A decade ago, Philadelphia was a Mexican-food wasteland. But a recent wave of immigration has brought with it a flurry of tiny taquerias serving regional Mexican specialties, like the unforgettable pineapple-and-pork tacos al pastor at Los Taquitos de Puebla.
With a credentialed chef and a few standout treats (like the herbaceous and tart tomatillo salsa served with every meal), the always-mobbed Cantina Los Caballitos in South Philadelphia and its new Northern Liberties replica, Cantina Dos Segundos, had an opportunity to meld the authentic flavors of our taquerias with the type of margarita-soaked setting we’ve long loved. But instead of filling this conspicuous void, the twin Cantinas dish out the same old mainstream Mex, dialed down in spice and scaled up in portion size for typical American tastes.
There are some dishes that exhibit a flair for real Latin American flavors. Chef Mark McKinney, formerly chef de cuisine at the now-closed Pasíon, turns out confidently seasoned ceviches, like a special that featured ruby cubes of rich tuna in a bath of citrus, coconut, ginger and tart pickled onions. Another worthwhile dish is the succulent slow-cooked goat, with those same onions and a fresh cucumber salad. McKinney’s flavorful Oaxacan yellow mole is served over tender free-range turkey that’s been slow-cooked on the bone. Its complexity hints at culinary skills that would flourish with a smaller, focused menu.
Or smaller, period. The “Burrito Gigante Americano” is a flavorless fat-and-starch bomb stuffed with beans, rice, cheese, sour cream and guacamole. Wrapped in a tortilla, this supersized entrée clearly prizes quantity over quality. The restaurant’s chimichanga, an American invention popularized in fast-food joints, is a deep-fried torpedo of tortilla wrapped around a sloppy mess of mushy rice, gristly pork, and an alloy of refried beans and cheese that’s reminiscent of Taco Bell.
[sidebar]Other dishes’ menu descriptions hint at authenticity: The huitlacoche quesadilla, stuffed with wild Mexican corn fungus, should be complex and earthy. But huitlacoche isn’t an ingredient for flavor-shy Americans tongues, and this version is soggy with grease and devoid of mushroom flavor. Enchiladas that promise chicken, chorizo, potatoes and chipotle deliver mostly stringy chicken in a generic sticky-sweet brown sauce. It’s a take on enchiladas that costs one-third more than any of the sensational variations of the dish available at Plaza Garibaldi.
But like its sister establishment, Dos Segundos is more watering hole than restaurant, more neighborhood hangout than dining destination. It’s a sure bet for a relaxed happy hour, but for the robust Mexican flavors we’ve recently come to know, you’re still better off with takeout from a taqueria on Washington Avenue.