There are two characters cagily circling the plates of spice and wonder at Distrito, West Philly's hot new taco and tequila palace. And I'm not talking about the Mexican wrestlers in sparkly masks who smack flesh in the lucha libre movies continuously projected over this loco pink-and-green dining room.
Jose Garces is grappling with the ghost of his first big success. These days, of course, he's become the Latin cruiserweight champ of Philly chefs, an Iron Chef-slayer extraordinaire, our Spanish tapas king. But the moment he began to cook Mexican flavors again this summer, sending plantain-crisped fish tacos, electric-green guacamole, and soulful tortilla soup into the dining room, I couldn't help but see Jose the Younger rising up, bobbing and weaving at the edges.
After all, it was through his Nuevo Mexican magic at El Vez nearly five years ago that Philadelphians first encountered Garces as a rookie head chef, still an unknown bantamweight hungry with ambition. He created there for owner Stephen Starr a menu that celebrated the vibrant possibilities of contemporary Mexican cuisine. His sophisticated riffs on traditional fare were among the most exciting modern ethnic cooking I'd ever tasted. But when he left El Vez to launch his stellar solo career, he confesses, "I left a piece of myself there."
Not only has Garces reconnected at Distrito with that early font of inspiration, he has also given it the grown-up gloss of a 35-year-old chef in his brilliant prime. And he now has a crack supporting team, including chef de cuisine Tim Spinner, to help him carry it off with layered refinement. Velvety-soft slices of sous-vide poached chicken now anchor the deeply earthy pasilla broth of tortilla soup. Gone is the "Chicago-style" distraction of tomatoes in Garces' early guacamoles, replaced with a new infatuation: fistfuls of lush Venezuelan crab, whose white flakes are sea-sweet against creamy avocado tuned up with limey cilantro and chile heat.
Garces has always used authenticity as the springboard for his innovations. But the steady focus on tapas at his Amada and Tinto has given him the discipline and aesthetic to convey an intricate world of flavor and texture on each gorgeous small plate. Each added blade of corn shoot or roasted pumpkin seed makes a subtle flavor imprint. Every micro-garnish or temperature contrast is a deliberate balance play.
This is especially true in the exquisite ceviches. Raw slices of hamachi, tanged with a hot habañero-orange reduction, come beneath a fine confetti of tropical fruits and icy scoops of spicy tomato sangrita sorbet. Amazingly tender ribbons of poached octopus fan out of a tumbler of green "espuma," the richness of avocado distilled to an ethereally light froth scattered with crunchy garlic chips.
This kitchen occasionally rang taste-bud registers I didn't know existed. The mushroom huarache flatbread is so earthy, its flavors start at ground level and then go down, the snap of roasted royal trumpets and griddled corn masa dough giving way to the heady perfume of creamy huitlacoche bechamel, an ebony schmear of pureed corn mushroom magnified by the subterranean luxury of shaved black truffle.
Those are deep thoughts to have in a room like this, a bilevel fun house painted in a preppy riot of pink and green, with a wall-sized grid of gold lamé luchador masks, and seating that ranges from lawn chairs to sombrero-shaped woven grass booths to a converted vintage VW Beetle. Movie marquees over the open kitchen, regular showings of Nacho Libre on the big screen, and a claw machine near the unisex bathrooms where one can actually win a mask, lay the shtick on as thick as mole. They're subtle design winks, perhaps, to the lowrider whimsy of El Vez, but also a clear come-on to college crowds that might gravitate to this new building at 40th and Chestnut.
There are plenty of fun drinks to fuel the crowd, from killer margaritas with fresh lime to chile-infused beers, sangrita-kissed "Micheladas," and more than 70 high-end tequilas. The service staff, dressed in white waitron pants, was well-versed on both the drinks and the food.
It was impressive considering the breadth and detail of this menu. Some of my favorites were classics elevated to their finest form - like the beer-braised carnitas of pork topped with pineapple salsa, or the fluffy tamales with cochinita pibil, a cuminy pork stew tender with achiote, oregano and orange juice.
Other dishes simply upgraded humble cuts with luxury ingredients, such as the tacos topped with seared kobe steak and truffled mashed potatoes, or seared duck breast for the rich mole Poblano, or a slow-braised suite of veal (tongue, cheek, and marrow), instead of the usual cow. The thick marrow bones, presented hot like primal bookends around a bundle of homemade tortillas, were among my few disappointments - only because I couldn't dig out nearly enough buttery marrow to go with the bacon marmalade.
It's mostly a small-plate menu, so some portions have been just that (and the bill adds up quickly after three or four). Distrito recently added larger sharing entrees as a hungry-hombre option. But there are too many not-to-be-missed menu gems, so small plates work for those who cannot choose.
Among them are some modern deconstructions of traditional dishes, like the Veracruz ceviche, which puts a twist on the usual red snapper in piquant tomato-caper-olive sauce. This snapper comes sashimi-style beneath "pearls" of scooped avocado, and layered between two renditions of the classic Veracruz sauce - one stewed and pureed, one raw and crunchy. The "esquites" transforms the street food of crema-glazed corn on the cob into an elegant parfait of corn niblets layered with epazote and warm chipotle-spiced cream.
There's a soulful duck barbacoa stew hidden beneath the bubbling cheese of queso fundido. Crispy little half-moon quesadillas are stuffed with silky calabaza pumpkin and curdy crumbles of requesón cheese, then set over a two-tone sauce (black bean; poblano-avocado) scattered with snappy pumpkin seeds.
Distrito's fried-fish tacos, with yellowtail served open-face instead of the tightly wrapped mahimahi at El Vez, is one notable dish where Jose the Elder did not best his younger self. But I've already moved on to the tuna tacos, a stunning fusion combo of adobo-seared ruby fish, wasabi crema, lime-pickled veggies, and peanuts that is a preview of the Asian-Latin moves he'll be working at Chifa, the Peruvian-Chinese concept that is the next challenge up for Garces, as hungry with ambition as ever.
For now, at least, he's done a crafty job taking the Mexican inspirations of his early career to the next level. As we savored a finale of stunning desserts - crispy grooved churros with cinnamon-spiced dunking chocolate; densely creamy coconut flan; sublimely moist tres leches set beneath a cloud of toasty meringue and a confetti of tropical fruits - I realized that we were the only ones left wrestling over the plates at Distrito, grappling for the last bite.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Chaikhana Uzbekistan in the Northeast. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.