It took a while for me to notice that there was a new store underneath the ugliest of the new condo buildings in West Philly up back behind the Aveda school.
And it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I stopped in to collect a paper menu so I’d know what sort of food they had and what their hours would be. If I had been smart, I’d have had lunch right then – because the guy handing me the menu was the owner/chef. But I didn’t know that at the time, because who knows what people look like?
However, after I got the menus and started thinking it looked like a fun, if pricey, place to try some upscale mexican food, I started seeing articles about and interviews with Jose Garces, the chef. Apparently, this is the same guy who started Amada and Tinto, two classy center city tapas restaurants I absolutely adore. So my expectations went up, and this restaurant went on the short list of places to try.
So there I was this weekend, and I found myself wanting to try a new (to me) fancy farmers’ market and wanting a place to hang out (not my apartment) and read on Saturday. I rationalized to myself that I could only afford one of those, and if I went out Saturday night then I could spend Sunday exercising instead of buying more food (especially since I have plenty of perishables at the moment). To I set out to walk to center city in search of a coffee shop… and then I remember Distrito.
So I went in, and there was a decent crowd of people dining and chatting, but I was still able to be seated without a wait (Saturday night circa 7:30pm)… apparently that’s because this place is huge! There are two floors and plenty of tables. But while both Tinto and Amada are decorated in dark colors with muted palettes, the decor here is bright pinks with greens of aquas. I was seated on a wicker swing. The stairs are lined with mexican wrester masks. Here – have some pictures. But that’s fine. There’s also fairly loud music. And a guy with a guitar singing something completely different at the same time. And a movie being projected (though luckily that one was muted with subtitles). Aight, fine, so they are going for something more lively for the college crowd.
But what is really disappointing in comparison to the other restaurants is the service. At the other places you have a (okay, fine, very attractive) wait staff that is sophisticated and very knowledgeable about the food. They are also very efficient and welcoming (even to people who take the last seating in the middle of restaurant week and still linger over their food). Distrito, however, seems to have been less selective in its hiring practices. These were very average waiters who seemed to have very little interest in either the food or the patrons. In fact, the only interest my waiter seemed to show was toward encouraging me to purchase alcohol to boost my ticket, but it was another waiter entirely who stopped by (after I’d had a long period of reading uninterrupted) to offer me dessert.
You know what? That wasn’t the only thing disappointing. The food wasn’t as awesome, either. It was good, but it wasn’t, “Oh my god, I have to tell you about this amazing food,” levels of awesome that I’m used to from this guy. I started off with something cheap – Tuetano: bone marrow with bacon marmalade, onion, jalepeno, and cilantro ($8). So I got two marrow bones, and there was a toasty crust on top and lots of hot squishy marrow inside. For those of you who haven’t tried it, marrow is almost pure fatty goodness with a dark rich taste. So I scooped some into my 4″ corn tortilla, added some bacon marmalade (really the reason why I ordered this dish. Bacon marmalade! Best I can figure, it’s bacon with a thick balsamic reduction, and maybe a gelling agent, but I couldn’t figure any other flavors), and sprinklings of the other toppings. The marrow melted down and dripped just a little in a good way, and it generally rather tasty. But, oddly, the tortillas did not taste homemade to me… and I would kind of expect that to be a minimum. And then I didn’t run into any other trouble until I finished my 4 tortillas and had to pile on the marrow just to finish the first of the two marrow bones. And then I had to wait and let the marrow cool down while I waited for supplementary tortillas and condiments. Honestly, by the time I was finished my first tapa, I was pretty full. So it’s not that it wasn’t good, but it didn’t have the same sense of balance as I’d expect. Really, this restaurant would be a lot better, if I weren’t comparing it to the others.
But anyway, since I’m not planning to come back for dinner any time too soon, I ordered a second dish – Esquites: sweet corn, queso fresco, chipotle, lime ($5). It come out as a rather soupy corn dish in a glass. And it was tasty. I didn’t taste much chipotle, but the lime was just the right note without being too strong.
Guy came to offer me dessert, and I just ordered a mexican hot chocolate. Mmmmm. This was fairly weak on the chocolate, but I am finding that I tend to prefer that (weird, I know, but hey), and it was all frothy milk from top to bottom.
What else? Oh, I tried the house margarita (Jimador silver reposado, orange, lime – not frozen, with salt – $9), and it was good, but it still wasn’t better than my favorite margarita (embarrassingly enough, my favorite is Chili’s Presidente margarita).
So Distrito is a solid Meh, Whatever. Too fancy to go there casually, but too casual to go there for fancy.