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Restaurant chat: From Nuevo Latino to a pour experience

Inquirer critic Craig LaBan discusses local eateries on Tuesday afternoons.

The scallop and watermelon ceviche at Xochitl in Head House Square. Xochitl is one of several local places, including El Vez and Lolita, that offer a contemporary take on authentic Mexican cuisine.
The scallop and watermelon ceviche at Xochitl in Head House Square. Xochitl is one of several local places, including El Vez and Lolita, that offer a contemporary take on authentic Mexican cuisine.Read moreED HILLE / Inquirer staff photographer

Craig LaBan: Hi everyone! Sorry to miss last week's chat – just as our new hi-tech web-forum was starting to cook – but I'm back in the hot spot this afternoon at the LaBan Cyber-Grilling Live. There are some great questions already in the bank to be answered, but I love fresh ones, too (only fresh, sustainable questions here!)

But before we get started, I also wanted to throw out this week's Crumb Tracker Quiz. Be the first to name all three restaurants in order where I ate these three dishes, and win a signed copy of my restaurant book: 1) Beet ravioli (there are two correct answers for this, 'cause I ate them both last week); 2) the red-and-white sushi roll (I'll describe as a hint: spicy tuna roll wrapped in torch-blazed white tuna dusted with togarashi spice); 3) A bacon cheeseburger from one of Center City's last genuine luncheonette counters. Ready, set, MUNCH!

Terry: Craig, it seems to me that there is an avalanche of "Nuevo Latina" and "Southwestern" restaurants opening in the city. Can you explain/differentiate between the two for those of us who are novices?

Craig: Terry - there definitely has been a growing influx of Mexican and quasi-Mexican restaurants over the past few years, and I'm grateful. I think there's a place for both of these flavors. But let's not confuse Nuevo Latino with Mexican cuisine. To step back for a moment, let's summarize: The predominant style of Mexican food in America until about a decade ago was Tex-Mex. We're talking chimichangas, big flour tortilla burritos, and to some extent, nachos. There has more recently been an influx of truly authentic Mexican flavors (at least drawn from south of the bean-and-cheese border towns), and this is obvious in the Puebla-style moles, pozoles and tacos al pastore you can find in South Philly's authentic taquerias. We've begun to see many gradations in between - a Mexican gastro-pub like Cantina Los Cabillitos, definitely a gringo clientele, but with authentic food overtones. Also, there are a number of contemporary takes on authentic Mexican - like Xochitl, El Vez, Lolita...

Craig: Nuevo Latino, by the way, alludes to an entirely different genre of cookery from the Latin Americas that generally excludes the flavors of Mexico. We're talking about ceviches, and mofongos, and various creative takes on the flavors of Carribean countries, like Cuba, and South American traditions from Argentina, Ecuador, etc.. If you want to taste how that's really done, I understand from reliable reports that Pasion has regained some focus. Alma de Cuba and Cuba Libre (now with Pasion founder Guillermot Pernot at the helm) are also a good bet.

eat4fun: Went to Xochitl the other night and thought you were right on with your comments. Was surprised how good the service was in a little place. Some dishes were great and others ok ... I love that style food. Any suggestions on other options in the city? I spend a lot of time in NYC and there is Rosa Mexicana, Mesa Grill, Zocallo, etc. Craig: Speaking of Mexican.... I haven't done a tremendous amount of quality Mexican-eating outside Philly, to be honest, with one exception. Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill and Topolobamp in Chicago - which last night just won the James Beard Award for the nation's Outstanding Restaurant - is a real treasure, and a perfect study in how to take authentic cuisines and cultures and update/upscale and modernize them for the American restaurant scene. Bayless was really one of the first American chefs who saw beyond the bean-and-cheese border to Mexico's vast and complex cuisine, and he was really able to translate that elegantly to restaurants that are sophisticated and full of life, but totally lacking in pretense.

Tonyjlive: Hey Craig, I just posted about this place on another forum but wanted to let you know about it too. It's called Ruby's water Ice. It's a little storefront on Catherine St. between 19th and 20th. A Trinidadian guy runs it, for the price and for the area it's a great find. He just opened up for the season yesterday so he only had about 7 flavors today, but he said he should be good next week. The ice is pretty darn good, it has a nice texture, smooth, creamy, and ice cold. I'm glad he's back in the hood for the second year. The only problem I encountered last year is his hours, he said he will be there 11am-8pm this year, but I remember last year him not being open some days at all. From the "smell" of things, he seems to be a pretty laid back guy and maybe too much to where he doesn't open up his shop sometimes. I guess he's still living the island life, I can't be mad at him for that though.

