Ten years in the life of a restaurant is one of the best ways to mark the evolution of a city. But few places illuminate so many changing aspects of our dining world as Lolita, where the spinning "trompo" spit stacked high with a cone of chile-spiced pork is only one of many fresh new details that intrigue me about its renovation.
Just think: When this 50-seat Nuevo Mexicano bistro first opened in 2004 with its pretty salmon tostaditas and virgin margarita mixers, the city's stylish new BYOB revolution was just coming into full bloom. Developer Tony Goldman's vision was in its infancy for 13th Street, which was still a seedy red-light district. Philly's Mexican immigrant community was only just starting to take root and give us a taste of true taqueria cooking. And few (save for early fans of Audrey Claire) knew of chef Marcie Turney, let alone her partner and front-of-the-house ace, Valerie Safran.
A decade later, they are ValeMar - the undisputed taste queens of the neighborhood many call Midtown Village, with a half-dozen diverse restaurants and businesses on 13th Street and another to serve classic American food (Bud & Marilyn's) on tap for the southeast corner at Locust Street by the end of this year.
Lolita was the first of their two BYOs together (remember Bindi?). It was also their last, the recent acquisition of its liquor license turning yet another pioneer's page on a waning trend that helped so many successful young restaurateurs - and emerging neighborhoods - get their start. But the corner of 13th and Sansom has become the kind of nightlife destination where one needs liquor sales to thrive. ValeMar has matured as a restaurant duo, too. So it was time for a fresh look for a well-used space that's been spilling crowds onto the sidewalk since Day 1.
If only they'd considered some soundproofing with the revamp - the narrow space is as earsplitting as ever. But the new look is handsome, energetic, and moody. The open kitchen, which once cut straight across the rear, has been run along the north wall beside the new 16-seat concrete bar, allowing the alley-shaped room to flow, with votive lights flickering against dark brick walls and black-and-white chevrons made from reclaimed wood.
The bar on its own hasn't necessarily improved the Lolita experience. There are better tequila selections (just across the street at El Vez), and the margarita craftsmanship is spotty - a pith-bitter "clásica" and watery watermelon-rita one night, two excellent variations with blood orange and cucumber-jalapeño the next. I also loved the tamarind bourbon sour.
But the change in format (and cash flow) has allowed Lolita to actually lower its average dish prices and focus on the kind of multi-plate sharing that has finally become the norm in 2014. And while Turney still makes no claims of authenticity - her food is inspired by, rather than dictated by, traditions - her menu has evolved. There are a few more threads of genuine Mexican flavors that run through the menu of Lolita 2.0, especially with the fresh masa rounds that come off the hand-cranked tortilla press.
I do not necessarily prefer this Lolita to many of the affordable taquerias that have sprouted like epazote along Ninth Street south of Washington Avenue. What Lolita does is simply different, built on good ingredients and modern style, with a fresh touch and updated aesthetic for a mainstream audience. And when this kitchen is on, I see the appeal.
The duck-fat tamale is an instant classic, a husk-wrapped bundle of steamy masa fluff topped with shredded smoked duck leg meat and a mahogany mole rich with ancho peppers and peanuts. The Mexico City-style quesadilla folds a crisp tortilla made from heirloom blue corn over zucchini flowers, melty Oaxaca cheese, and inky bursts of earthy huitlacoche. Lolita's smoked beef tostada is one of the city's most vivid and original takes on the current tartare trend: The applewood-smoked cubes of still-raw beef come dusted with pequin spice over a roasted jalapeño crema sparked with capers, cornichons, and crunchy fried red onions.
Some dishes would benefit from more simplicity - the "tradicional" guacamole, for example, mucked up with shredded jicama and various root-vegetable chips too brittle for scooping duty. There also are a few items where the ethnic flavors are so blurred - like the succulent grilled head-on shrimp, the cuminy lamb tacos with goat yogurt, or the tender grilled octopus - that they'd be equally at home at Turney's Spanish Jamonera or Italian-ish Barbuzzo nearby.
Often enough, they are so good it doesn't matter. Just a few Mexican cues are enough to make a dish feel right here, from the poblano peppers that warm a pistachio puree beneath the refreshing watermelon-beet salad, to the serrano chiles and oozy Oaxaca cheese that spark the crispy ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms over multicolored salsas of poblano, tomato, and tomatillo. The chicharrones (also known as "pig popcorn" next door at Barbuzzo) are convincing enough with a little smoke and a spicy habanero dip to devour with a noisy crunch.
The tacos, in general, are fun and tasty, beginning with the daily inspiration from the "trompo" spit, my favorite being the tender pork marinated in a smoky morita-spiced salsa negra topped with diced pineapples. Several tacos could be improved. The gluten-free plantain-blue corn flour crust for the fish tacos overshadowed the flavor of the red snapper. The tart red cabbage slaw was all I could taste with the fried chicken tacos. The chicken flauta tubes were underfried and doughy in their rolled inner layers.
But there were more than enough successes to compensate. Crisp malanga rounds came topped with raw tuna and chipotle-spiced mayo for an easy sushi-Mex fusion. The Baja-style tostada with lime-brightened scallops, snapper, and tuna was like eating seafood cocktail atop a crunchy tortilla flat. Turney's explorations of some traditionally heartier dishes also paid off. I loved her memelitas, the crispy Oaxacan version of sope masa cakes stuffed with cheese, then placed over yellow tomato salsa beneath plancha-crisped pork belly. Her beefy rendition of barbacoa, bone-in short ribs roasted for hours with cuminy chiles in banana leaves, was soulful and complex.
Those who have followed the ladies of Lolita since the beginning know there's one course they always get right: dessert.
And Lolita 2.0 delivers, from a rich cheesecake with salted pecans drizzled in rivers of goat's milk caramel to a silky avocado-lime ice cream. My favorite? A rum-soaked coconut tres leches topped with toasted meringue and a chile-cinnamon-singed scoop of Mexi-chocolate pudding. It's also one of the very few menu items here that isn't gluten-free - a hot selling point now that, a decade ago, wouldn't have caught much notice.
But culture changes fast in restaurants. And Lolita has managed to both evolve and stay relevant enough in the most important way: good flavors.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Treemont.