Shoryu, London


You can’t throw a gyoza in London these days without hitting an East Asian eatery, to my extreme delight. Gone are the days when you had to muscle past tourists in Chinatown to get your noodle on. Shoryu now occupies a valid place in this burgeoning field. On a frigid winter’s day I visited the Kingly Court branch of this small chain.


A gong resonated to my left as I entered a lively atmosphere. The gong marks anyone entering or exiting, meaning it sounds roughly every 20 seconds at lunchtime — a solemn tone balanced by laughter and dishes clattering. A chattering group of waitresses broke off conversation to greet me in Japanese, and I was shown to a stool by a wooden counter.

This ground-level branch has an open kitchen and attached dining room that extends past the counter seating to a second dining room. Having not yet been to Japan, I wondered whether the cafes there are as sexy and inviting as those in London – all blond wood and mood lighting. The boyfriend assures me they are not, at least in Tokyo, where he frequented flourescently bright, acoustically aggressive places focused solely on eating, ambience be damned. Lucky London, with our appreciation of zen dining.


Shoryu specialises in tonkotsu ramen from the Hakata district of Fukuoka, which didn’t strike me as wildly different from other ramens I’ve tasted except the noodles were straight, rather than curly.

They take 12 hours to fine-tune the signature opaque, pork-based broth and their diligence has earned a legion of fans, considering the attention on social media. Breaking with convention, I tried their “white natural” vegetarian version, made with tonyu soy milk, miso, konbu and shiitake broth, atsuage fried tofu, kikurage mushrooms, spring onion, menma bamboo shoots and nori seaweed. On that freezing February day, it had life-giving properties.



Pork buns are an obvious choice these days, so I went for the Shoryu chicken from bun options that also included tiger prawn tempura, halloumi-mushroom and Wagyu beef. Diehards would miss the pork, but I’m not a huge fan and the key ingredient was there: a light, spongey bun that came stamped with Shoryu’s logo. In it was nestled tangy soy-marinated chicken karaage (translation: deep fried). There’s a long list of other sides, including fishcakes, whitebait, onigiri and tofu.




The counter was a good choice for a lone diner and her laptop, but there’s a palpable air of conviviality in the restaurant. Maybe it was the warmth exuded through feng shui. Maybe it was the pervasive sound of the gong and cries of Japanese welcome. In any case, I suddenly wished I had brought a friend to share this experience.

I look forward to taking in an hour on Shoryu’s terrace this summer, but ultimately this is exotic winter comfort food, something you can never have too much of in England.

G3-5 Kingly Court, London W1B 5PJ,

Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Opso, London

exteriorI like being the first one of my party to arrive for dinner. On a cold February night this gave me the chance to get a good first look at the modern Greek tapas joint that is Opso. I craved comfort after getting lost outside Regent’s Park tube station, but walking into the sexy bar area I felt a bit underdressed and began self-consciously peeling off layers. I appreciate the urban style of such a bar — hidden lighting features, bearded bartenders, a grid of steel pipes balancing stemware and bottles — but on this occasion I sought cosiness. Glancing at the dining room beyond, I found it: brown paper table coverings and wicker, farmhouse chairs. In this corner of Marylebone, it seems, I had found an urban-pastoral mash-up (with a touch of dirty take-away…but I’ll get to that).

My friend arrived and I handed her a glass of the bubbly the chalkboard advertised that night: NV Amalia Tselepos Brut. We headed to the comfort zone. About half of the dining room featured small tables, with a communal, high table at the center. interior

I’m surprised whenever a waitress asks me if I’ve ever had tapas (“Do you know how it works?” “Are you OK with sharing?”), but then I remember to savour the now: modern-day London, with its scores of small plates and global cuisine. One could share every meal for 365 days, and never have to face another shepherd’s pie. The only real question is how many dishes will satisfy two people, and here the answer was five. So we ordered seven.

Classic spanakopita came first, a handmade pie with spinach and feta that we ordered almost out of obligation to Greek society, but — holy Acropolis — did it deliver. Sourdough bread cubes came with a sort of Greek hummus: yellow fava-bean spread from Santorini, topped with crispy capers and red onion.


