There is nothing quite like the flash of a pink and gold-plated low-rider bike to get my heart racing for guacamole. But it happens when I settle into the oversize plush of the tufted red velvet booths at El Vez.
"You like it spicy?" the guacamole guy asks as he sidles up to our table. When my guests look away, I nod: ¡Si!
Philly's best new Mexican restaurant - and Stephen Starr's most electric restaurant to date - knows how to put some real gusto in its dip.
Senor Guacamole wheels his low-rider beside us like an oversize tricycle, a lava-stone bowl called a molcajete perched where the seat would go. Into it, he slices the buttery green fruit of two ripe avocados, spoonfuls of onion, cilantro, a dusting of pixie spice, a squirt of fresh lime, and a shower of green jalapenos.
And as he proceeds to mash, his bike's antennaelike rearview mirrors bounce, glinting images of the fiesta around us: the handsome young crowd stacked three margaritas deep at the circular bar; friends bursting from behind the curtain of the old photo booth; a far wall mounted with 3,000 mini-dioramas showing skeletons in bawdy poses for the Day of the Dead.
The guacamole is a cool green goddess of cream that swirls with buttery richness followed by the snap of fresh citrus and a crack of chile spice.
El Vez lives! - even in its most basic nibbles, from salsas filled with tangy cactus and crab, or habanero-fired raw tuna, or molten manchego fondue, to the free botanas of mixed nuts spiced with chipotle, cumin and lime zest. And they're only a tease of what talented young chef José Garces has in store.
Being crowned Philadelphia's best Mexican restaurant would have been no big deal a few years back, when the genre was one of our weakest ethnic scenes. But we've received a host of down-home taquerías since 9/11, when a diaspora of displaced Mexican workers from New York came our way. The best, such as La Lupe in South Philadelphia, Mexico Lindo in Camden, and tiny Acapulco Beach in Norristown, highlight gutsy, homespun flavors that made our fancier places pale.
Garces manages to capture the best of both worlds at El Vez (which is named for the Mexican Elvis impersonator). He builds upon the labor-intensive traditions and recipes of authentic Mexican cooking, but elevates the quality of ingredients and deftly retools combinations with a contemporary vision and polish.
Crunchy tortilla flauta tubes come stuffed with chipotle-tinged duck confit over an avocado cream that sings with poblano peppers. A crisp baton of juicy fried mahi-mahi snuggles inside a soft tortilla wrapper with zippy pepper remoulade and pickled red cabbage to redefine the classic fish taco.
Giant, succulent shrimp smeared in an earthy marinade of pasilla peppers come seared and sauced with a chile-spiked lobster cream. A tender pork chop is crusted with the myriad seeds typically used in mole - pumpkin, sesame, sunflower and cumin. And the carne asada is not simply beautiful, a shingled stack of tender beef ringed by dabs of green and brown sauce; the adobo-rubbed meat is also electric against the fresh crunch and sour spice of tomatillo-pepper salad beneath it.
Starr, ever vigilant for the right hipster vibe rather than foodie pretense, has cautioned Garces against froufrou ("No foie gras!"). But Garces, who also still runs the kitchen at Starr's Alma de Cuba, lets his guard down from time to time with specials. A spit-roasted guajillo-glazed duck with fig mole and a goat-cheese tamale was contrived and sweet. A tostada brought shreds of duck confit that were too chewy.
But these were minor blips for Garces, who consistently focuses flavors from complicated dishes as well as any chef in town. His roasted-corn soup is a bowl of sweet yellow cob-steeped cream that harbors the surprise of a crisp turnover filled with inky black huitlacoche. The tuna tostada brought a fugue of flavors on a corn chip, layering ruby slices of sashimi tuna with creamy avocado beneath a fresh slaw of cucumber and chayote squash.
Some of the kitchen's best flavors, though, stick closer to the Mexican canon. The tortilla soup draws a bottomless depth of flavor from a broth of guajillo and ancho chiles thickened with tortilla, then comes alive with a generous squirt of lime and a shred of crunchy chips. Albóndigas arrive in a crock, submerged in chipotle tomato sauce rife with smoke and spice, tasting like Swedish meatballs with heat.
Carnitas tacos are soft tortillas filled with tender pork perfumed with allspice, clove and sour orange. Pork, slow roasted all night in banana leaves, crowns the amazingly soft tamales. The sopes mixtos also are divine, three griddled masa boats filled with different flavors - chile-spiced lump crab; stewed chicken glazed in an intricate red mole threaded with chocolate; and earthy black beans contrasted with fruity morsels of sweet plantains.
Even the side dishes are a treat - creamed roast corn and rice flecked with spicy poblanos, frijoles charros stewed with Negro Modelo beer, and char-grilled ears of corn (the ultimate street food!) glazed with an orange blush of chipotle-fired mayonnaise that cleared my sinuses.
The service here is typical Starr - young and personable but also extremely well-trained - although I wish the bartenders were more generous with their pours of premium tequila (especially at $14 for a Cabo Wabo). And there were many moments when the pacing dragged.
At every turn, though, the food was worth the wait. And the desserts from Kate Honeyman were no exception.
Beggar's purses arrive filled with rummy bananas and drizzled with goat's-milk caramel. "Mexican coffee" is actually a cup of smooth, cinnamon-tinged chocolate custard crowned with Kahlua-scented foam. An intriguing ice cream that rings with the spice of a cinnamon red-hot candy saves the flourless chocolate tamale from being dry. But the sopapillas need no assistance at all. Served with a honeyed cream flavored with Jamaica tea, these beignets are crisply fried pillows of air dusted with cinnamon sugar, a classic confection refined. It couldn't have been a sweeter adios.