El Vez, explains Stephen Starr — the man whose restaurant group is behind Buddakan, Morimoto, and Caffè Storico — is not Spanish for “the time.” When the owner was opening his first El Vez in Philly, he says, “I was bored of typical Mexican-American restaurant names. I heard about this Mexican Elvis impersonator. He’s awesome. He puts his political views in his songs. So we bought his name. You know, El Vez — like Elvis. He’s of Mexican descent, and he still tours.” And given that Starr’s background is in concert promoting, he really liked the connection.
Nine years after that Philadelphia location first debuted, Starr is getting ready to give the impersonator’s name to another outlet, this one in Battery Park City here in New York. El Vez (259 Vesey Street, 212-233-2500) is set to debut.
The restaurant, says Starr, is “modern Mexican, and there’s a lot of authenticity there. Our team of chefs — two of whom are from Mexico — are adding a lot to the cuisine.” The menu here in New York is more expansive than that of its sibling in Philly, featuring signature offerings like mahi mahi tacos and traditional fare like the chile en nogada — a walnut sauce-topped poblano pepper filled with ground beef, almonds, and dried fruit — and mole. “We’re doing stuff you’re not used to in the States, not just food covered with tons of cheese and salsa,” he says, though he admits the kitchen will take some license with items like the nachos, which, he says, are the best he’s ever had.
The bar follows suit, with a cocktail list heavy on margaritas and a back bar stocked with 150 mezcals and tequilas plus other agave-based spirits like sotol, raicilla, and bacanora.
While the kitchen is taking its gastronomic offerings seriously, Starr has worked to instill an atmosphere here that is far from stuffy. “We want this restaurant to be fun, he says. “Not high-end or super fancy: fun for people who live and work in the area, and especially those who live there.” He looked at Battery Park City, he explains, because people seem to be gravitating there, and because rents are still reasonable, unlike in other parts of the west side downtown. “There’s hope that you can open a business here,” he says.
The space is large and should be comfortable for families, with a wooden bar and antique stools, circular booths, and a hand-painted mural. A landscaped wraparound patio will host diners during the warm months, and the restaurant will eventually open a grab-and-go burrito stand, too.
Starr’s restaurant group spans a small handful of states, but he assures us that he has no plans to make El Vez a chain — “We have no plans to do more,” he says. He is, however, working on another New York City project: He and St. Anselm owner Joe Carroll are opening another outpost of St. Anselm at 222 Bowery in the coming months, bringing what Starr calls the “no frills steakhouse with a great wine list” to Manhattan.
When El Vez opens, it will serve lunch and dinner daily. We’ll confirm its opening date as soon as we have it, but look for an imminent opening.