Spanakopita and sourdough bread cubes with yellow fava-bean spread

The healthy option arrived next: Dakos salad, in another sublime example of what any of us would consider quintessential Greek food: cherry tomatoes, olive oil rusks, organic capers, Kalamata olives, and lovely, ultra-smooth mature feta cheese. Behind the salad lurked the sin: fried Metsovone cheese, inconspicuously perched on a slab of slate. A tight shell of breadcrumbs concealed a small cylinder of smoked cheese, the likes of which I may never erase from memory. Smear it with homemade rhubarb jam and it’s easy to forget you don’t even have bread or crackers. You’re just forking it in with abandon, molten bite after molten bite.


Fried Metsovone cheese with rhubarb jam

Here’s where the dirty take-away factor dropped in: our next two plates weren’t actually plates. The arrival of small fast-food boxes made me look at my watch with alarm, before I processed the situation. It’s the mash-up aesthetic again: mixing casual street-food style into our otherwise elegant meal. Dinner had gone from traditional to trendy in one beat, but I couldn’t find fault with either. Although it did leave me wondering if Opso’s having a bit of an identity crisis, trying to be all things to all diners. Some questions should just be ignored for the sake of beautiful flavour.

The first box revealed our soutzoukaki hot dog;  personally, I would never disrespect such a delicacy with the term “hot dog”, but I think I’ve visited too many American ballparks. This was a grilled beef shortrib patty with a traditional tomato-cumin sauce in a tahini brioche bun.  The second boxed item was a salmon burger with tomato jam and aioli mayo in a striking squid-ink bun. We shared both tapas, but probably should have ordered one each.

You know when you forget you’ve over-ordered and you’re kicking back, digesting, when suddenly you’re staring at a steaming pile of noodles? That is when I advise you to ignore the wheel of hot cheese you’ve already consumed and draw upon your inner strength. The pastitsio noodle box (yes, another box) sheltered traditional hylopites pasta, with slow-cooked pulled beef cheek dripping in a tomato-and-beschamel sauce. To be fair, it was much like dessert, having a certain sweet quality, and I have no regrets about skipping the official last course.
Opso also has a basement floor, with more of the same vibe, and on a Tuesday night neither dining room felt too crowded. After paying the bill I took a quick trip to the loo, only to return and find the waitress waiting beside my friend at our table, to let us know the next party had arrived. We had pre-agreed to relinquish our table after 1.5 hours, and were still well within this range, so it would have been nice to leave with a bit more dignity. Still, we were fed, we were warm, and we knew the way back to the station. I maintain: no regrets.

Opso: 10 Paddington St, W1U 5QL, Marylebone, London,

Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Jinjuu, London

IMG_3639-0At the end of my meal at Jinjuu I discovered what I’d been missing, as I descended stairs to the loo. Tucked away below the main floor of the Carnaby-area Korean restaurant is the perfect cultural symbiosis of food and art. This subterranean diner-like area seemed a more appropriate environment for the à-la-mode street food I’d been inhaling upstairs; up there was a suitably sexy-fun dining experience, but down here was a Korean Happy Meal. Brass pipes dangled from the ceiling, catching the light. Art splashed the booths and polished concrete walls. Metal chopsticks clicked against a smooth house soundtrack. It felt like Asia for beginners: colourful and cool, but comfortable.

IMG_3633-0My friend and I were seated on the ground floor, which was not unlike other bar-restaurants in Soho—dark tones, wood tables, and a massive bar. It lacked the vibe I had picked up downstairs but that didn’t detract from the yum. We sank into soju cocktails —mine like summer in a glass, the perfect after-work antidote when you have finally escaped recycled air and long for something that wakes and soothes.

IMG_3634-0 The friend added Bulgogi (marinated) beef to her main of Jap Chae, a colourful pile of veggies with sweet-potato noodles and egg. I selected Kimchi fried rice to accompany Bulgogi beef tacos. In addition to the main menu, Jinjuu offers one of anju, Korean small plates and side dishes.

