Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Reliable Restaurant Recommendation (RRR): Tequila's

Los Catrines Tequila's longevity alone has made it an important fixture on the Philadelphia restaurant scene. It offers several features that others don't, including: 1) large amounts of seating; 2) great atmosphere, thanks in large part to the authentic Mexican murals, good lighting, and good noise control; 3) reliable menu, including crave-worthy margaritas and nachos; and 4) excellent staff.

I remember it when it was "across the street," which, in actuality, was on the next block up. A tiny first floor operation with a strange and equally cramped loft space, the wait for tables was always long. But I had a friend who would crave the Chiles Rellenos and I, a sucker for the nachos and margaritas, would dutifully wait with her. It was invariably worth it. If not for the food, for the menu descriptions alone. For example, the entry for the Sopes del Rancho reads, "During the Mexican Revolution, women were a vital factor in the survival of the campesino. Through battlefields and wide-open country, they set up makeshift kitchens. These courageous ladies provided a basic nutritional element. Hand made corn masa rounded into flat shallow cups and filled with refried beans, chorizo, ground meat or chicken topped with tomato, lettuce, fresh cream and grated cheese." Lured in by the prospect of reliving that moment, that feeling, I could never help but feel a little transported when I ate there.

If anything, the new space increases the feeling of other-worldliness. Occupying the former Magnolia Cafe with its big windows and cavernous space, Tequila's can offer its patrons more tables with a little less of a wait than its former location. Tequila's made the space its own with artwork and decorations that never overpower, only add to the dining experience.

David Suro, ever present at both locations, greets his customers with a knowing, welcoming smile. Devoid of pretension, he conveys a sense of genuine enjoyment, both of what he's doing and others' appreciation. Most staff have also been there for some time. The experience is revealed in the way margaritas are delivered to your table -- with one balanced on a server's head and the other balanced on the server's fingertips. Simultaneously provoking child-like awe and subdued respect, the spectacle is worth the margarita.

Speaking of which, Suro's new foray into tequila has brought the restaurant his own brand - Siembra Azul, which, in my limited tequila palate, works quite well in a margarita. The extensive tequila list is unparalled for the more experienced drinker, although the staff is always happy to supply recommendations. The bar is wonderful as well, with comfortable seating and the right mix of television and people watching.

It's no mistake that my focus is on the service, atmosphere, and reliability -- Tequila's strong suits. The menu, while offering some reliably good choices, has occasional pitfalls and items that I wished were altered in some small ways. The guacamole, for example, at last bite was overly seasoned and a bit watered down; I was more aware of the acid than the chunks of avocado. Many of the meat dishes offer thin cuts of meat awash in sauce, which is often admittedly good, but leave me wanting more. For dessert, the Crepas (crepes with caramel and ice cream) deliver the right taste, but soon turn into an unmanageable soup. On the other hand, another friend urged me to try the Queso Fundido, which I found to be an excellent alternative comfort food, wedged into a tortilla. My personal standby is the Carne Aguacate because of the avocado cilantro sauce, a mild but flavorful sauce that enhances the meat. The ceviche is also quite good, lacking the flash of trendier restaurants, but still deftly handling a more straight-forward preparation.

Because they are so amazing and often overlooked, the murals deserve a quick word -- they were created by Clemente Orozco Farias, grandson of Jose Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican mural artist whose traditions and teachings heavily influenced the work of Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, the leaders of the Mexican Mural Renaissance. The lobby features large skeletal figures, Catrines, which Farias modeled after his grandfather's works. Tequila's website explains that "'Catrin' Is A Mexican Term To Mock Pretentious Elegance." It goes on to describes the murals with same florid, passionate tone that it describes its food, "Posada's Catrines symbolize a rebellion against the evil dictatorship embodied in the elegant, pretentious, and arrogant characters devoid of souls." Sign me up.

Part spectacle, part gallery, part family, Tequila's delivers a reliably good time.

Tequila's is located at 1602 Locust Street.

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