“Are you ready to order?”
It’s a reasonable enough question, especially when posed to diners sitting in a restaurant with menus in front of them. But at El Vez, mega-restaurateur Stephen Starr’s local outpost of his decade-old Mexican standby in Philadelphia, the waitstaff is as hot for answers as a team of film noir private dicks.
The call for orders comes suddenly — in one table’s case, a server set upon patrons immediately after handing out menus. This, and other normally innocuous requests are repeated often enough throughout the course of a meal to be borderline intrusive. There’s no doubt that turnover is important, but guests shouldn’t be made to feel as if their asses are worth less than the seats they occupy. Disappointment doubles when an entire order lands at once, and some of it feels slapped together.
Take the tlayuda, a pizza-like disc of crisped masa, which on one visit bore an unfortunate resemblance to the Play-Doh nightmares of a maladjusted kindergartner. An earlier (and likewise unsuccessful) version of this Oaxacan street specialty consisted of cheese melted over shrimp, garnished with multicolored salsa squirts. The current incarnation leaves the cheese shredded but unmelted (a traditional presentation), mixed with salsa but otherwise unseasoned, looking like something unpleasant has taken place over a shag carpet.
“So, have you decided on one of our guacamoles yet?” We hadn’t — both times we were asked — but once we finally did, the contents of the stone molcajetes were disconcerting. It’s commonplace to tinker with guacamole these days, adding everything from pomegranate seeds to chorizo, truffle oil — even sea urchin. Here the standard variety comes adulterated with Cotija cheese and a preparation that renders the avocados more trampled than mashed. The other guacamoles, mixed with mango and bell pepper or a bourgeois combination of goat cheese and pistachios, are palatable, even if they’re a sin against sound judgment. Still, you’re better off submitting the restaurant’s excellent chips to the barrage of melted Monterey Jack cheese, black beans, sour cream, and pickled onions that comprise the fried tortilla masterpiece dubbed “Nacho Mama” nachos.
Starr, who got his start in Philly, now operates more than 30 restaurants across four states. The flagship El Vez, a frolicking, gilded neo-cantina, still shines gaudily in Philadelphia’s Washington Square West neighborhood.* Our city’s counterpart, plugged into the ground floor of the Goldman Sachs building, only barely dials back the glitz. Tile mosaics frame gold booths, and multihued sculptures made from stacks of wine bottles lend the two massive dining rooms a convivial air. A photo booth occupies a corner opposite the central bar area, though chances are none of your snapshots will look as dashing as the painted portraits of Elvis and various luchadores, which hang on the restaurant’s walls. Sadly, the visual stimulation appears wasted on the suits who invade the place at lunchtime and after work, some of whom don sombreros while toasting jobs well done (because we might as well appropriate culture while we’re appropriating funds). Tourists and Battery Park City families, however, appear to appreciate the effort.
Conceived by Starr’s Mexican Culinary Team and executed by Philadelphia chef David LaForce, the menu is expansive and, despite a few missteps, warrants a visit if you’re in the area. Huitlacoche stuffed inside crescent-shaped quesadillas has a pleasant, muddy funk, but the corn-fungus snack lacks punch. The same is true of the eight taco varieties, which include a few atypical choices — pork belly with pickled watermelon, for instance, and lamb “Arabes” (a Pueblan specialty of shawarma-style lamb introduced by Lebanese and Iraqi immigrants).
Enchiladas are the best of El Vez’s tortilla-wrapped dishes, in particular, the oxtail and crab renditions, which practically melt inside masa blankets covered, respectively, in piquant red and green salsas. The condescendingly labeled “Holy Mole!” sampler provides a trifecta of variations on the Mexican mother sauce: Bone-in chicken stands in for the more-traditional turkey in a moderately complex, chocolate-spiked mole poblano; stewed lamb falls apart, as rich and deep as its earthy, herbal mole negro; the third sauce, nutty pipián rojo, is a ruddy mole made with pumpkin and sesame seeds, served here over a baby back pork rib.
Many of the desserts are geared toward children, including a one-note chocolate taco that can’t compete with the ice cream — truck original, and a platter of puffy, brown-sugar cookies shaped like pigs, served with strawberry jam and a goblet of saccharine horchata. Everything we tried was overly sweet.
Battery Park City is remote yet highly trafficked, and El Vez doesn’t need to be a destination Mexican restaurant in order to survive. (The enormous bar and massive tequila and mezcal list won’t hurt.) The restaurant dabbles in a broadly appealing approach to south-of-the-border mixology, offering eight kinds of margaritas and classic cocktail riffs, but unless you have a reason to visit the neighborhood, you’ll probably want to get your agave on beyond its borders.
*Correction published 8/12/14: Owing to an editing error, the original version of this review referred to El Vez as a chain of restaurants. There are only two locations — the flagship in Philadelphia and the restaurant in Battery Park City. The above version reflects the corrected text.