I occasionally wake up in a cold sweat, craving fish tacos. Sometimes chicken. With guacamole. I moved to London from California five years ago and it’s an anomaly anywhere in Europe to eat at a restaurant with actual Mexicans in the kitchen. Last October I was on a mission to consume my weight in tacos before my East Coast US trip was over.
El Vez seemed the perfect mix of fun and tasty for me (vacationer with a low threshold for spice), my boyfriend (Londoner wary of the south-of-the-border culinary unknown), and my old friend (married a Mexican, knows her enchiladas). This joint keeps the menu short and punchy, focusing on Cali-Mexi street food and eschewing any complicated flavors from lesser-known regions of Mexico.
The restaurant is tucked into a pleasingly thriving little pocket of Central Philly, on 13th Street. A lot of little boutiques, restaurants and wine bars have converged here in recent years and lent this part of 13th style and return appeal. El Vez is the big, flashy place on the corner, with the roar of voices leaping out each time someone opens the door.
The atmosphere is a bit of a nuevo rockabilly joyride…colorful and eager to draw out the playful side of patrons either starting out a big night or ending it with a solid meal. This is a Stephen Starr endeavor, and anyone who knows the style of this acclaimed Philadelphia restaurateur is familiar with his penchant for taking a theme and running with it (other favorites: Pod and Buddakan). If the theme here seems ambiguous (are tricked-out low-rider bikes specific to Mexico?), you can boil it down to one critical element: good times. The evidence is in hundreds of photo portraits in a busy mosaic lining the entire back wall, and the lively crowd circling the bar and getting glam in the photo booth.
My posse was not out for a wild Saturday night, but found El Vez equally accommodating of those wanting serious conversation over seriously fresh, flavorful food. The din that permeates the main floor and bar area dissolved when we were seated in a windowside booth by the door. Our server (Mexican!) was personable but not in-your-face—recommending when prompted, hanging back to allow decision, appearing in a snap as my empty margarita glass hit the table.
The classic El Vez Margarita, made with homemade lime puree, is a beautiful way to start your meal with quintessential chips-and-guac. The Indian Red Lopez guacamole jumped out at me from the menu. It’s made with spicy crab, cilantro and salsa roja, and crab is not a choice I care to deliberate. If you put it on the menu—especially in huge delicate chunks in a sea of avocado—it’s going in my mouth. I didn’t even flinch at the “spicy”; it was mild, and beautifully brought out the fresh seafood taste. The Indian Red Lopez became one of the highlights of my entire two-week trip.
We all ordered tacos for our main dishes. The boyfriend’s were vegetarian colache, delivering a great hit of umami with smoky roasted veggies and queso fresco. I went for the absolutely lovely-lovely mahi-mahi—light and crispy, with a punch of tangy chili remoulade. The friend had the best of all worlds with the taco tasting platter; each little beauty was rolled, folded or stacked in artful contrast to its brother: mahi-mahi; sea bass, with sweet potato and scallions; beef; chicken; and carnitas.
Given the “fun” hard at work at El Vez, I was thrilled that the low-key menu took itself seriously. The basic flavors and components of Mexican cuisine can be kept simple, but need freshness and balance to achieve excellence. The few things we sampled on El Vez’s menu checked all of these boxes. Back in London, late at night, I savor the memories.
121 South 13th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107, USA
Photography by Amanda Tallen