3945 Chestnut Street
In what many people incorrectly assume to be strictly a cheesesteak city, Philadelphia is home to a blossoming restaurant scene, with a wide range of eclectic fine dining. Nothing may better represent this scene than Iron Chef Jose Garces’ restaurant Distrito. An homage to Mexico City culture, Distrito is a combination of ethnic flare with fine dining ingredients, and solid technique.
The Mexico City theme is prevalent throughout – complete with a VW Beetle to sit in! The decor is odd, eclectic, and not at all to my liking. But it doesnt really matter. It’s kitschy, and unapologetic. However, it feels like the designer is trying a bit too hard – 250 seats is a lot of pink, green, and neon. And the decor doesnt fit the price point in my mind.
The menu is divided into two basic sections – entrees, and small plates. Order small plates – there is more creativity, better diversity of taste and better value. Entree’s are pricey, and a bit too safe in their execution.
With this in mind, we decided to run through a “best you have to offer” trial run of their small plates. They suggested 3-4 per person, but this was an inordinate amount of food. 2-3 plates per person tops – any more is just excessive.
As we were mulling over our choices, they kept bringing out spiced peanuts. These were a bit too tasty, and we were a bit too hungry, as they disappeared in short order. They refilled our peanuts several more times, but the damage was done.
We started with an order of traditional guacamole with crab added to it. The crab, for its part, was fresh, and shredded on in copious quantities. The guacamole was also fresh – and had a nice balance of acidity and creamy mouth feel. At times, the delicate flavour of the crab would get lost in the acidity of the guac – but it was tasty. Personally though, I’d stick with the straight up guacamole.
We followed up with an order of nachos – encarnacion to be exact. Some skirt steak nachos, these were done to perfection. Great cheese coverage, a nice flavourful refried bean in the right proportion, flavourful skirt steak and crema. Chips retained their crispiness – they were very filling, and tasty. A great fusion of Mexico City flavour with Americana.
For me, my favorite Mexican starts and ends with tacos. A great, flavourful double corn tortilla, some great braised meats, punchy acidity, a little radish for texture and palette cleanser, a taco is a microcosm of the balance that every dish should try to achieve.
The tacos at Distrito are different. Gone is the basic street food. Instead, you have flat iron wagyu steak, truffle potato, tomato-horseradish escabeche, and yukon fries. The same balance is there – good texture, acidity, rich meaty flavours. But instead of two corn tortillas you have one. And instead of $2 per taco, you have $5. Was this an excellent dish? Yes. Was it a taco? Well, it resembled one anyway.
A second attempt at tacos met with something a bit more familiar. Carnitas, braised pork, which in this case was hand pulled, with a pineapple salsa, black beans, and pickled radish. The elements were a bit more familiar. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t nearly as tasty as the Kobe tacos, nor my regular cheap taco haunt at La Cabana.
My favorite dish of the night was the Los Hongos Huarache. Huaraches are a flatbread-style serving of fried masa named after the shape of a Mexican sandal, topped with a variety of ingredients. In the case of the Los Hongos, it was covered in a copious quantity of forest mushrooms, queso, corn, and black truffle. The earthiness, richness was balanced out nicely with the smokiness of the huitlacoche sauce, and the sourness from the queso. This dish is a must have for anyone visiting Distrito.
Because we hadnt eaten enough cheese, or tasted enough corn tortillas, we decide to order a queso fundido. The flavours are fantastic, but there is just too much richness, and too much fat. I throw in the towel.
You think ordering a plantain would help balance the meal out? Think again. Deep fried, queso fresco. Tasty, but a lead brick in my stomach.
Distrito is one of those places you really enjoy while you are there, but question if you’d go back. The food was overwhelmingly heavy – not on a dish by dish basis, which are all very well conceived, balanced, and executed, but more so on an entire meal basis. If you look at each dish individually, i find it difficult to find much fault. Everything was well prepared. Some personal differences aside, every dish was well done.
The thing is, in the context of the whole meal – price, atmosphere, and how i felt afterwards, this wasn’t exactly a rip roaring success. I’ll recommend Distrito with reservations. The food is excellent. We definitely ate too much. And everything is a bit too heavy. Order a fantastic fresh margarita, and a couple of plates to share – and it’s a fantastic light meal or snack. That’s probably the best way to sample Garces’ vision of Mexico City-inspired Americana. And your stomach, and your wallet, will thank you for it.