"Work for great chefs" is usually the best advice I have for young cooks. The downside, of course, is that the shadow of a truly great mentor can be so long, that eventually escaping it can take half a career.
Tim Spinner, 33, moving with vibrant salsas, inventive ceviches and duck-stuffed chiles en nogada in his wake, is now finally basking in his own light. It's no wonder the skeletons look so joyous in the colorful murals that line the walls at La Calaca Feliz cafe (which means "the Happy Skeleton"), the sunny Nuevo Mex restaurant he and partner, Brian Sirhal, opened just over three months ago in Fairmount.
The comparisons to Jose Garces were inevitable last year when the duo opened Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington, Spinner's chef-owner debut after years by the Iron Chef's side, helping him open El Vez and Distrito, among others, two restaurants in particular that helped define for Philadelphians what modern Mexican cooking could be. And the Cantina brought a welcome taste of those sophisticated flavors to the suburbs — from a rainbow of fresh moles to squash blossom enchiladas and serious carnitas.
If I sensed cautiousness, though, in that Fort Washington kitchen as it cooked with more conservative suburban palates in mind, all inhibitions have been dropped on the way to opening this Fairmount Avenue sibling, the sunny, sky-lit space and patio once occupied by Illuminare. Spinner and his crew challenge themselves with nightly specials, seasonal ingredients and current techniques — from pig ear terrines to sous-vide melon ceviche, house-ground chorizo and the essence of spring white asparagus — and La Calaca has helped push the dial forward a few more clicks on the evolution of contemporary Mexican cooking in this town. Perhaps more than Distrito, which has evolved little in the past couple years, and even served me stale chips at a recent lunch.
With Spinner now firmly cruising in his own orbit through both town and country, we have another bright young chef making his own statement in the genre.
La Calaca's menu shares some dishes with its suburban cousin, which isn't a bad thing. The superb fillet of grilled black bass, bending over creamy rice studded with sweet crab and the warmth of poblano peppers, is one of my favorite fish entrées anywhere. The hearty nachos, meticulously layered with guajillo-braised short ribs, silky black beans, roasted corn, and the tang of house-pickled jalapeños, are a masterwork of tortilla architecture. And yes, there is the obligatory guacamole. But this rendition, mashed to order with onion-jalapeno paste in a lava rock molcajete, may be my favorite in the city, at once fluffy but still rustic with a few bumps, and a creamy savor that takes on another dimension when blended with the subtle sweet pop of the optional diced fruit. The "elotes locos," corn on the cob glazed with lime mayo then dusted with queso fresco and powdered chil, is as addictive as ever.
Spinner's latest inspirations, though, mostly caught my eye with striking, and often unexpected, pairings. Huge Barnegat Bay scallops, seared with one side clinging to a crispy round of salty queso, had the perfect sweetness to echo the spring delicacy of white asparagus soup that had been pureed into ivory silk. Cubes of melon, meanwhile, compressed and infused inside a vacuum bag with La Calaca's Garcia margarita (with Espalon reposado), had a distinctive firmness and fiesta flavor that further heightened the already fruity character of pristine diced raw tuna, a creamy green scoop of avocado sorbet melting richness into the mix.
An inventive pig ear special, meanwhile, stewed with guajillos then set into a terrine sliced thin onto the plate, looked like slices of some exotic pulled sugar candy, the white lines of delicate crunch swirling across a Burgundy background of earthy red gelatin. Topped with crispy chicharrones and rimmed with red and green salsas, it was the ultimate Mexican pig part picnic — if you're into that kind of thing.
Not everyone will be. The timid may be more inclined to experiment after a few of La Calaca's well-balanced margaritas (high-end La Bestia with El Tesoro reposado was my fave), or, better yet, a three-shot Neftali Feliz flight of Cabo Wabo blanco, Partida Reposado, and Casa Noble Anejo, a bargain at $13. There are decent cocktails (with lots of herb-infused spirits) and a good little craft beer list (try the Stillwater Saison) to quench other thirsts, like the sangrita-cerveza ping of a spot-on Michelada. Calaca's enthusiastic and well-informed staff is more than capable of leading you to the right glass.
There were numerous other highlights that were also accessible to eaters with (slightly) less adventurous tastes — especially in the larger entrées. The chile marainted flank steak, crusted with clove- and all-spice-scented pasilla chiles, was amazingly savory, sliced down and paired with creamy frijoles, zippy chimichurri, corn tortillas and blistered scallions. Big plancha-seared scallops played against the piquance of a tomato-olive salsa Veracruz. Lightly poached shrimp and lump crab, folded with pureed corn and chipotle crema, came wrapped in the enchiladas softness of house tortillas simmered in salsa ranchera, traced with the black huitlacoche crema.
There were teeny tostada rounds mounded high with diced raw hamachi ringing with lime aioli, pico de Gallo and chile piquin. The meatballs glazed in ancho-cranberry barbecue sauce hid the surprise of melty Oaxaca cheese inside. Tender skewered octopus were most notable for the presentation — the octo-kebab sliced into oblong coins for maximum tentacle crisp-age. The carnitas tacos were tender from their beer, Coke and orange juice braise. Chicken enchiladas came beneath an ebony shine of my new favorite mole poblano, its mysteriously blend of 25 ingredients (from mulatto chiles to hazelnuts, figs, pepitas and tomatillos) in sharper balance than Cantina's sweeter suburban rendition.
The kitchen's slips were few and minor. The wild mushroom flatbread was one-dimensionally crisp. The "sombrero" of duck came off as a saucy pile rather than the intricate layer cake it could have been. (The walnut-sauced poblano chile en nogada stuffed with duck confit was far more satisfying.) I also wish Spinner had put a bit less slaw atop his otherwise fantastic fish tacos, the meaty Peruvian tilapia in a plantain-tortilla crust — deliberately gluten-free, like most of the menu here. The room, with half-moon booths and glass garden wall, was also unpleasantly noisy.
But such complaints were a footnote by dessert — the cream-soaked tres leches topped with sheer rounds of kiwi; pastry chef Adrian Applebee's dense flourless chocolate cake with bruleed bananas, and the brownie "Domingo" sundae drizzled with cajeta, churros ice cream and spiced caramel corn.
Feliz followers will note, of course, that Domingo is one of Spinner's best plates from the Cantina. But consider it a sign: of a chef who's found his own voice, and even a few greatest hits. As the city crowd gets to rediscover this notable young talent once again, now well out from his mentor's shadow, the spotlight should only grow brighter.
Contact Craig LaBanat firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @CraigLaBan.