First, at the Friday-evening-jammed counter at El Rey, comes my order of three palm-sized lamb tacos (arbes, on the menu). Well, make it second. First is a chubby tumbler of a margarita, ice-packed, light salt on the rim.
Someone's elbow pokes me on one side, oblivious. Inches on the other is another guy: he looks like he could sub for one of El Rey's plaid-shirted counter guys: Hmmm, but he's reading a monograph titled, Transoral Robotic Surgery: Does the Ends Justify the Means. (Yes, it says "does the ends," which I can't help but point out.)
He's a third-year med student at Penn, and the relevance, for purposes of this anecdote, is simply that first impressions, yep, can still benefit greatly from adjustment.
This isn't actually my very first visit to El Rey, in the tatted-up bones of the old Midtown Diner IV, a faded Chestnut Street throwback near 20th Street. (The comfy, redone booths, the soft arch of the windows that look out onto a brick wall, the exposed fake beams, the South Philly-esque "Italian" dropped ceilings, still summon the diner's meat loaf-and-potatoes roots.)
And it isn't my first bite, either: the roasted red snapper just days before was meaty and moist, basted with a lively chile mayo, a nod to the Veracruz side of the menu. (It's split between the traditional specialties of Puebla, east of Mexico City, and its coastal neighbor Veracruz.) The queso fundido, a crock o' gooey Chihuahua cheese with a spritz of mushrooms, on the other hand, was less promising.
Still, after a fragrant tortilla soup, poured at table; a gutsy pickled cactus salad (with toasty pumpkin seed and lush avocado); a balanced ceviche of cobia (it compares vaguely to Chilean sea bass) with olive, caper and tomato; and a toothsome skirt-steak taco, I was tilting - to my surprise - toward a big thumb's up.
There were missteps at this latest Stephen Starr production, offered as the more "authentic" cousin to El Vez, Starr's updated Mexican spot at 13th and Sansom: 1. Luchador poster art. Got enough of the masked Mexican wrestler motif at Jose Garces' kitschy Distrito. 2. The noise! Well, one night was Cinco de Mayo. What was I thinking? 3. The sugared churros weren't anything to write home about. 4. The waitstaff robotically asking how is your (yet unsipped) margarita? How is the lamb taco? How is the this? How is the that?
Well, here's what I thought of the lamb tacos, mini-sized (but with far better quality meat) compared to the ones you get from the window at Taco Loco, the trailer parked at Fourth and Washington: They were some of the best tacos I've had this side of the border. Baby lamb taken to a new level with chef Dionicio Jimenez's marinade of cinnamon, star anise, allspice, clove, avocado leaves, and garlic and onion, briefly roasted and spiced with the morita chile, which is akin to the chipotle. (In Puebla, where Jimenez, 34, grew up before coming to Philadelphia, working in Marc Vetri's kitchen, and, lastly, heading up the well-regarded Xochitl on Head House Square, this sort of lamb would be sliced shawarma-like -instead of roasted - off a vertical, rotating spit.)
How'd I like the gorditas? Open-faced here (not tucked in a masa-flour pocket), they're a shred of pork, sliced hard-cooked egg, and pickled onion. Better than the tasty little fatties I've loved in South Jersey's roadside cantinas.
How'd I like the goat? It's six-hour braised hunks of baby goat from northeastern Pennsylvania, served with grilled scallions, black beans, and guacamole. (It's boneless, rich and juicier than your typical Jamaican-truck goat.)
Let us turn, then, to chile en nogada, the roasted poblano pepper in creamy walnut sauce. Nogada means walnut, a Puebla staple. The pepper is stuffed with cinnamon-scented ground beef, almonds, and sweet dried papaya, pineapple, and apricot, giving it the sensibility of a Turkish dish, or, say, a Moroccan tagine.
Some attribute its novelty to the native poblano's tour through the kitchens of the Spanish nuns who applied Old World flavor to the cuisine shaping up in the colonial gran conventos.
It is emblematic of the fall harvest and Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16, striped as it is at El Rey in red (pomegranate seeds), white (walnut meats), and green (parsley or other green) - the broad colors of the Mexican flag.
OK, here the pepper is roasted, not authentically battered and fried. But the flavor is there. And the ends does - in the case of the chile en nogada, at least, (and the lamb and the gordita) - quite nicely justify the means.
2013 Chestnut St.