Latin Restaurants: The 2009 Philly Mag 50


Amada
Old City | Spanish | Entrée: Under $13–$21
Ranking: 8 • Last Year’s Ranking: 4
Nearly four years after its debut, Jose ­Garces’s flagship is still one of our restaurant scene’s crown jewels. While other eating places have lost relevance, Amada continues to set the bar high for stylish but fun fine dining. The place is somehow equally perfect for a peaceful early-evening albarino paired with the city’s best charcuterie (still sliced to order) or a rowdy night out with a gaggle of pals. Its dim light, gauzy fabrics and dark wood make it simultaneously sexy and serene. Amada has always been a restaurant that knows what it is: authentic Spanish tapas. And in a city where new restaurants can lose their luster fast, it remains one of the best—and most reliable—spots in town. Order: Tortilla Espanola. 217 Chestnut Street, 215-625-2450. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

Bar Ferdinand
Northern Liberties | Spanish | Entrées: Less than $12
Ranking: 49 • Last Year’s Ranking: 45
This hip restaurant doesn’t try to play the look-at-me, I’m-so-cool game, and for that, it’s effortlessly attention-getting and organically cool. Yet the vibe would be nothing without the good drinks and affordable, traditional tapas that are simple, but never ­boring (although sometimes slightly greasy), like the empanadas filled with cream cheese, dates and bacon, and croquettes made of salt-cured cod. If only all trendy ­restaurants could be this understated. Order: The addictive patatas bravas. 1030 North 2nd Street, 215-923-1313. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other Details

Chifa
Old City | Latin-Chinese | Entrée: $21—$30
Ranking: 16 • Last Year’s Ranking: New to the List
Jose Garces’s latest restaurant filters his popular small-plates approach through the multifaceted lens of the melting-pot cuisine of Peru, where Asian/Latin-American fusion restaurants have proliferated. But don’t expect Chifa to stray too far from the proven Garces formula, starting with the sort of sultry atmosphere we’ve come to expect. With its low light, painted tiles, and semi-private corner booths wrapped in beads, it doesn’t disappoint. Neither does the food, in which Asian touches and masterful preparation are intriguing enough to keep us coming back. Don’t be intimidated by the hard-to-decipher menu—servers here can explain everything. And the cultures that have influenced these dishes (Japanese, Chinese, French) make even the strangest-sounding dishes taste deliciously familiar. Order: Pork belly buns. 707 Chestnut Street, 215-925-5555. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

Distrito
University City | Mexican | Entrée: Under $12
Ranking: 7 • Last Year’s Ranking: New to the List
The mango margaritas flow, the neon-pink walls glow, and the roaming mariachi sings his heart out at Jose Garces’s whimsical homage to Mexico City. You might find the sensory overload overwhelming, but this manic space feels just right in University City, where diners include compulsively texting Penn students, hard-drinking docs, and young West Philly families. The focus is on the flash here, but Garces’s gourmet versions of Mexican street food—tacos, tamales, guacamole—are shockingly elegant, not to mention some of the best eats we’ve had anywhere all year. This culinary carnival is not only pure fun, but a shining example of how Garces manages to brilliantly achieve diversity while never straying too far from what he does best. Order: Skirt steak nachos. 3945 Chestnut Street, 215-222-1657. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

El Vez
Center City | Mexican | Entrées: $21-$30
Ranking: 47 • Last Year’s Ranking: 35
El Vez always catches us by surprise: The funhouse and drinkery can turn out complex and polished food. We just wish it would be more consistent, so that the creamy open-face shrimp quesadilla, the many gaucamole options, the sweet-corn, lobster and crab enchiladas and the well-charred, meant-for-sharing tacos al carbon were as good as we know they can be, each and every time. No matter; the crowd-­friendly, just-­different-enough dishes (that are composed with care) and always-a-party vibe make every visit satisfying. Order: The tacos for two—the sizzling table-top grill they arrive on makes for a lot of drama, and a whole lot of food. 121 South 13th Street, 215-928-9800. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

Lolita
Center City | Mexican | Entrées: $21-$30
Ranking: 45 • Last Year’s Ranking: 48
When owners Valerie Safran and chef Marcie Turney’s tiny, shiny, rustic-chic Mexican BYOB opened five years ago, they immediately faced comparisons to the bright lights and big salads of also new, also Mexican, also on 13th Street El Vez. But they didn’t have much to worry about, because Lolita’s lines are out the door nightly. Their stylish first-come, first-seated (on weekends) patrons can’t get enough of the gently tweaked, deeply flavored Mexican fare—or the pitchers of in-season fruit juices that make for the city’s yummiest DIY margaritas. Order: Pulled chicken tamal.106 South 13th Street, 215-546-7100. 
See User Reviews, Hours, & Other Details

Tinto
Rittenhouse Square | Spanish | Entrées: $13-$20
Ranking: 22 • Last Year’s Ranking: 22
Tinto, Jose Garces’s Basque-themed Rittenhouse restaurant, has a neighborhood-y feel, especially during happy hour, when the bar fills with solo drinkers knocking back glasses of Spanish red while reading the paper. But that only adds to the warm, clubby vibe here. The food is from a region that straddles France and Spain, and whose proximity to the ocean means a more seafood-focused menu than at Tinto’s sister restaurant, Amada (though offerings can be overseasoned). Luckily, the places share a commitment to excellent Spanish cheeses and charcuterie, as well as an interesting selection of Spanish wines. Before the restaurant’s 2008 expansion, the cramped quarters and high-top tables made it a little uncomfortable, but now, with plenty of room to spread out, this is a cozy, grown-up place for a leisurely, authentic-feeling meal. Order: Moules Basque. 114 South 20th Street, 215-665-9150. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsMake a Reservation

Xochitl
Queen Village | Mexican | Entrées: $13-$20
Ranking: 21 • Last Year’s Ranking: 20
A survey of Philly’s culinary landscape proves there’s room for all types of Mexican here, and unrivaled authenticity is Xochitl’s niche. It all starts with chef Dionicio Jimenez—the Mexican native spent time cooking at Vetri, and the rustic sensibility he gives to Latin flavors is reminiscent of what makes that Italian restaurant so special. But rustic doesn’t mean elementary—dishes at this Headhouse Square eatery and bar are complicated and simple at the same time. Lamb is slow-cooked, yet served with an easy cactus salad; pork ribs are braised for hours and accompanied by only guacamole and rice; house-made masa tortillas are finished with a trio of distinct toppings. The result is a rare Mexican eating experience so understated, it makes you wonder if what you’ve eaten everywhere else is just an Americanized version of real Mexican cuisine. Order: The Parrillada, a mixed grill for two. It’s a study in delectably uncomplicated meats. 408 South 2nd Street, 215-238-7280. See User Reviews, Hours, & Other DetailsSee MenuMake a Reservation

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