Both mains were solid choices, and either would make a reasonable late-night indulgence, having that slightly sinful touch of grease and goodness we all demand from our street food. But the kimchi fried rice was a mealtime victory; I abandoned my tacos entirely, crudely excavating the bowl with my sticks, moving from crunchy seaweed crisp to smooth fried egg to tender rice and chewy pancetta.

Bulgogi beef tacos with kimchi fried rice

Bulgogi beef tacos with kimchi fried rice


Jap Chae with Bulgogi beef

Scanning the rest of the menu, I wondered whether Korean-Mexican-American fusion has made its way to Korea. My first taste was at the iconic Kogi BBQ truck in L.A., but the buzz has floated over the pond and cross-pollinated Western menus far and wide. Jinjuu’s speciality is their fried chicken; it may suggest KFC but it screams Korea with hot, sultry sauces and white radish on the side. Also on offer were carnitas fries and sliders, plus more homogenous Korean plates like dumplings and bibimbap bowls.

My next visit to Jinjuu will comprise a binge downstairs after a few cocktails in some random Soho bar. Not because I need alcohol to appreciate, but because it’s a bit heavy and a bit naughty, and infinitely better than a corner-shop kebab.

IMG_3638-0Jinjuu, 15 Kingly Street, London W1B5PS,

Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Flat Iron, London

ceilingI recoil at the sight of raw meat. But picturing it charred and lying supine next to a sharp blade? That’s a vision that gives me the good kind of shivers. In London, as in almost any major city worldwide, steak is primarily a luxury. A birthday treat. An expensed work dinner. An option you offer up when you know your dad will pay. The creators of Flat Iron clearly took a hard look at this sad truth and stampeded into Soho to capture the hearts of We With Fragile Overdrafts.  For less than the price of a Zone 1 travelcard you can nurture your bloodlust at the original Beak Street location, or its hot little brother on iconic Denmark Street. bathroom

The boyfriend and I had the audacity to swagger into the latter at 7 pm on a Saturday, having heard you can score a good steak and some salad for £10 but fully aware they don’t take reservations. Not sure what karma we had racked up, but we were seated immediately. In America you’d have to put up with 20-year old carpets and stale drapes to get beef that cheap; here was a decidedly tasteful new-world steakhouse, a sort of  carnivory palace outfitted with cleavers on every table and plenty of solid wood and iron. Daylight gave way to candelight and Flat Iron came into its own, oozing sexiness the way their sirloin oozes…well…sexiness.

A sublime Old-Fashioned to start the meal seemed essential. It’s easy to convince yourself of such things when your main costs only a tenner. I was sipping away merrily when a tin mug of popcorn alighted on our table, the better to whet our palate and necessitate more drinks. The mainly male waiters that night were casually elegant, in the same vein as Flat Iron itself. We couldn’t be more pleased at getting a high-end experience at bargain basement prices. menu

We each went for the speciality – flat iron, a shoulder cut known as butler’s to Brits – the boyfriend’s with peppercorn sauce and mine with bearnaise. We specified medium and it arrived looking – then tasting – about six kinds of awesome. Side orders range from creamed spinach to aubergine, but we stuck with fries to round out the ubiquitous steakhouse experience. Plus the steak comes with a perky little salad to appease your arteries. Medium steak

Each location features apparently daily specials of specially sourced UK meat, in addition to the flat-iron; the night we went there were burgers, but a quick dip into their Twitter pool hinted at Wagyu beef and a belly cut at other times. I loved the intimacy of the Denmark Street restaurant, but I hear great things about the long communal tables of the two-storey Beak Street venue, and the St John’s doughnuts that are sorely lacking on Denmark Street. The prices aren’t not serendipity; they’re good business sense…I’ll come back to this lovely little spot again and again, throwing down my tenners and knocking back whiskey like JR on a Monday lunch break.

