Stephen Starr, Philadelphia’s most creative and successful restaurateur, has mastered the fine art of fun and phenomenal American-Mexican cuisine with his new haunt on 13th Street. Tacos get a facelift, desserts steal the show, fresh and flavorful margaritas keep the bar hopping, and made-to-order guacamole has the Philadelphia masses flocking through the doors all year long, but this isn't your typical Mexican joint. Vibrant, inventive and bursting with flavor, El Vez is an eye-opening experience far from the edible ordinary.Read More ...
Everything about El Vez is designed to attract attention. From its bustling locale to its brightly colored exterior to its electric decor, even if you blink, you still won’t be able to miss this local treasure. Would you expect anything less from a restaurant named after the famous Mexican Elvis impersonator?
Hugely successful restaurateur Stephen Starr, famous for helping revolutionize Philadelphia’s dining scene, opened El Vez in November of 2003, setting the stage for a whole new era in Mexican cuisine. Unlike his other local restaurants, El Vez steers clear of pomp and circumstance, partly achieved by the restaurant’s location, but still manages to dazzle its customers.
Often a forgotten section of the city, 13th Street has built a name for itself as a trendy hotspot for the city’s young professionals. Known as the “Gayborhood” to locals, 13th Street is no longer a black hole between Rittenhouse and Old City. It instead has become a bustling avenue of chic boutiques and hip coffeehouses.
Once we enter El Vez through the glass doors off 13th Street, our senses are overwhelmed by color and noise. Our eyes immediately lock on the authentic Chicano low-rider bicycle rotating from above the bar, an area packed with patrons of all ages perched on Charo-faced stools. Brightly colored mosaics and festive murals are splashed on every wall, and laughter and music fills every space of El Vez’s over-the-top interior.
Upon entering the restaurant, the first task is to decide on seating. The lively bar is a perfect spot to grab a few appetizers and tequila-rich cocktails, but you can usually count on a thick crowd and limited stools. When the weather warms up, you can snag a few tables outside, but the narrow sidewalks ensure that you’ll be getting up close and personal with the Philly locals. If you prefer to people watch without the in-your-face action, a line of tables is nestled against the windows that run along the street. And for the most intimate and posh of the seating choices, a series of high-backed leather booths are tucked away deeper into the restaurant, ideal for smaller parties and first dates.
Once we settle into our destination, choosing our meal is no easy task. El Vez’s imaginative menu provides endless opportunities to indulge in edible delights born of both creativity and authenticity. Chef Darron Carbone has taken classic Mexican favorites to the next level by experimenting with unconventional ingredients and flavors.
The soups and salads are both safe bets when diving into the restaurant’s cuisine, with the roasted corn soup and Mexican chopped salad with cumin-lime vinaigrette bringing new meaning to a classic combination. But before we even think about entrées, a far more important dish awaits.
The absolute highlight of El Vez is the impressive rendition of the Mexican staple, guacamole. The delectable, buttery dip is created before our eyes tableside, catered to our every tasty wish. Prefer a little more citrus? Extra lime can be added without hesitation. Like it mouthwateringly spicy? A few jalapeños will add that little something extra. Creamy, fresh and delicious, El Vez’s esteemed guacamole will primes our taste buds for the meal ahead.
While we wait for the entrées, there is time to sip on the restaurant’s refreshing selection of margaritas and sangrias. Whether it is Patron, Jose Cuerva, or Sauza, El Vez provides a wealth of unique Mexican cocktails made with only the best tequila. Flavored margaritas are the favored choice, and the pomegranate version is a perfect balance with its fruity flavor and smoky tequila undertones. If tequila isn’t your bag, the sangria is milder in alcohol content and sweeter in taste, boasting a generous portion of fresh fruit in every glass.
What would true Mexican food be without beloved tacos and enchiladas? Darron Carbone’ gets creative with these traditional dishes, experimenting with a variety of ingredients and flavors. The crab enchiladas with sweet corn, poblanos and Monterey jack cheese are rich and satisfying with every bite. Never stingy with the crabmeat, the mild combination of flavors is a must-try for any palate.
The classic red chile and chicken enchiladas have a little more bite with their crema fresca (fresh cream) and sliced radishes, and the crispy mahi-mahi tacos are a great fish option for seafood lovers. If you’re having trouble deciding between the tacos, go for the tasting platter which lets you try the black bass, beef, chicken, and mahi all on one plate.
Once the first entrées make their debut, we find it hard to believe more edible goodness can continue, but El Vez has a knack for never disappointing. Darron Carbone’ entrée creations are rustic and down-home but still worthy of a gasp when they hit the table.
The carne asada is always perfectly cooked and will satisfy any red meat craving. The beautiful steak is highlighted with roasted purple potato and watercress salad, clearly establishing itself as one of the restaurant’s favorites. The carnitas de lechon, a juicy pork dish enhanced by spicy black beans and a tasty tomatillo sauce, is also sure to please.
