A marquee is no place for understatement, but only one affixed to a Stephen Starr restaurant would promise to change your life. That’s the claim that stretches across El Rey’s cinema-style signboard on Chestnut Street – “Esto Cambiara Su Vida” – which goes to show that some boasts just go down better in Spanish.
What better way to signal that a dingy hole-in-the-wall isn’t what it used to be, which in this case was the Midtown IV Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge? Although much of the interior actually still is the grotty diner: Beneath a checkerboard of beige acoustical ceiling tiles, the same scalloped lunch counter sits above the same old floor, and wood-veneer booths jut out from the original faux-stone walls. Decorative updates – wildly mismatched ceiling lamps, exuberantly clashing colors, a ribald assortment of prison pencil drawings, classic Mexican movie posters and Tijuana flea-market art – cap off this outré aesthetic like a trucker hat worn for winks. It all gives El Rey the atmosphere of a Mexican border bar. Or a seamy Steak and Ale.
Perhaps the difference is slim. Either way, it’s a new look for Starr, and a testament to how far Philadelphia’s Mexican dining scene has come. In 2003, when El Vez opened, it took a rotating gold-plated low-rider bicycle and roving guacamole stations to lure Center City into having fish tacos for dinner. Now we can be trusted to order corn-smut quesadillas under a portrait of a hardened felon fingering a chain-link fence.
At El Rey, those quesadillas are tucked into greaseless made-to-order tortillas – one of several touches distinguishing chef Dionicio Jimenez’s fare from other Mexican kitchens around town. Jimenez, whose blend of creativity and classicism won him high praise at Xochitl, executes a mostly traditional menu at El Rey. Signature creations like his watermelon and scallop ceviche will occasionally crop up on the list of specials, but the emphasis here is on -straightforward – though very mildly spiced – Mexican street cuisine. Think tacos, tamales, torta sandwiches and the like.
Jimenez has a talent for this simple fare. While those huitlacoche quesadillas were a bit bland, other versions filled with zucchini blossoms and corn showed that sometimes one-dimensional flavors are all you need. Pork pibil gorditas – the edges of the masa buns blistered, the centers moist as buttered cornbread – would be a multi-textural delight even without the snap of pickled red onions playing off the tender pig.
Jimenez has an even better feel for complex dishes. The outstanding stuffed poblano pepper, a carryover from Xochitl, rides waves of flavor – a splash of creamy walnut sauce, a spray of almonds, then a dried-fruit-and-cinnamon-scented tide of beef, whose sweetness recedes as tart bursts of pomegranate punctuate the slow burn of the chili. Sucking his mole negro – an alchemy of anchos, mulatos and chilhuacles – off of slow-cooked lamb cubes is like plunging through a column of chili smoke into a cauldron of chocolate-dusted tobacco leaves. It’s as black as sin, as pungent as heartache, as mysterious as redemption.