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Condesa review: Next-level modern Mexican from Suraya team rises in Rittenhouse

When you eat a taco at Condesa, you realize just how often we take for granted something as elemental as a tortilla.

The parillada grill platter at Condesa.
The parillada grill platter at Condesa.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Pick up a warm tortilla from the fresh stack beside the parillada platter at Condesa. Its deep azul hue is the color of blue velvet and its texture is just as soft. It has a rare suppleness when it’s cradled in the palm, at once sheer and pliant as you ponder whether to wrap it around morsels of grilled fresh chorizo verde, smoky pork belly, or salt-cured beef dabbed with hot marrow.

Add some fresh papalo leaves, shreds of house-pulled quesillo cheese, and the most wonderful black beans scented with avocado leaves. These flavors, coming from chef and co-owner Nick Kennedy’s kitchen, are fantastic. But it’s really the earthy perfume of that tortilla that snaps my eyes open as I move in for the taco bite. It has a such primal corn power that it amplifies the personality of every taco filling it touches, from slow-cooked lamb adobado to crisp strips of masa-crusted fish, to the morning eggs with hoja santa leaves served at the attached El Café as breakfast tacos.

You can thank the grindstones. Condesa doesn’t just make tortillas to order, a nice touch offered by many, usually made from instant masa harina corn flour. This modern Mex haven from the team behind Suraya takes another step, nixtamalizing heirloom corn imported from Mexico in a bath of slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), then grinding it each morning between a molino’s volcanic stones to make fresh masa, the dough destined for the knowing hands of tortilla maestras Selena Alcaide-Campos and Zuany Vasquez.

It’s an involved process only a few restaurants in Philly undertake, most notably South Philly Barbacoa. But when you eat a taco at Condesa, you realize just how often we take for granted something as elemental as a tortilla, which has the potential to elevate its fillings, not merely wrap them.

This restoration of handcrafted excellence to some often mundane building blocks is a repeating theme at Condesa. It’s true when you dip into the carousel of colorful salsas and awaken to the diversity of their bright spice, chili-driven fruitiness, and charred notes. It’s true when you reach for the guacamole through a fistful of herbs — papalo, pipicha, hoja santa, cilantro, mint, and tarragon — that evoke the green-garden vibrance of fresh Mexican cooking. It’s true when you dip a crisp, hot churro into the glossy sheen of a chocolate sauce made with house-milled cacao pods from Chontalpa in the state of Tabasco.

Combine that cinnamon-scented chocolate and the fresh masa into a hot cup of atole (technically champurrado) with a fluffy sweet concha roll for dunking, and you have a breakfast of champions I’d expect to find in Mexican South Philly, not in this district of parking garages and office buildings north of Rittenhouse Square filling up with new hotels and residential condos.

In many ways, Condesa itself — discreetly slotted into the ground floor of the Pod hotel — represents another surprise revival. Never would I have dreamed the dreary back alley of Ludlow Street, best known for its dumpsters and massage parlors, would become the grand entrance for one of the year’s brightest new restaurants. And yet, there is Condesa’s patio all ablaze with flickering fire lamps, framed by a jauntily peaked portico, the glowing pink neon of its sign and rabbit logo radiating through the gloom.

The rabbit is a reference to the Aztec myth of the Centzon Totochtin, the 400 divine rabbit children of the maguey goddess Mayahuel that represent the different stages of drunkenness. And Condesa, named for a neighborhood in Mexico City, obliges with a fine collection of agave spirits to fuel some well-crafted cocktails inflected with Mexican accents, from tart tomatillo and tamarind to smoky pasilla and mole bitters.

There are rarely seen spirits like raicilla and sotol, and fresh margaritas that aren’t oversweetened. I’m most transfixed, though, by the artisan mezcals that show the stunning breadth of this traditional agave spirit, which ranges in flavors from pit smoke to asparagus and the savory feast of a pechuga, distilled with turkey breast, nuts, and fruit.

The lively space, designed by Defined Hospitality’s Katherine Lundberg in collaboration with Stokes Architecture, exudes an airy brightness of blond wood, whitewashed brick lattice, skylights, and angular lines. It channels a wave of restaurants crafting a contemporary narrative for Mexican cuisine, like Cosme and Empellon in New York, and Pujol and Contramar (and San Francisco sibling Cala) in Mexico City. (Soundproofing, unfortunately, was less of a consideration.)

