Tequilas at 25

We may live in an era of 144-character political commentary, six-word memoirs and emotional expression via punctuation marks, but it’s hard to beat contemporary restaurant menus for linguistic minimalism.

It’s so widespread you hardly even notice it. The other day, JG Domestic offered “Wild Alaskan Halibut. Watercress, La Quercia Prosciutto.” Now for one or two sentence fragments (I’m not sure how you count them since there weren’t actually periods in the original), that actually conveys a decent amount of information: The halibut is from Alaska. It isn’t farmed. It comes with watercress and some of the loveliest prosciutto crafted in the Lower 48. But what do the line cooks do with the fish? Pan-roast it? Grill it? Poach it in duck fat? There’s no telling. Verbs, it appears, are passe on modern high-end menus.

And the higher you go, the sparer the prose. Last month, Mica ran a dish called “Claw. Coddled Egg, Asparagus, Black Trumpet.” (Once more, periods added.) This was in a dinner featuring lobster at every course, so that “Claw” part is less opaque than it sounds. But pity the rube who doesn’t know that Black Trumpet is a kind of mushroom as the inclusion of that noun would have raised the word count to an absolutely untenable seven. That just would not do. And then there are those atmospherically high-concept restaurants like Chicago’s Alinea, one of whose current courses bears the title “Snow. Yuzu.”

Whatever the reason (mass attention deficit disorder, dining rooms too dark to permit anything beyond basic word recognition, the hope that ultra-trim prose will reassure a mega-bellied dining public that it’s okay to go for that fourth course after all) menus just don’t provide much in the way of pleasure reading these days. Which is all the more reason to quote the throwback description of the Filete Grito, a $22.95 entrée at Tequilas, in its glorious, sprawling entirety.

“Grito” means shout. This dish brings out a cry of joy when tasted, confirming the high degree of culinary creativity that exists in Mexico. The cactus leaf is a bed with the tropical tamarindo sauce inviting the chile chipotle to participate as a witness in the lynching of the fabulous filet mignon, along with the chiles serranos. Rice, guacamole and refried beans as garnish.

Now there’s a verb for you: Lynching. As in, “to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal sanction.” (Rarely has the consultation of my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate brought a more satisfying reward.)

I’ve heard of grilling a filet mignon, and pan-searing it. And I guess I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that someone’s tried stuffing it into a turkey stuffed, in turn, inside a suckling pig. But lynching it? That’s the sort of idea that can grab a man by his lapels.

In an essay taking point-blank aim at foodies in the March issue of The Atlantic, B.R. Myers notes that gourmets of a past era prized the flesh of animals whose slaughter entailed especial agony. “That of animals that had been whipped to death was more highly valued for centuries, in the belief that pain and trauma enhanced taste,” he writes, going on to quote an old British dining manual’s claim that “[a] true gastronome … is as insensible to suffering as is a conqueror.”

Could the foodies of Christmas past have treasured anything more highly than lynched steer? Unlikely, if Tequilas’ version is anything to go by. The meat emerged a perfect medium rare, its underside licked by a rivetingly tangy tamarind sauce. The chipotle chile, perhaps unhinged with revelry over its role as an invited witness to the aforementioned mob action, seemed to have spent its heat elsewhere so as to linger only as a subtle memory of the smoke that sometimes accompanies these night-shrouded affairs. The guacamole was oversalted, but hey, you can’t expect vigilante justice to get every little detail just right. And all in all, for a cut of beef more renowned for its tenderness than its flavor, this perfectly sauced offering was a rare treat.

Alas, it was also rare in that the filet was the only piece of meat in two recent meals at Tequilas that wasn’t overcooked. The Molcajetes (which came as a gargantuan and primordial bowl of heated lava rock bubbling with a brilliant distillation of chiles de arbol in tomato sauce), featured strips of beef tenderloin only a couple notches less chewy than jerky. The sauce, in a recurring theme, was spot-on: chile heat, sweetness, and acidity all in terrific balance. But the meat was a disappointment. (One wonders how it might have been improved if they’d, oh, I don’t know…zapped it with a Taser and waterboarded it first.)

