintage pegboard sign over the bar's fish tank reminding that quesadillas don't come for credit: "CASH ONLY BITCHES."
The "gastro" label, of course, is used loosely when it comes to Loco Pez, as there are better, more authentic taquerias in the general vicinity (such as Que Chula Es Puebla or El Taco Riendo), and more refined nuevo places across the city too, such as Xochitl, Distrito, and El Rey. But this deceptively small menu of mix-and-match border plates (tacos, burritos, etc.) is clearly a fun riff - at $10 or less - for a knowing audience on a more Americanized theme, inspired by the taco trucks of L.A. with a gringo wink, but revamped with good ingredients and chef Joe Hunt's house-cooked recipes.
I never thought I'd savor the hard-shelled Old El Paso taco dinner of my youth again until I ran into Hunt's "Gabacho." That's pejorative slang for a Mexican who acts like a gringo, and is the perfect name for this house-fried taco shell whose crispy channel is stuffed with Pat LaFrieda's trendy Creekstone ground beef, seasoned up with cuminy onion-powder-paprika magic, then topped with a classic lettuce shred and pico de gallo. I might be addicted. I could grow to love Loco's bacon-wrapped and salsa-topped "street dog," too, if only the flimsy hot dog bun didn't dissolve beneath a flow of creamy pintos and pickled jalapeños.
The nachos, too, layered with good frijoles and a spot-on blend of molten Oaxaca, jack, and cheddar, are a worthy retro indulgence, especially when upgraded "de Kenzo" style. Heaped high with an assortment of Hunt's protein add-ons - the garlic-infused carne asada; cuminy chorizo; and tender shreds of chicken thigh pulled from their cinnamon-chipotle-tamarind soda braise - it may be the meaty Machu Picchu of Fishtown nachos.
Of course, if you're really in the know, you'll order them "K&A-style" from the secret off-the-menu menu, substituting waffle fries for chips in the ultimate hipster nacho nod to Kensington and Allegheny. It's a brilliant twist to the genre, actually, as the fries' waffle holes allow trickles of creamy beans and salsa to flow between the intricate matrix of crispy layers.
That secret menu is an homage to In-N-Out, the legendary West Coast burger chain (where known variations with names such as "animal style" are requested but not listed), and has some other intriguing options: "Northern Liberties" brings a combo of soy chorizo, wild mushrooms, avocado and seitan; the "Surf-n-Turf" is a classic duo of shrimp and carne asada. Having just feasted on a trio of In-N-Out burgers in Santa Rosa, I can say that Loco Pez's not-secret burger is, in fact, a pretty respectable nod to the chain, with a noticeably savory (and trendy New York) LaFrieda patty layered with Mexi-cheeses, pickles, and chipotle-tinged Thousand Island on a toasty sesame seed bun. If only our server hadn't promised it medium-rare (apparently the kitchen only cooks these quarter-pounders through), I would have thought it ideal.
It was one of the rare blips for a service staff that was, on the whole, extremely personable, outgoing, and surprisingly well-informed on everything from the spice blend on the rims of Loco's various excellent tequilas, to details of the intricate carnitas marinade.
There are more serious adjustments, though, for this kitchen to make. Problema Numero Uno is the seafood batter. Any Cali-taco joint worth its tortillas ought to nail its fish tacos (especially a place called Loco Pez). But the batter here, tanged yellow with mustard, was consistently flabby and doughy. Ditto for the thick, soggy sheath clinging to the shrimp. (It helps to know, belatedly, that unbreaded fish is another secret menu option for the tacos.)
Hunt's kitchen did far better with the meats, especially the carne asada - which is lightly grilled, but ends up more as a tenderly braised, brisketlike meat, and is fantastic inside a burrito with the spicy black beans Diablo. The al pastor pork was flavorful from its guajillo-pineapple marinade, but a little dry on my second visit - and will likely improve once Loco's proper gyro spit is installed. No such issues, though, with the carnitas pork, which was meltingly tender and infused with garlicky citrus and tequila. A side of green rice, turned emerald with puree of poblanos and cilantro, is ideal.
Perhaps the most intriguing combination I ate here, though, was the side-by-side tacos of one night's featured specials: tongue and seitan.
Seitan and tacos are becoming an obligatory Fishtown combination, as anyone who's gone for a post-yoga drink at one of the neighborhood's new gastropubs can tell you. (Interstate Draft House, the recent replacement for yet another infamous nuisance bar, Moe's, is grilled-seitan-tip nirvana.) But I've long struggled to properly describe the texture of that springy wheat gluten. Well, vegans, brace yourselves, because seitan and tongue (especially a well-stewed lengua steeped with epazote and dried chiles) are pretty much twins, their springy, savory, dark gray strips virtually identical beneath a hail of onion flecked with cilantro.
True, this association may not be the endorsement these alt-proteins needed to finally achieve mass popularity. But with a bracing blood orange Coupe de Ville margarita to wash them down, deep in the belly of Fishtown, the urban pioneers are happy to keep it that way, staying ahead of the crowds one cool taco at a time.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @CraigLaBan on Twitter.