The Revisit: Lolita
“You can drink as many of these as you want,” our server said brightly. “They’re good for you!”
The concoction in question, a Green Garden Margarita, featured what Lolita’s new menu called “green stuff” and our waitress had likened to a “juice cleanse, only with tequila in it.”
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen! The reason Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran, after ten years running Lolita–every Center City twenty-something’s favorite modern Mexican BYOB–went out and got a liquor license: to dole out Mason jars of juiced spinach, kale, celery, basil, cucumber, ginger and Cozadores Reposado.
I jest. That zingy, herbaceous play on agua fresca is just one among many reasons why Turney and Safran revamped their debut restaurant on 13th Street—and why I found myself so happy to be back there for the first time in almost four years.
Some of my pleasure no doubt came from reminiscence. Lolita opened the same year my wife and I moved to Philadelphia. She was a nursing student and I was struggling hard to make money. Going out to eat was an almost impossible extravagance. But we did, very occasionally, and Lolita might have been where we did it more than anywhere else. We almost never brought our own tequila—how could we justify buying a whole bottle?!—but Turney’s cooking plus a couple of iced beers was enough to be the culinary high point of any month.
We were richer in love than money. So what a sweet sensation it was, on a recent spring evening, to watch happy young people stream past Lolita’s sidewalk tables and realize that we still are.
Only now we can afford, a little more frequently (and even when the magazine isn’t paying), to order a bourbon tamarind sour along with our appetizers, or a cucumber-jalapeno margarita after them. Both of those refreshments hit the spot at Lolita. Piloncillo cane sugar layered an earthy sweetness upon the tamarind sour’s tang, and that restorative marg was a persuasive reminder that the best way to consume cucumbers is to drink them. A brooding, tomatoey michelada, rimmed with adobo, was also pretty good. But the cooking is still the restaurant’s strongest point. Turney’s overhauled menu, finely executed by chef de cuisine Todd Satterfield, feels fresh, current, and loaded with the longed-for treasures of spring.
Longtime regulars need not fear: the carne asada has stayed exactly the same. But there are a lot of newcomer dishes to challenge your loyalty. The profit margins on drinks have subsidized the kitchen’s growth from three line cooks to five, Turney told me later, and they’re turning out about 50 percent more items than in Lolita’s BYO days.
Start with the Korean-style filet tip tacos, which brings the restaurant into the food-truck age with Thai basil, peanuts, and a legitimately fiery jicama kimchee. The tortillas are pressed fresh downstairs from 8 o’clock in the morning straight through dinner service.
Then make a beeline for spring, which awaits in virtually every direction right now. Grilled asparagus and chayote come over a fava-enriched spin on sikil pak–a Mayan condiment based on toasted pumpkin seeds. Using a bit of tahini, Satterfield coaxes it halfway toward hummus. Chard-and-fava filled enchiladas—-a dish that survived the six-month closure that gave the restaurant a new kitchen and bar—-are sauced with an energetically minty serrano/jalapeno/tomatillo puree that buoys what might otherwise be a heavyweight burden of cheese. A daily special brought deep-fried squash blossoms on a dice of veggies that was sweet with corn and spicy with orange chilies.
Ours was a meal of small pleasures—-both in the sense that Lolita has shifted definitely toward tapas portions, and in the little grace notes that adorned so many of them. Particularly winning was the jade-colored scoop of melon sorbet that topped a citrusy snapper ceviche. The only things that landed in foul territory were the little cubes of pickled watermelon that aimed to brighten three heavy globes of masa harina stuffed with black beans, goat cheese, and chicken flavored with sour orange and achiote seeds. They overshot sweetness and went straight for cloying.
Which brings us to dessert. We didn’t have any. We’d ordered one dish too many. Antojitos may mean “little cravings,” but both of the items we ordered from that section of the menu took big swipes out of our hunger.
So we rejoined the pedestrian parade on 13th Street, where warm air met our bare arms. We strolled a couple blocks and turned toward one possible SEPTA line. Then, saving bus fare and savoring an evening that had revived the spirit of long-past ones, we walked two-and-a-half miles all the way home.