The neon signs of Distrito, Jose Garces’s new Mexican restaurant, light up 40th Street in University City like a beacon to everyone in a five-block radius: Here’s where the party is! Unlike its more sedate sister spots Amada and Tinto — places where the cuisine makes the most remarkable and lasting impression — Distrito lets its ambience, set by a fluorescent color palette and a prop-heavy decor, hog the spotlight, while the Mexico-inspired flavors fight to be almost as big and bold as their backdrop.
The place is even more over-the-top than the Stephen Starr restaurants from which some elements seem to be borrowed. The swings in the dining room will be familiar to fans of the Continental Midtown, and the high-backed, U-shaped booths along one wall of the dining room are reminiscent of El Vez, where Garces worked as executive chef for two years. Then there’s the floor-to-ceiling wall of sparkly Mexican wrestling masks, and a green VW bug — a replica of Mexico City’s ubiquitous taxicabs — that also serves as a table for four. A roaming mariachi belts out tunes while the projection-screen TV plays Mexico-themed comedies like Three Amigos and Nacho Libre.
[sidebar]It would be very easy to move a lot of lackluster food in this 260-seat blockbuster of a restaurant; the spectacle alone would draw crowds. But Garces devotees demand more than neon lights and kaleidoscopic colors, and Distrito’s small-plates menu — a taqueria-meets-tapas bill of fare — delivers the creativity and quality they’ve come to expect, with very few exceptions. True, a squash blossom quesadilla — made the Mexican way, in a corn-dough pocket, rather than in flour-based Tex-Mex style — tastes vegetal and bland; the four-inch handmade tortillas that should cradle the tacos’ fillings (be they the carnitas or veal cheek) are too small and delicate to be functional; and skewers of scallops are overwhelmed by a sticky-sweet pineapple-chili glaze. But on the whole, the perfect hits far outnumber the misses. Skirt steak nachos offer tender, flavorful meat shredded over freshly fried tortillas — and make a strong case for upmarket versions of even the most casual food. The tortilla soup is the most complex and soul-satisfying in town. And Garces’s masterful ceviches, especially the sweet-salty red snapper with capers and tomatoes, are not just memorable, but also bode well for Chifa, the chef’s next project, in the works at 7th and Chestnut streets (where he promises an extensive ceviche bar).
Part silly and part savvy, Distrito will likely pull some serious food enthusiasts to West Philly, if only to witness its splashy entrée onto the scene — a fusion of food and fun that shows another side of one of the city’s most celebrated chefs in an opening that will mark the moment when Garces successfully meshed the roles of chef and showman.