In the summer of her 26th year, Nicole Marquis returned to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for three months, as she did every year, and informed her Abuelita Gladys that she had become a vegan.
"Are you OK? Are you sick?" her grandmother replied, concerned (and maybe confused) about why the girl who'd grown up eating her pernil asado and arroz con pollo was picking the bits of pork out of her beans.
Marquis was most certainly OK with her decision to give up eating anything made with animal products. It would eventually lead to her career as a vegan entrepreneur and the creation of HipCityVeg, her quick-serve hit serving fast-food sandwiches built around mock-meat burgers, poultry-textured "chick'n," curried tofu wraps, and pulled seitan "steak."
To call HipCityVeg a success is an understatement. The shoe-box-size original in Rittenhouse is perpetually jammed. And after the addition of a larger University City branch, a third Philly location is scheduled for the spring at Broad and Sansom, and a foray to Washington is in the works.
Broadening her mission to more elaborate restaurant projects, however, including a "plant-based" ode to her family's Puerto Rican roots at Bar Bombón, has proved a trickier endeavor. Not hiring a chef until several months after opening, for example, now seems like an obvious mistake - one that has hampered the development of Bombón's considerable potential.
But since cycling through at least a couple of mainstream chefs two years ago after opening her small-plate cocktail bar (Charlie was a sinner), losing them because, as she put it then, "restaurants that kill animals can pay more," I suspect finding someone with the right combination of culinary skill and vegan passion is a challenge.
Marquis said she would literally cry over the piles of onions she found herself cutting to keep the kitchen rolling while her search was prolonged. It wasn't always in vain. Her stewed black beans, studded with chunks of butternut squash, are a soulful reminder that Bombón comes from a genuine, personal place.
But what's also clear is that this latest endeavor sits at the intersection of two major obsessions in American food culture - veganism and the tortilla as creative canvas. Both genres are reaching higher levels than ever, and the fact that there are many very good, interesting, and creative veg-centric tacos blossoming in Philly these days does not necessarily work in her favor.
A new chef, Chris Allen, has recently been hired to up the kitchen's game. But most of what I've eaten to date has failed to stoke much excitement. A good island sofrito of garlicky peppers, onions, and culantro can go only so far in transforming textured wheat gluten and crumbled tofu into something more satisfying.
Marquis, a believer in the sales benefits of familiarity, invites unfavorable comparisons by listing proteins as "chick'n," "beef" and "chorizo." Even the pescado gets its mock "fish" fins - though, honestly, the battered rails of Gardein brand soy-fish tucked inside soft tortillas with chipotle slaw were almost as convincing in their role as many of the real fish stick tacos I've eaten in town.
But Bombón's overly heavy reliance on those core preparations for mix-and-match add-ins begins to feel like a simplistic and redundant crutch as one progresses through a meal, from a "relleno" plantain stuffed with "beef" to a taco or burrito filled with more of the same.
The beautiful corner space, with a moody bar clad in Moorish tiles near the front serving margaritas and rum drinks, and a deceptively airy slender back room done up in coral pastels, white tile, and fans turning in the rafters, evokes a Caribbean hideaway mood that implies a dining experience of more ambition.
In actuality, it's still essentially a fast-food concept that's been dressed up in tropical clothes and cocktails. (Try the coffee-flavored Coquí, best when the bartender doesn't cinnamon-blast it like a cheap cappuccino.)
That's not to say there aren't some tasty things to eat, like the hand-pleated empanadas stuffed with a soy-grain crumble that tastes like ground beef. Their occasionally oily shine should dispel any illusions, though, that meat-free cooking always equates to "healthy." It was still a favorite, as were the equally crispy-oily Venezuelan-style arepa corn shells around cuminy faux-"chorizo," avocado, and smoked tofu.
The servers are enthusiastic, pleasant, and well-informed. The menu prices, topping out at $14.50, are also extremely reasonable. But until Bombón's new chef irons out some technical kinks and creates some more compelling dishes relying less on mock meats, there are few compelling reasons here to lure diners from beyond the already captive vegan audience.
Among the small mistakes that could be easily fixed are the flimsy chips, too brittle to make it through a scoop of cold guacamole or multilayer Nacho de Macho dip before snapping off. The tortilla soup seasoning was off-kilter and acidic. The enchiladas were so overstuffed (and wrapped in flour tortillas) they were basically burritos. There was too much Vegenaise in the slaw drowning the pescado tacos. The garlicky soy aioli that striped the tasty maduro plantains had the disconcerting look of sticky bun icing.
The Rittenhouse Salad, meanwhile, should not be saved, its egglike crumbles of brined tofu clinging like styrofoam debris to greens dressed in a puree of bananas and truffle oil so strange and garish it should never have been conceived.
Allen's arrival, by my third meal, has shown a philosophical step in the right direction with the kind of more involved techniques, seasonal awareness, and creativity that can elevate above the simple piles of wilted kale and squash that characterized an early-visit "vegetal" taco. But these initial efforts, too, are works in progress. At my fourth visit, the fried broccoli wrapped inside blue tortillas tasted limp and burned, and the addition of pickled purple potatoes, though clever, overwhelmed the whole taco with tang. Assertive sourness from a mango mustard also overshadowed a new Brussels sprout taco busy with curried tempeh and smoked onions. But it was the dense, undercooked crunch of those sprouts that made it a chore to finish.
At least Allen delivered a fine finale with a pretty, rustic tart folded around pears and butternut squash - not too sweet, but satisfying - that left me with the hope of progress.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Buckminster's in Point Breeze.
HIT-OR-MISS (ONE BELL OUT OF FOUR)
133 S. 18th St., Phila. 19103, 267-606-6612; barbombon.com
Vegan quick-serve queen Nicole Marquis pays homage to her Puerto Rican roots with a Latin-theme corner restaurant-bar a half-block from her HipCityVeg in Rittenhouse. The pretty and colorful space has an evocative Caribbean vibe and an outgoing staff. But the taco- and burrito-centric menu's reliance on mix-and-match meat replacements (seitan, tempeh, tofu) is less compelling in a more ambitious sit-down setting than a fast-food format. A new push toward more creative veg-centric items is the right idea, but almost all the recipes need more polish, and this menu still has a long way to go.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS "Beef" empanadas; rellenos; Nacho de Macho; guacamole picante; enchiladas de "pollo"; Cubano club; arepas de tofu y chorizo; tacos ("pollo"; "chorizo"; "pescado"); black beans; pear and squash tart.
DRINKS The bar focuses on tequila, rum, and mezcal for solid, if not especially well-balanced, variations on margaritas, daiquiris, and coladas. The smoky, bitter Doña Gladys (mezcal, Punt e Mes, grapefruit) and coffee- and rum-flavored Coquí (best light on cinnamon) were the standouts. The extremely small wine list has some worthy affordable options (Broadbent vinho verde; Bonny Doon riesling), but the beers (Neshaminy Creek County Line IPA; Shiner Red Bird; Tecate) may be a better menu match.
WEEKEND NOISE Walls of tile and glass can stoke an 88-decibel din in the narrow space, but conversation is still possible. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less).
IF YOU GO Entire menu served Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until midnight; Sunday, until 10 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $10-$14.50.
All major cards.
Validated parking gives 20 percent discount for parking lot at 1845 Walnut St.