For poultry lovers, the turkey mole with white rice, refried beans and tomato-avocado salsa and the annatto chicken with poblano cornbread, ancho chile chicken relleno and salsa verde make fine comfort dishes, but the seafood entrees steal the spotlight.
Diver scallops are plump and tender in a mouthwatering coconut-horchata sauce and basil pipian. The red snapper, tuna and salmon dishes are also safe bets simply because of their freshness and loyalty to the culture, but the mojo grilled shrimp with a crab and zucchini yuca cake and cascabel pineapple mole is a succulent indulgence with a perfect balance of earthy and rich flavors.
Vegetarians won’t be left out in the culinary cold either; the huarache de vegetal is a regal helping of warm black bean corn cakes filled with grilled nopales, chayote and poblano with salsa roja and charred-tomatillo sauce. You won’t even miss the meat after diving into this farm-fresh feast.
Even though we are quite full after the to-die-for entrees, El Vez’s desserts are not to be missed. If you can’t bring yourself to eat another bite, the Mexican coffee is the perfect after-dinner drink. A rich, creamy mocha is topped with Kahlua foam and garnished with a crispy espresso filled wafer. The flourless chocolate cake, an increasingly popular sweet treat in restaurants, is perfectly accented with peanut butter custard, caramelized bananas and sugary praline ice cream.
A traditional flan is also available, as well as a Mexican twist on a banana spilt (plantain split, anyone?), but the dolce de leche sopapillas are the must-try dessert dish. Pastry puffs are filled with caramel and drizzled with caramel sauce, but the mango ice cream provides enough fruity flavor to turn this plate from too sweet to too delicious for words.
While the prices don’t reflect El Vez’s unpretentious and welcoming environment, the food is well worth every cent, and the atmosphere is right on the money. Casual to dressy attire is appropriate, the service is fun and personable, and the bartenders are always eager to explain the differences in the variety of tequila available. An old photo booth in the back of the restaurant is a nice touch and begs for us to capture the evening on camera. After all, we’ll never forget our first meal at El Vez, simply because it’s been delicious from start to finish.
Insider Tip: Dinner reservations are nearly impossible to come by on the weekends, so always make sure to plan a night at El Vez well in advance. To get around the need for persnickety planning, drop by anytime and enjoy the delicious lunch creations served all day long.
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This resturant was so awesome! We had great service and food. This was our 1st time going and could not have asked for better service and food. I suggest you go and try the "BAZOOKA" LIMON Guacamole. The margartia's are awesome try the Granada margarita. The resturant is alive and fun! Can't wait to go back when the weather is nice for the out door seating.
If you want a perfect mexican meal, go to this place!!!
Service, food, and drinks were excellent. I highly recommend if you are a lover of mexican.
El Vez is a perfect blend of laid back fifties diner and gourmet mexican flavor! I love the retro style bar and the high school throwback photo booth in the center of it all. Perfect place for a girls or guys night out. Everything I have tried on the menu I liked. Very busy on the weekends so I suggest reservations or you will wait while.
My husband and I are both chef's. We loved this place. We celebrated our anniversary here. Our only complaint was that we were sat at a table right next to a group having a business meeting and asked to have a booth. There were several empty but we were told we would have to wait for 30 minutes. We had theater tickets and couldn't wait. Other than that we are very likely to return.
A fun atmosphere, lots of inexpensive dining options. But very noisey, don't go for a romantic dinner. Food quality was very good, service good.
The food is wonderful and beautifully presented. The waiter could have been more attentive but the restaurant was fairly busy. The homemade guacamole was delicious and the menu is quite extensive. Also, there is a good variety of margaritas and other drinks. The drinks were very good!
Reservations were made on-line and our wait upon arrival was a matter of a few minutes. The service was excellent and the waitress was more than happy to make suggestions, being it was our first time at El Vez. -- The drinks were unique and delicious, as was the food.
HIgh quality food and a great tequila selection. The margaritas are made with fresh squeezed lime juice with the tequila of your choice. The guacamole was delicious.
Our party enjoyed El Vez for a casual luncheon destination. The margherita was delicious as was the food. I would definitely return.
The service is great, the food is great, the ambiance is great! Grilled corn is delicious, so many Guacamole choices. We tried several and enjoyed them all. Ceviche was very flavorful and so were tacos! Plus order the Sangria by the Pitcher!!
Fun place great ambiance but overrated, I don't think people know what good food really is. But then again this is a country all about fast food, microwave meals, so I am not surprised.
The food was delicious but don't go there hungry and/or be prepared to order more than you would at a typical mexican restaurant. Everything is ala carte even the rice and beans and the portions are tiny similar to a tapas size not a main course. The hostess was surly and the waitress never hung around long enough to ask her questions about the menu. The atmosphere was good and the blood orange margarita was divine.