Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Eating Mexican in Philly

Last Saturday Nicole and I ate at Xochitl (pronounce So-Cheet) in Headhouse Square.  We had eaten there for restaurant week when the chef was Dionicio Jimenez, who is now at Stephen Starr's El Rey, and quite enjoyed it.  I thought it would be fun to do a review of Xochitl by comparing it to the other Mexican joints we've dined at in the city.

Xochitl, was a huge disappointment this time around.   I really like Zahav, the Israeli restaurant by the same ownership group, and I was lured by the supposed new concept of Xochitl, which Philadelphia magazine called "a casual cantina" with "a lower price point."   I suppose dressing the waitstaff in soccer jerseys does promote a more laid back atmosphere, but I found the food to be very overpriced.  Their new menu is all small plates, and they recommend that you order 2-3 per person to fill up.  Nicole and I each chose two dishes and two drinks (a margarita and beer each), and the bill came in just shy of $100 (including tip).   I don't know where to begin with my critique of this place.  I'll start with the concept of small plates.  At a restaurant with a great chef like Jose Garces, doing a tasting menu of small plates can be one of the most special meals of your life.  But the concept of small plates, or tapas, at a place seeking a cantina vibe seems like a way to make the menu look more reasonable than it is.  Reading the menu outside the door, one might tink, tacos for 12 bucks?  Not too bad until you walk in and the waitress tells you will need to eat 2-3 plates of them to be satisfied.

Nicole pointed something out early on that now gets under my skin.  She saw the staff bringing in bags of tortillas identical to the ones we buy at the Mexican grocer around the corner from our house for about a buck.  Okay, so they don't have little old Mexican women hand making tortillas like they did at the authentic place we went to in San Diego.  But then they cut them smaller to fit the agenda of small plates!  They were so small that they wouldn't even hold the skirt steak filling that we chose.

Next, the drinks and service.  The margarita was mediocre and 8 bucks, to me about 2-3 bucks overpriced for what it was.  I'm no tequila connoisseur but I know my way around a decent margarita.  The bartender did not appear that skilled; she was making drinks with a shaker and only shaking 4-5 times.  A good bartender knows it will take a good 15 shakes to chill those contents.  Their "special" of the night was a flight of Don Julio Tequila for $20 (you can do this everyday at Cantina Los Caballitos for $13).  While we pondered the overpriced tapas menu, we watched our drinks sit on the bar for several minutes while the bartender was chatting with one of the hostesses.  Our waitress did a good job overall, and though it wasn't her fault the food took forever to come out of the kitchen.  Small plates should keep coming, not with 15-20 minute gaps between your last bite of one and first of the next.

I could overlook all of the above if the food was great.  It wasn't.  It was good, but not great by any stretch.  The chorizo and virginia ham cuban sandwich tasted good, but the bun got soggy as you ate it.  The potato and chorizo stew was oversalted.  The crab ceviche was about the smallest portion of seafood I've ever seen, and it was nothing special.  The skirt steak tacos were cooked properly but not especially flavorful (and on a tiny tortilla).

I will make a final complaint in honor of a coworker of mine.  If you really want a casual cantina vibe, you have to provide free chips and salsa, not try to charge $9 for a bowl of guacamole.

If I were you, I would pass on Xochitl.  But where should you eat Mexican in Philly?  This post is already a bit long so I will do the others in list form:

Cantina Los Caballitos/Dos Segundos-This pair of cantinas are almost identical; one in South Philly one in Northern Liberties.  The house margaritas are solid with fresh squeezed lime for around $5, and they do indeed provide free chips and salsa.  Their menu is creative but not cute, e.g. their sandwiches come with Yuca fries and they have 3 kinds of wings.  Their specials are always appealing; the pork belly tacos are fantastic.  The menu has a range of price points but I don't think I've ever gotten an entree for more than about $12 bucks or so.  The burritos are under $10 and will fill you to the brim.  The beer list is pretty thoughtful, too.

El Vez-It's been too long since eating there for me to really review this old center city Starr mainstay.  The chef may have been Jose Garces when I ate there, I'm not sure.  We had fun, but obviously I didn't rush back.

El Rey-This is Stephen Starr's new center city Mexican joint, with a mixed menu of Mexican street food and homestyle, or "pueblo" food.  The moles are fantastic, and Chef Jimenez took a few menu items from the old Xochitl including a stuffed poblano pepper that Nicole loves.  As always with Starr, more emphasis is given to atmosphere than to anything else.  The margarita was good and the beer list was just okay, though I really enjoyed the agave wheat beer from Breckenridge in CO.  And walking through the kitchen to get to the speakeasy bar in the back is fun, if a total gimmick.

Distrito-This is Jose Garces's West Philly Mexican spot.  A small plates concept that, for me, worked.  I loved, loved, loved the nachos with skirt steak.  I feel El Rey is a response to this, and I would choose this.

El Zarape-This is a hole-in-the-wall taco stand in South Philly.  Very authentic kind of place, not tex-mex and without all of the spice and artificial atmosphere of most of these others.  Good stuff.

La Esperanza-Okay, this one is in Jersey, Lindenwold specifically.  Again, authentic, and very good.  My friend's parents eat here all the time.

Tortilla Press-Another Jersey spot (Collingswood).  I had this menu item: "Our Award Winning Chipotle Peanut BBQ Pork Platter" and loved it.

The Adobe Cafe-This is hardly Mexican, more of just a local bar on East Passyunk Ave.  Most menu items are just okay, but their Texas Ranchero wings are fantastic.

Disclaimer: I've never been to Lolita, which I'm told is a very good BYOT (Tequila).  Nicole didn't love the ownership group's Indian place, Bindi, but really we just haven't ever made it there.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I'd add, though, that you have to have a pretty high hipster tolerance if you're going to go to the Cantina.