Kennedy’s menu follows in the vein of those influences, pairing those upgraded fundamentals and traditional concepts with high-quality ingredients and an effective modern touch.

Kennedy, who once worked at Jean-Georges and Del Posto but is best known for his interpretations of Lebanese cuisine at Fishtown’s Suraya, has shown admirable versatility here. He’s traveled extensively in Mexico and spent some time studying in Oaxaca — as evidenced by his must-order tamal Oaxaqueño, a steamy masa cake stuffed with tender turkey, then glazed in the midnight darkness of a complex mole negro.

But he also relies on collaborations with Mexican staff members like co-chef de cuisine Alberto Sandoval, whose family owns La Fonda de Teresita in South Philly. The suadero Chilango, inspired by Sandoval’s father’s taco stand in Mexico, is one of the best I’ve tasted. The blend of brisket and tongue is infused with guajillo and cumin, and simmers to sublime tenderness in molten kidney fat before it’s seared on the plancha and piled over blue tortilla tacos, which, at $14 for two very large portions, are an excellent value.

The intensely porky carnitas tanged with sour orange is just as good, as is the lamb adobado, with the smoky cigar-box intensity of chipotle meco peppers. A slow-cooked goat birria, rubbed in an ancho-clove vinegar marinade for days before it’s roasted in the charcoal oven, arrives in a cazuela of rust-colored broth that is the height of rustic power, with a side of salsa chintextle made from Oaxacan pasillas.

Equally impressive is the herbal delicacy of Condesa’s seafood dishes — many of them accented by the vivid flavor of fried tortillas made from ground white olotillo blanco corn. Seafood tostadas topped with fluke ceviche are spiked with habanero-roasted pineapple salsa. Poached shrimp are fanned over chipotle mayo between dots of avocado espuma. The tlayuda, more like a sturdy tostada than the soft masa turnovers typical in South Philly’s Poblano kitchens, is topped with coal-roasted octopus, beans, and a gloss of pork drippings from irresistible fried chicharrones.

Raw shrimp and scallops are hidden inside the aguachile bowl beneath a smoothie-green puree of herbs — parsley, mint, and cilantro buzzed up with cucumber, lime, and serrano chilies — whose freshness highlights the buttery sweetness of the shellfish. Ribbons of briny surf clam snap inside an Ensenada-style tomato juice cocktail darkened with Valentina hot sauce and a dash of Maggi. Flaky black bass Veracruz, meanwhile, comes painted green with an epazote-tomatillo salsa verde cradled inside a char-roasted corn husk.

I love the vividly different salsas here, from the punchy heat of the pureed orange arból to the edgy raw-tomatillo acidity of a verde turned creamy emerald with avocado, and the morita-chili smoke and deep savor of salsa taquera. The charred habanero salsa brightened with a squirt of sour orange graced the spice-encrusted roasted chicken — though that bird was oversalted the second time I ate it, an inconsistency that was one of the few blemishes on my meals.

Whatever they were (an overly windy opening spiel from our first server and a major noise problem among them), Condesa’s sweet ace, pastry chef James Matty, compensated with compelling baking.

He uses house-rendered leaf lard to give those concha rolls at breakfast a remarkable fluff (don’t miss the almond-crusted variation stuffed with tamarind and apples). He ribbons intense dulce de leche between the most buttery shortbread cookies for alfajores. He spins a sunset of tropical fruit sauces beneath a creamy disc of cheesecake.

That Tabascan cacao pod, though, sourced by Christopher Curtin of Éclat Chocolate, is transformed by Condesa’s millstones into true chocolate magic. And it’s a revelation when paired with fresh blue masa for a dessert tamale, which emerges from its steamy corn-husk wrapper a rare shade of deep purple. It tastes like a divine brownie baked by Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of wisdom. Paired with a scoop of honey-drizzled peanut ice cream, it’s one of the most vivid Mexican flavors you can taste in Philadelphia. Along with Condesa, it’s a treasure worth the alley detour to discover.