Craig: Tonyjive - Who could stay mad at a man who makes great water ice? I'm just starting about now to channel those sun-rays in a water ice kind of way.... Anyone else know of other secret icy gems chilling out there in the neighborhood?

Terry: Thanks for the insights. However when I think of genuine Southwestern, I think Cowboy Ciao in Scottsdale or Mojave in Tucson. Does Philly offer any restaurants such as these?

Craig: Terry - sorry, with all that discourse on Mexican/Nuevo Latino, I neglected to even get into Southwestern. That is definitely a weak point for us. There are a couple new ones in Center City - the Mexican Post off the Parkway, and Mission Grill just down Arch from the new Comcast tower. I haven't been to either yet, but Philly doesn't have a good Southwestern track record. One possibility worth checking out is Bobby Flay's steakhouse in the Borgata. It's fun and colorful and tasty. Flay really does know how to cook in that style, and I enjoyed the steakhouse version of it.

Oroku: My girlfriend and I want to start enjoying the Philly restaurant scene. Problem is we don't have a ton of money to throw around at some of the nicer spots. Could you recommend some (good) places for diners with a moderate budget? Thanks!

Craig: Oroku - this is exactly the kind of question I can't really answer in specifics. That said, I think you're in the right town, because Philly has mastered the art of great dining in bargain venues. I'm talking about many of the BYOBs (you save a ton on wine), wine and tapas bars (eat what you want, though it DOES add up), and the gastro-pubs, many of which are turning out surprisingly sophisticated food for mostly under $20 an entree, with great local or Belgian beer to wash it down. As a matter of fact, I wonder if there is another city in America that offers such a rich layer of fine-dining deliberately set below the traditional fine-dining realm and format of an expense account/conventioneer kind of restaurant?

Todd: Crumb Tracker Guess: 1. Melograno 2. Haru Sushi 3. Shank's & Evelyn's

Craig: Well, Todd, you got one of them right. One quick point, though, this luncheonette was in Center City (plus, does Shank's even do a burger? I'm always stuck on their roast beef, eggplant and cutlet-pepper sandwiches)

Matthew: Have you eaten at Tinto yet? They're expansion plans are such a relief!

Craig: Matthew - I can't comment on Tinto just yet. But that is an amazing phenomenon for such a new restaurant to already be in big-time expansion mode. It speaks to chef-owner Jose Garces' popularity and skill. That corner (at 20th and Sansom) seems primely located to Rittenhouse Square, but in fact was extremely dead (save for the recent addition of Capogiro) until Tinto showed up.

Terry: Another Crumb Tracker guess: RAE Oceanaire Evelen & Shanks

Craig: Sorry Terry. Wrong on all three. I don't think Oceanaire does sushi (though I did see some sashimi, but still, no)...

E-boogie: Crumb Tracker guess: 1.Melograno 2.Raw 3.Little Pete's

Craig: one right, two wrong. Still, it's nice to see your name back on the chat, E-Boogie. Also, Little Pete's IS, in fact, a real-deal luncheonette, it just doesn't happen to be the one I ate at....

Gary: Hi. I was seated at a nice restaurant at 8PM on Saturday night. The ice bucket from the prior seating's wine selection was still near my chair. I assume that this is a restaurant miscue but is there anything specific that you would do if you were seated at such a table?

Craig: Gary - That is definitely something that probably should have been removed before you sat down, but honestly, I've seen much grosser things left near my table by a careless clean-up staff. One important question: was there any wine left, and if so, was it worth drinking?

Django Fett: Craig, I know you can't formally speak about Tinto yet as I'm sure it's in your crosshairs, but I wanted to lodge a complaint. My wife and I went a couple weeks ago and while our food was brilliant, the pours of wine were insultingly small. I love that they used oversized glasses there, but I don't think it was an optical illusion: they are putting about 3-4 oz of wine per glass, and charging $9 and up. Have you or any of my fellow chatters had this problem yet? Is this intentional? Does Tinto have an across the board $3 per mouthful of food or wine policy?