A duck breast in white mole—again, the sauce subtly rendered if perhaps a tad sweet—was, per the menu, roasted. Per the teeth and the tongue, however, it was awfully close to what most kitchens would achieve exclusively by microwave: grey all through, and rubbery as a bath toy. The mole poblano, though? Well, why not let the menu tell that story…

Spanish colonialism had been the imposing force for decades, yet through inter-marriage a new culture gradually emerged—the Mestizo. In the city of Puebla, several convents were active in creating much of the traditional Mexican cooking, as we know it today. One such convent was expecting a visit by a distinguished archbishop. A nun decided to serve a sauce known by the Nahuatl Indians as “mulli.” However “mulli” is a potpourri of hot chiles.

Knowing the holy man was not accustomed to spicy dishes, she set to the task of adding ingredients that would counteract the chiles: chile ancho, dorado bread, tomato, cloves, bitter chocolate, chile poblano, peanuts, sugar, almonds, chile guajillo, fried tortillas, chile chalaca, carrots and garlic. This very combination makes a mole poblano a truly rich and complex sauce. A succulent boiled chicken breast exalted from the past. Served with rice and refried beans.

How can I improve on that summation? Not by saying that the sauce was rich, or brooding, or intricately layered—though it was all three (even if not on the same level as the mole negro at El Rey). But Tequilas could improve on the dish by braising the chicken in the mole, or at least finishing it off that way—or at the very least by pouring the sauce over chicken that isn’t as dry as the breasts that came to me. (Do you think it would be possible to do a chicken in by smothering it under a pile of drunken Mets fans? Because that would be some real agony.) And the kitchen could also stand to breathe a little more life into its lackluster nachos. A bit of cheese and bland chicken cut with pasty refried black beans, pickled jalapenos, and halved slices of mediocre tomatoes no longer cuts it in the city that Jose Garces (re)built. I’m not sure that it ever cut it, period.

As always, it’s hard to pinpoint the source of inconsistent execution. Tequilas, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, has only had two head chefs in all that time—and the current one, Claudio Soto, worked under his predecessor before taking the reigns about several years ago. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of crowd size: My disappointing meats all came on a weekday evening when the sprawling dining rooms were fast approaching—if not actually reaching—the 130-seat capacity, while that properly cooked filet came at a deserted lunch hour, when my table was one of only two that were occupied.

But while Tequilas has gotten more and better competition since David and Annette Suro first gave Center City a rare-for-the-time taste of sophisticated Mexican cooking in 1986, few of the newcomers can match the atmosphere that invests the sprawling interior that’s been the restaurant’s home since 2001. From the intricately carved moldings lining the high ceilings to the painted songbirds preening on the chunky ceramic dinner plates, Tequilas manages to interweave urbanity and rustic comfort into a timelessly classic aesthetic.

And the long, dark wooden bar is one of the most grown-up places in town to have a drink. The Suros have always done right by their restaurant’s titular spirit. The range of blue agave tequilas here, broken down by highland and lowland terroir, remains unsurpassed. As a matter of fact, the restaurant has actually been certified by Mexico’s Consejo Regulador del Tequila for the quality of its offerings and the knowledge of its servers.

But in the last three years, they’ve upped the ante on the mixology side of things, too.

There’s one tequila and mezcal cocktail list created by Phil Ward, who won outsize bartending acclaim at New York’s Death & Co. and now runs Mayahuel, a Mexican restaurant and tequila bar in the East Village. There’s another by journeyman “liquid chef” Junior Merino. A third serves as a repository for staff concoctions. Put plainly, the tequila cocktails here are on par with the best drinks Philadelphia has to offer anywhere, and I loved every one I tried, from the aptly named Dia De Verde, which marries jalapeno-infused blanco tequila with yellow chartreuse, lime, cucumber and mint, to the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, with its admixture of mezcal suggesting a scrub brush roast.

But none thrilled me more than the Alma Blanca, whose baroque list of ingredients—habanero-infused tequila, aloe vera, pineapple juice, muddled corn, Herbsaint, gingery Domaine de Canton, a red rime of hibiscus salt lining the rim—belies one of the most well-integrated drinks you’ll have all summer.

I’ll be back for one of those for sure. And if one turns into another, and then a third (which it probably will) I can see myself giving Tequilas kitchen another chance to match the consistency of its bar service.

After all, where else can a man unleash a mad cry of joy to celebrate a potentially magnificent lynching?