Stephen Starr stretched the culinary landscape of Philadelphia just a little further “south of the border” earlier this month. Upon entering El Vez, Starr’s tenth culinary concept, the unsuspecting patron may think they’ve reached the end of a journey down Route 66 from this Mexican-American pop culture theme restaurant, bar, and lounge.
The motif reflects a scene from a Quentin Tarantino film, tweaked with a Jack Kerouac “On the Road” feel, definitely makes it stand out against the background on the corner of 13th and Sansom St.
Immediately upon entering, an authentic gold-chrome low rider with an air-brushed photo of Oscar De LaHoya rotates at the center of the bar as an idol, like the golden calf itself. It embodies the essence of the decadent atmosphere of this establishment that boasts thirty-six different tequilas.
El Vez is a much-anticipated rebirth of Trust, the bar and lounge that formerly occupied the location. Starr has recently had a stroke of success. He has evolved the previously unsuccessful Blue Angel into an acclaimed “authentic Italian” restaurant known as Angelina, which opened in September of this year. El Vez may prove to be the second in a pattern of successful thematic evolutions.
Starr himself said of the new property, “We wanted to have some fun with El Vez…we’ve tried to achieve a gritty East L.A. meets a Tijuana Taxi vibe.” The point is well made by the souvenir-store appeal of the poblano pepper candleholders and a 1970s wood-paneled photo booth.
The décor, the work of New York-based Rockwell Group, speaks of fire. Floor to ceiling, El Vez radiates with red, orange and burnt umber and evokes a karmic residue of the afterlife.
There is a display of tiny dioramas for the “Day of the Dead,” like hundreds of Lilliputian houses hanging on the Wall.
The menu, designed by Executive Chef Jose Garces, resonates with the fiery theme of the atmosphere. Garces aims to please from the start by sending each table a complimentary dish of spiced nuts-a mix of cashews, peanuts, pecans, peppers, and sesame seed.
Make sure to try the Cactus and Crab salsa. It’s one of several homemade salsas served with corn chips. The sweet of the crab and tomatoes coupled with the round, kiwi-like flavor of the cactus and sour fresh lime, would partner well with any of El Vez’s many tequila based specialty drinks or the Dos XX Amber draft. Though, you might want to switch to the Dogfishhead Punkin’ Ale. It had a sweet molasses flavor with traces of pumpkin.
The Charred Carne Asada was well complimented by the green tomatillos and the memorable Arroz Crème, which is like a savory rice pudding. The ripe tomatoes and green olives of the Red Snapper indicate the freshness of flavor in the dish, but the bones prove a little cumbersome and something to overcome for an otherwise delicious dish.
El Vez breathes creative originality and flair into an otherwise just-under-the-radar niche of dining experiences. El Vez is like the secret dining experience you didn’t know about but were glad you found.
The cost for dinner for two, without beverages, is about $40-plus tip.
However with their list of entradas, as well as specialty tacos and enchiladas, one might slip way for some tapas at about $15 a head.
Joe Shaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.