9 Denmark Street, London W1F 9RW (or 17 Beak Street WC2H 8LS)

Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

XVA Cafe, Dubai


In Dubai, a city akin to Las Vegas without sin, the boyfriend and I found something unexpected: an artistic, unassuming restaurant serving pan-Arabian vegetarian food worth twice what we paid. Not sin, but not unlike it.

We had been increasily weary and hungry, walking along the Dubai Creek under the midday sun, and ground to a standstill outside a government building and a mosque. Neither promised respite for two pale, agnostic, famished civilians. Forcing ourselves onward, around a bend in the creek, we walked straight into the Old Dubai complex that harbours the Al Fahidi neighbourhood. This cool stone warren of walls and pathways guided us through artworks and smelled vaguely of coffee. We wandered into the heart and discovered the exquisite XVA Cafe, hotel and galleries, nestled among other restaurants, a coffee museum, and Dubai’s architectural society.

IMG_2903The cafe is in airy courtyard shielded overhead by long, billowing strips of fabric. The Arab sun, even in winter, can be keel-inducing, but here ex-pats, locals and tourists alike languoured comfortably at wood and rattan tables and chairs, reflecting the calm of their surroundings. A tree in the courtyard’s centre had become the site of an art installation; small colourful dresses hung from its branches. In fact, artwork was everywhere to be seen, along the outer perimeter of the courtyard—in galleries and shops toeing the line between Middle Eastern and American sensibilities. XVA’s owner is an American, and I imagine she sensed a need for somewhere breezy, light and inspiring in a city dominated by, on the one hand, glass and steel, and on the other, ornate Arabian decor and the thick smoke of shisha pipes.

IMG_2904I asked for a mint lemonade, and our waiter smiled shyly, pointing at our placemats. Turns out my random choice has widespread appeal: the placemats were laminated pages from the XVA guestbook that bore several scrawled love letters to the epic lemonade. Vivid green rather than yellow, this nouveau slushie came with a whole mint leave surfing its icy peak. Despite the intense colour, the flavour was somehow delicately lemony and a perfect blend of sour and sweet. Vitality restored!

For a light lunch I chose the tabbouleh and, on the side, caramelised-onion hummous and pita bread, which was more than enough for an average-sized, albeit exceptionally hungry, patron. Homemade hummous was also on the boyfriend’s plate—the red pepper variety—and both kinds were far superior to any I’ve tasted outside the Middle East. His order was bean-cakes, resembling two smooth, charred pancakes and boasting a tender bite with beautiful seasoning. A salad of feta, cucumber and tomato sat side-saddle on his plate.

IMG_2905Meat seemed quintessential to nearly every other restaurant we visited while in Dubai. But at XVA, the abundance and freshness of cuisine would leave only the most cavernous carnivorous appetite unabated. And for us—staunch vegetarian sympathizers—XVA was like finding Mecca.

Service was flawless, and we spent a happy half-hour undisturbed after our meal…sitting back, feeling a light breeze, gaining back our strength. It was Valentine’s Day, and although that fact had escaped us until we saw the staff setting up decorations for dinner, we felt justifiably romanced. I would have chosen no other setting for an intimate meal far from home.

Al Fahidi Neighborhood, Bur Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

The Crooked Well, London

IMG_2878 England has mastered the pub, but it’s America that has mastered the gastropub. Since moving to London I’ve spent the past five years fighting depression every time I scan the menu of a gastropub (so much promise in the name! so much disaster on the plate!). The Crooked Well seems to have been hiding in plain sight from me in Camberwell, South London. Here is a pub that combines high-calibre cuisine with the ubiquitous neighbourhood comfort of every English watering hole.

The boyfriend remarked to me that it felt like someone’s home. Three connected rooms all have tables and seats, but with a slightly different vibe: the “dining room” (tables for four, standard restaurant set-up), the “kitchen” in the middle (tall tables and a bar where you can watch the mixologists) and the “living room”, with plush seats pulled up to low tables.

