Sunday, March 1, 2015

Oh, the places Mexican food can go

About the restaurant
1602 Locust St
Philadelphia, PA 19103
215-546-0181
Rating:
Neighborhood: Rittenhouse Square
Hours: Weekdays for lunch; seven days for dinner.
Reservations: Recommended
Open Table
Prices: $$$
Payment methods:
American Express
Diners Club
Discover
MasterCard
Visa
Cuisine type: Mexican
Meals Served: Lunch - Mon., Tue., Wed., Thu., Fri. Dinner - Mon. thru Sun.
Style: A universe of Mexican cooking beyond Tex-Mex chimichangas and fajitas, complemented by a great collection of Mexican art.
Specialties: Nachos; sopa de tortilla; empanadas; seviche; crab tostada special; filete grito; carne aguacate; caramel crepes
Alcohol: A small list of affordable South American, California and Spanish table wines. A 50-plus tequila list is stocked with top-shelf sipping spirits, and the margaritas are also dangerously quaffable.
"Our heroine, the tortilla, faithful friend of the Mexican, has been present since the beginning of time...."

No, this isn't the prologue to a sultry Latin novel. But there are a few passages on the menu at Los Catrines Restaurant & Tequila's Bar in which the descriptions begin to glow with magical realism.

The cactus leaves and tamarind sauce invite chipotle chiles to witness the "lynching" of a filet mignon. Mediterranean olives and capers are "seduced" by the pre-Columbian tomato. Boiled chicken with mole is "exalted from the past," while the good old nacho is "drawn towards its destiny yet does not embrace it."

I can imagine being conflicted over my destiny, too, if it meant tangling with refried beans beneath a blanket of melted Chihuahua cheese. But one gets the sense that nothing — not even a good version of the most banal dish in the Mexican American repertoire — is less than a drama worth embellishing for David Suro-Piññera, who recently moved his 14-year-old Mexican restaurant into lavish new quarters across Locust Street.

In fact, the menu descriptions were even longer at his former location at 15th and Locust. But now that Suro-Piñera has expanded the restaurant's name (it had been Tequila's, which he considered too generic) and moved into the big, storied space once occupied by La Panetiere and the Magnolia Cafe, there is more than enough ambience to take up the slack.

The incredible chandelier and the ornate ceiling moldings alone — beautifully restored to their original warm wood finish — would merit a toast with one of Los Catrines' exquisite sipping tequilas. A Porfidio Blanco or Herradura Reposado would do just fine.

But it is the collection of Mexican art that really brings new life to these rooms, beginning with the foyer's whimsical mural of los catrines, the family of skeletons dressed like dandies whose image became a symbol of the 1910 Mexican Revolution's victory over the country's aristocratic dictatorship.

Dozens of other beautiful artworks fill the dark, candlelit dining rooms with romantic intrigue: prints of women with bunches of garlic and bananas on their heads, a wall of photos, and a mural by Jos? Clemente Orozco-Farias (grandson of the famed Jalisco artist) depicting Suro-Piñera's children in the agave fields, along with Zapatista Sub-Comandante Marcos. Even the hammered copper plates and water pitchers add a shimmer to the rooms.

But it is los catrines that lend the restaurant its new name and best symbolize its spirit — at once serious and irreverent and fiercely patriotic, with a menu rooted in some of the Delaware Valley's most authentic Mexican flavors.

Suro-Piñera's goal has always been to bring to Philadelphia the universe of Mexican cooking beyond Tex-Mex chimichangas and fajitas. And for the most part, he does it well. Few local restaurants, for example, indulge diners with huitlacoche, the coveted corn mushroom that grows into swollen black pouches of earthy ambrosia.

It tastes vaguely like a cross between corn and truffle and, pureed into an inky-dark sauce, was sublime beneath crab-stuffed zucchini blossoms. A floral-yellow puree of the blossoms themselves added another layer of contrast. But another huitlacoche dish was dull, made with chicken breasts too mundane to do the royal fungus justice.

There were other frustrating moments like this, when it seemed as if the kitchen, poised to strut with the dandies in all their plumage, refused to step up to the next level along with the decor. There was a hint of too much sweetness in the mole sauce. The signature red snapper, with a wonderful Veracruz salsa of tomatoes, capers and olives, was slightly overcooked. And in a couple of dishes (pork tinga, chorizo-sauced filet mignon), the flavor was muted when the menu's prose had me expecting a mariachi band in my mouth.

Still, even before we drained our pitcher of marvelous margaritas, it was clear that the kitchen, led by chef Carlos Molina, has most of its moves down pat. The tortilla soup was a soulful gem, its rust-colored broth ribboned with noodles made of sliced tortilla. The empanada was also exceptional, its pillowy corn dough stuffed with ground meat moistened with tart tomatillos.

The tomatillo-sauced flautas — corn tortillas rolled into tubes and filled with chicken — were soggy in the center from sitting too long before being served. But their half-sized cousins, the taquitos — essentially the same dish but covered with mild red salsa — were ideally crisp and tasty.

A tostada carefully mounded with crab, tomato and avocado was fresh and crunchy. The seviche of flounder and plump shrimp was so satisfyingly straightforward — marinated in citrus juice, cilantro and serrano peppers — that it was a classic antidote to some of the overwrought nuevo follies I've tasted lately.

And fabulous crepes covered with warm cajeta caramel, made with goat's milk, made up for the otherwise lackluster dessert list (I really hadn't gone there to eat cheesecake).

I've heard complaints that Los Catrines is more expensive than most Mexican restaurants, with entrees ranging from the high teens to the low $20s. But Molina seems committed to using good ingredients that justify the prices. Served in most nonethnic upscale Center City restaurants, some of the dishes would be a pretty good bargain, from the jumbo shrimp in garlic butter spiked with tequila ($18.75) to the numerous variations on filet mignon ($18.75) that are among the restaurant's most interesting offerings.

For example, the carne aguacate was glazed with a vibrant green avocado and cilantro cream that lightened the meat's rich epazote-scented mushroom stuffing.

And the filete grito had a dark, tart tamarind sauce and a bed of cactus leaves to give it gusto. But it had something even more scintillating: The meat had been shot through with whole serrano chiles that riddled the filet with little explosions of heat.

It was an execution by hot pepper rather than the "lynching" the menu had promised. But truth, in this case, proved more sultry than fiction.

Craig LaBan's e-mail address is claban@phillynews.com.

Craig LaBan Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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