Transport need not be the description of a vehicle.
For even memories, or tastebuds, are transportive.
Philadelphia is one such city that transports me into a memoir of college days spent guzzling down caffeine in attempts to cram seemingly relevant knowledge. When time passed with blinking eyes, and created moments that were fixated in memory forever. Also one of my favorite culinary cities, it was one that I took friends and family to as an excuse to travel. And with Iron Chef Jose Garces opening up a taste of Mexico smack in University City, I was nothing short of ecstatic.
Named Distrito, it captured the culture and cuisine of Mexico City, bringing an upscale but hip vibe to street food culture, one of my favorites from my days in India spent salivating on the streets! Much to the dismay of hoity pedigrees. The ambiance was a two level set up, with pinks and greens, an abundance of naturals and a backdrop of 600 hanging masks of Mexico’s Lucha Libre (professional wrestlers), which collectively made for a dazzling entrance.
The moms enjoyed a cameo in a four seat booth made like the Volkswagen Beetle. While now prevalent in other cities, the Philadelphia location still remains the largest, and my favorite.
While we skipped over the 250+ tequilas and margaritas owing to estranged nightlife memories, we opted for the bites from the 2009 James Beard Award winning chef. The menu drew from a gastronomical legacy of Distrito Federal (D.F.), the central capital of the city and the restaurant’s namesake.
We started with the freshly baked cornbread, which arrived in a sizzling square skillet much after its aroma smacked us in the face. Moist, succulent and tasty, it transported me down to the South, heightened in flavor with a citrus honey butter. The sweet and tangy spread cut the richness and acted as an amplifier of taste, making this a memorable start, and one that we had to order more of.
There are not too many dishes that make their way into my best-of-the-best list, but what I received next definitely earned its worthy spot on my pedestal. Touted as the jicama salad, its uninventive name was a sharp contrast to its wildly inventive take on everyone’s healthy binge. Tossed together in an eye shaped vial were greens, tangerines, pepita seeds, mango and melon slices, a combination which alone sufficed in providing a playground of flavor to the taste buds – sweet, sour, tangy and crunchy. However, the best part was swapping out the dressing for lemon sorbet topped with chili powder!
Like a burst of freshness, the lemon sorbet acted like a magnified dressing – only tastier, cooler and fresher. I was literally hyperventilating out of excitement at seeing the sorbet format make it onto a salad plate, so much so that we got not one, not two but three of the same dish! Almost as if verifying the reality that this illusionary combination had created.
By comparison, everything else had a severely high benchmark to cross to even fathom being considered decadent. The toasted and charred corn salad, complete with black beans, chopped avocado, brussel sprouts, watercress and topped with crispy cornbread wafers, was a tasty salad of its own. The cumin tomato dressing was tangy, and the crunch of toasted corn was akin to popping candy! While lacking the freshness of its predecessor, this made for a more meal like gobble.
The main entree came in the a skillet the size of Mexico on a map – a humongous, sizzling dish that had the aromas of cooked jalapeño and melting cheese wavering in front of our faces. The nacho supreme was an upscale take on what chain restaurants prided themselves in: heaps of homemade nachos topped with black beans, tomatoes, peppers,jalapeño, chile de árbol (apparently a potent Mexican chili pepper!), radishes for crunchy freshness and oodles of sizzling Mexican cheese.
While not the most inventive of plates, it was certainly gratifying and fulfilling. The grandeur in its size made its seem like the perfect gigantic morsel for a post-tequila outing!
Due to multiple identical entrees, particularly the inventive salad and the cornbread, there was barely any room left in the abdomen for a dessert. Yet, the server seduced us into getting a chocolate torte: a spiced chocolate cake with espresso ice cream and coffee gelée. Finding it more worthy in calories than the street fare churros or an unsavory cup of coffee, what arrived was a trigonometric plate of Iron Chef worthy edible designs. The overpowering flavor of coffee jolted my senses, and made for a better palette cleansing dessert than a dense chocolate cake would have. So while not incredibly inventive, it was a visually spectacular dessert. I did not taste as much spice in the chocolate cake as I would’ve liked, but what I tasted was dark chocolate, which left me licking my chops like a werewolf in disguise. Except that I could have done with another one of those sorbet salads as an ultimate palette cleanser.
And so, we tumbled down the stairs, and out into the city, plumper than the full moon and merrier than the summer breeze.
So long, Philadelphia. Or should we say adios?