IMG_2873It may be homey, but it’s not your parents’ home. The whole place has an air of artless cool to it…rough-hewn wood tables and old lighting fixtures, twee wallpaper, line drawings of common fish and insects, an old railway map, and a small library perched among large mason jars of pickled things. It’s like the home of your hip older sister who runs a vintage stall and makes her own furniture and killer cocktails.

Enough visual feasting; the drinks arrived and we tucked into some sublime salt-and-pepper squid with spiced mayonnaise. Most calamari should be ashamed of itself, dripping with oil or suffocated with batter. This struck the right balance of texture and didn’t fill us up before the second act. At this point we noticed random twos and threes of swanky-looking customers floating down from a back staircase. Turns out there are rooms upstairs you can hire. There’s also supposed to be live jazz and other happenings, but the website’s out of date on this point.


Salt-and-pepper squid starter

I can’t really emphasise how pleasant the staff were. Not that “we’re-English-so-we’re-always-polite-but-just-masking-our-menace” — but, like, genuinely pleasant and dispatching the kind of elegant table service that made me forget I was in, essentially, a pub. We didn’t have to visit the bar once, although that is an option if you’re just there for drinks. A small crowd idled by the bar for hours, chatting and watching the bartenders shake the living daylights out of designer spirits.

My sea trout steak made its entrance on a broad glass plate, balancing itself against a stack of stiff crushed potato and festooned with a sprig of greens. The pink flesh fell apart neatly with the touch of a fork, cooked to perfect moistness — the little pot of creamy butter sauce was there only for added flavour. Small cubes of gummy lemon were scattered about the scene. You could take away most of the players here and still have a fresh, tasty meal but the full cast made it outstanding.

IMG_2876IMG_2875The boyfriend ordered the no-nonsense chargrilled picanha, or rump cap as we call it in the States. You have to admire a dish with only three ingredients, two of them arguably condiments. It was all about the steak, which delivered tenderness and rich flavour. A dish of cafe de paris butter was at the ready for slathering, a blend of 16 ingredients. A lone roast tomato completed this simple spread, which the boyfriend supplemented with pommes frites in a moment of panic at the prospect of a one-item meal. The fries were a welcome addition and big enough to share.

Camberwell has some really nice choices for foreign cuisine, but there’s a shortage of droolworthy upmarket English food anywhere in South London. I’m hoping this means the Crooked Well has secured its niche for a long future. I’ll wander back even if I’m not hungry — they have a Thursday Night Cocktail Club, and your hip older sister makes a mean Peruvian Shakedown.

16 Grove Lane, Camberwell, London SE5 8SY

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

S’Mac, New York City

S'Mac I walked into Sarita’s Macaroni + Cheese, aka S’Mac, with eyes wide open. I walked out really, really full. Like, 8-hours-later-not-a-hint-of-hunger full. That night I finally forced myself to have a hot dog around 11 pm because I was drinking beer and didn’t want to lose my head. I regret nothing.

My sister told me about this East Village branch of the two-restaurant chain. I can’t always get past the kitsch factor of some NYC restaurants, like Peanut Butter & Co, another invention of S’Mac’s founders, but this is mac-and-cheese. This is one of America’s greatest culinary offerings. And this is all that’s on the menu. Well, there is a mixed green salad to be had on the side but why kid ourselves?

S’Mac offers mac-and-cheese in every beatific form you could envision. If none of the 12 suggested flavor combos strike the right note, you can build your own with toppings that borrow inspiration from Italian cuisine….andouille sausage, roasted garlic, kalamata olives, fresh basil and figs. That’s right: FIGS. Do not try this at home with Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. You need quality macaroni and quality cheese to bear up under the irony of a delicate fruit. S’mac delivered. (And delivers, apparently!)

The boyfriend and I didn’t trust our building skills that day; I’ll have to live with never knowing if buffalo sauce complements tuna. We ordered the Mediterranean, the Parisienne, and the down-and-dirty 4-Cheese, in three “nosh”-sized portions to share. Upgrading even one dish to “major munch”, “mongo” or “partay!” size seemed like it actually might create problems walking out the door later. As it happens, even a “nosh” size of that much pasta and cheese should probably come with a warning for those with a heart condition.

