Tequilas at 25
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?