Restaurant Review: El Rey

Stephen Starr’s Mexican revamp of the old Midtown IV diner is hot, but is it spicy?

If those are the only two things you eat at El Rey, you’ll walk away raving. But nothing else reached the same highs over the course of multiple meals. Aside from a plate of churros with the texture of freezer waffles, it wasn’t a question of failures. The poblano mole, redolent of orange zest, is a perfectly able effort – but a flat shadow next to the extraordinary depth of its witch-black counterpart. Goat is surpassingly tender after an eight-hour tomato-based braise, but its subdued flavors are easily forgotten. More assertive spicing would make a difference in many instances, not least with El Rey’s small tacos. The near total absence of fiery chili heat from habanero salsa and jalapeño butter is a curious show of timidity for a place that owes half its art to men behind bars.

As for the other type of bars: The space is also home to the Ranstead Room, a pimped-out cocktail lounge with a speakeasy-style separate entrance (via Ranstead Street) and a strict door policy. The first thing you’ll see inside is a glowing row of framed nudes. They may be the only thing you’ll see – there are caves with more light than this joint. Nestling into one of the plush faux-snakeskin bar stools as funky Afropop slides into 1970s Blue Note groove, you’ll wonder if you’ve time-warped into a blaxploitation flick directed by Hugh Hefner. But the bartending standard is pure 2010: Aviations made with real crème de violette, fizzes with an absinthe rinse. While the offerings aren’t as exciting as those at nearby Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., they’re well made, and the staff’s knowledge runs deeper than the trim cocktail menu. Which is an especially good thing if you’ve left your headlamp at home.

Starr has transformed the old Midtown IV into a fine two-pronged addition to Center City’s surging dining scene. Neither El Rey nor the Ranstead Room will change your life, but both are reminders of how good it’s gotten lately.