Deceptively dainty cast-iron skillets were placed at our window counter seat with tiny custom oven mitts. Hot slabs of sunshine on a chilly day, in three skillets with two forks. NO REGRETS. The Parisienne kind of blew them all away for me, with brie, figs, roasted shiitake mushrooms, and fresh rosemary, but it was hard not to return to the siren song of the 4-Cheese…there’s something about an all-cheese m&c. In this case, replacing American hyper-orange cheez with grown-up dignitaries (cheddar, muenster, gruyere and pecorino) transports the dish leagues away from your college dorm room.

The Mediterranean was a lovely balance of goat cheese, sauteed spinach, kalamata olives and roasted garlic, equally at home here as on a pizza. S’Mac takes a basic homestyle dish to a transcendental level, but I liked that they kept the decor sort of old-style fast-food joint…plastic orange and yellow chairs and tables, root beer, ordering at the counter. Everything this satisfying should be this simple.

345 East 12th Street, New York, New York 10003 USA

Delivery/take-and-bake available!

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Ekachai, London

Ekachai-dining roomI had wheedled my way out of a group dinner for my friend’s birthday, and offered to take her out solo instead. My objective was a price range that belied quality of cuisine, and close proximity to my physical therapist so I could hobble there after my appointment. Out of four options I presented to my friend, she picked Ekachai, the Liverpool Street location of this small chain.

London’s City financial district has a cornucopia of banker’s budget restaurants, fast-lunch options, and Ekachai, nestled in an unglamorous arcade by Liverpool Street underground. The menu claims to offer Southeast Asian street-style food, but I’d have to be a much more graceful eater to consume a hefty bowl of curry on a sidewalk.

A Monday night visit required no reservation. The restaurant has two floors of seating but that evening only saw about 15 customers at any given time, which meant the wait staff was attentive and forgiving. Bare wood tables and metal chairs don’t scream relaxation, but this space had feng shui in spades; I felt at peace in the roomy downstairs dining room.

We ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and took our time ordering food, drawing out the process after choosing “soft shelled” crab to start. (The soft shell was intact, so I’m chalking this up to a grammatical mishap on the menu.) Our waitress came back again and again with the same patient smile, until we decided on our main courses.

Ekachai-soft shell crab

The crab starter was diminutive but divine. A whole soft-shell crab was lightly breaded and deep fried, then laid on a leaf beside a pot of sambal chili sauce. Apprehension about how to approach sharing gave way to raw desire. We tore the little guy in half and spent the next 90 seconds crunching happily. The chili sauce was potent and I went easy on dipping, leaving my palate open for the sublime subtlety of fresh crab meat.

Ekachai-kitchenOnce agreed upon, the main dishes took less than 10 minutes to reach our table. Mine was a steaming, golden bowl of Malaysian Kapitan Chicken curry. I chose egg-fried rice to accompany it and surprised myself by stopping just short of wolfing it all down. A good curry often goes down faster than my stomach can protest, but this was quite a generous portion. The light curry broth boasted great depth of flavor through roasted coconut and lemongrass.

My friend had an equally gratifying—if stodgier— main: the Char Kway Teow. She opted for prawns over tofu, which came tangled on a smoky brown bed of flat rice noodles. Like the ubiquitous Pad Thai loved by Westerners worldwide, this dish merged a rich sauce with satisfying bite. Egg and bean sprouts sang back-up for this crowd-pleaser.

We scraped back our chairs and sipped our wine, letting the enzymes do their thing. Our waitress gave us time and space to linger. We took a quick trip upstairs and discovered a bathroom so comically small we had to take turns closing our cubicle doors. Disappearing out the door, I was struck again by the drab interior of the arcade and how this bright spot had brightened my evening. Here is a little capsule of a Southeast Asian canteen in the heart of London, and for those missing Thailand on dark days, it’s a happy escape.

 9-10 Arcade Liverpool Street, London EC2M 7PN

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

El Vez, Philadelphia

El VezI 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.

El Vez 2

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

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society