Craig: Django - thanks for your note, and you bring up a good point. I wasn't drinking with you that night, so I really don't know how big the pours were, but this is definitely one of the downsides of by-the-glass wine bars. A lot of the good ones give you size options (3-,5-, or 7 oz. pours) with different prices. And often, as at Kitchen 233 in Westmont, the pours are measured electronically to be accurate. So you know exactly what you're getting. It can definitely be a damper to an awesome meal to feel like you're paying through vacu-vin for your drink. Personally, I love having the ability to taste a wide variety of good-quality wines over the course of one meal. Then again, the tariff reminds us all of the value of ordering one bottle for the whole meal.

E-boogie: Could #3 be that Snow White place on 19th and Chestnut? I'm not 100% sure they serve burgers though... Are we lumping Logan Square into "Center City"?

Craig: E-Boogie - was that a guess? You need to give me all three names to be in the running for an answer...

mike: Villa de Roma; Raw; Snow white?

craig: Mike, you've gotten one right. But I can tell you one thing for sure. Villa di Roma does not make beet ravioli - just the old-time cheesey kind (though I love them, they are a top favorite of my kids...)

Joe: Hey Craig, I'm out in South Bend, Indiana going to school and miss my cheeseteaks something terrible. I was wondering if you had any info on the cut of beef that they use in most of the local pizza shops. I'm not talking about the Pat's/Geno's sliced version, but the chopped variety. Is there a common restaurant meat supplier for all of the local spots? I know this may be a bit out of your typical scope but I'm banking on the fact that you've picked up some insider knowledge somewhere along the way. Cheers!

Craig: Joe - I have, in fact, studied this a bit. The hack cheesesteakeries have been known to use previously unknown cuts of meat, like knuckle. Most, I think, will use thinly sliced cuts of top round or ribeye (I like ribeye), though I've also heard from one favorite of mine that they use a top sirloin cut. The most important thing is that it's well-marbled but not tough, and also, that it's never been frozen. I can always tell a previously frozen steak, because it tends to dry quickly on the griddle. You can half-freeze a piece of meat, just to facilitate the thin slice, but don't let it go icy all the way. Happy Steaking!

Django Fett: 1. Melograno; 2. Bluefin; 3. Snow White

Craig: one to go...

E-boogie: I'm not in this for the glory, Craig.

Craig: Glory? Who said anything about glory? Crumb Tracker Hall of Fame? The annual Crumb Tracker Reunion Bash? Glory? We do this for the fun of food and culture. And a free book...You're not fooling me, E-boogie.

Terry: Melograno/Mantra/Snow White

Craig: I can see this last one's going to be minute until countdown....

Tonyjlive: Speaking of gastropubs. I've given Ten Stone many chances on their food now. What's up with the buns? They are ridiculously big and not very good. I've had mussels, sandwiches, fish and chips, etc. You get a burger half the size of the bun. I've only eaten at Graces once but it seems these two places are overrated in my opinion. This is unfortunate because this is my new area. Any thoughts on good pub food in the area or the right dishes to eat at the above mentioned?

Craig: Tonyjive - I want to remind everyone on this chat of my policy against posting overly harsh anonymous criticism. If you've got something to say, please use your own name. I do. Which is why I'm replying here. I agree and disagree with you on those points. Ten Stone is a great, fun bar with excellent beers, but their food has never made me happy. Grace, on the other hand, has really improved nicely since it opened. I recently had a stellar burger there that was one of the better ones I've eaten in town.

Craig: As for other gastropubs, that's another question all together. Did want to mention one thing, though. I understand that Sidecar in G-Ho has really amped up its kitchen ambition recently. Does anyone out there have a report?

Terry:: Melograno/Sushi on the Square ? Snow White

Craig: Sorry guys. It seems like this week's Crumb Tracker was just a tad too tricky. Melograno (where the beet ravioli come beneath a sage butter sauce studded with poppy seeds), and Snow White (what a lunch scene), are right on. The sushi roll was eaten at Tampopo on Jeweler's Row and I LOVED it - the cool spicy tuna wrapped in the warmth of a torched band of white tuna. The togarashi spice dusting was a nice touch.

Terry: Craig, I gotta ask. What is G-Ho?

Craig: G-Ho is the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood around (and mostly south of) the building formerly known as Graduate Hospital. I wonder whether the 'hood is going to have to coin a new monicker when the new tenant takes over?

Craig: OK, Mr. Jordan. Thanks for joining in! And thanks to everybody for coming back to this week's chat despite the

Tonyjlive: Tony Jordan's my name, eating is my game. continous interruptons. I plan to be back here next week, same time, same URL. But hungrier than ever! Until then, be well and eat something worth bragging about!