Dining with Iron Chef Jose Garces: Chifa and Distrito in Philadelphia

by Jason Roth on November 22, 2009

I am going to go out on a limb and assume I will not have to retitle this review after the November 22 airing of The Next Iron Chef. The reason is that I’ve eaten his food.

We hit Amada last year, an upscale tapas joint, after I was fortunate enough to discover Jose Garces in an issue of Philadelphia Magazine. The business part of the trip had ended, and the quietly proud Phillies fans had run out of car windows to smash. On this year’s trip, I refrained from wearing a Yankees cap. My arrival in Philly on the day of the New York World Series parade in such attire would have made for interesting blogging, but my sports interests end at boxing. Maybe it’s this shared fondness for violence that makes me feel a bond with the Philadelphians. They are also demonstrating a pretty damn respectable taste for food.

The two restaurants I tried this year were more, and less, conventional than Amada. Both were even more pleasing. Chifa is your run-of-the-mill Peruvian-Cantonese fusion joint, whereas Distrito is one hell of a Mexican restaurant.

Es Martes Gordo.

Es Martes Gordo.

Yes, overall I’m leaning toward Distrito as the more enjoyable, if not daring or unique, experience. In the end, the celebratory atmosphere, blinding table designs, and culinary school caliber of the tomato cubes in my salsa combined for a far better than average Mexican restaurant. And if you’re like me, an average Mexican restaurant is usually pretty good.

I bet the guy who chopped my salsa ingredients went to culinary school.

Chips and relish. I mean salsa. And the guac has cheese!

It’s amazing how a seemingly trivial touch like chopping your salsa finely can lead towards a better product. The seasonings have more surface area to bond with, and a larger variety of ingredients can be held on the chip. A decision was made by Garces to avoid the rough-around-the-edges presentations that you typically see at a Mexican restaurant in America. He calls it “modern Mexican” and what he presents to you, in practice, is a thoughtful selection of ingredients in each dish and a pride in their assembly. Though Mexican food is a delight on the street (I’ve had it in Guadalajara, though not Mexico City), it’s an arrogant mind that assumes the street is where it must stay. Besides, if “home style” means half-assed knife skills, I need not leave my own kitchen.

It’s a big, two-level restaurant, and the kitchen staff did not seem bored.

The kitchen

Over my shoulder.

We sat upstairs, and before ascending, were able to get a good look at the green taxi you can eat in. In Mexico, you might be able to eat in a green taxi, but whether you’ll get out of one alive, with or without the food, is another matter. Still, I’d prefer the authentic version to the “Hey, look at me, you plebeians, I’m the asshole in the cab!” version on parade at Distrito.

Distrito interior design: call it Dr. Seuss industrial.

Distrito interior design: call it Dr. Seuss industrial.

The atmosphere is sparse yet colorful, and definitely full of people there to have a good time. (Not counting an Asian trio near us who might have been disappointed in the incapacity of chorizo to disable their cell phones and force them to socialize.) Service was good, for which part of the credit goes to the interior designer, with the arrangement of tables being quite easy to scan from a wide area. To be fair, the service was better than good, incorporating some of what I consider the Polish/Chinese fire drill method of sending your food out with whichever server is available, along with the more personal, single-waiter approach.  I appreciated that our waitress at Distrito remained attentive.

The star of the night might have to be the Los Hongos Huaraches. And the mushrooms were the star of the dish, even with black truffles and… corn shoots? Yes, it’s that leafy, corn-flavored vegetable known as corn shoots. (I see that you can buy them online.) On top of that, a drizzle of cheese and a sauce of huitlacoche you definitely won’t find at Grimaldi’s. Appearing like something that might come out of a corn shoot, huitlacoche is a delicious fungus literally translating, as I just learned, to “raven shit”. (Buy a jar and try it in omelettes.)

It's like a Mexican version of a Taco Bell Mexican pizza.

It's like a Mexican version of a Taco Bell Mexican pizza.

Other highlights included the lengua tacos with a guajillo chile glaze…

Put that tongue in your mouth.

Put that tongue in your mouth.

the tamales with roasted pork…

Do it yourself tamales.

Hey, there's pork in here, not tamale.

the surf-and-turf of camarones and chorizo tacos…

Shrimp and chorizo... gotta try that.

Radish and avocado tacos (with shrimp and chorizo)

And I hear they're good for your heart.

And I hear they're good for your heart.

…and, what my wife often uses as a standard for Mexican restaurants in addition to guacamole: the soupy and flavorful beans and rice.

Nothing was bad or even mediocre, which along with the bustling atmosphere and attentive service, makes for an enjoyable dinner. If you’re in the mood for Mexican in Philly, Distrito is a good choice. However, if you’re in the mood for Chinese-Peruvian fusion, which is an urge I know I get several times a week, you’ll need to go to Chifa.

As delicious as some of the food was, I’d like to take another few paragraphs to mock the absurdity of this combination of cuisines. Unfortunately, it would only be possible due to my complete ignorance of a Chinese Peruvian population totaling 1.5 million in Peru. It’s kind of cool that a trip to a restaurant illuminates such an interesting and attractive combination. There is undoubtedly a history behind this food, much like that of the Portuguese-Chinese cooking you’d find in Macau.

Plantains and fancy corn nuts.

Fancy corn nuts with plantains

The meal began with a taste that hearkened back to the flavors of my youth. Not so much as a youth in Peru or China, but as some stupid kid in central/northern New Jersey. Instead of bread, we got corn nuts. They were an upgrade from the commercial product, insomuch as you get to keep your teeth when you’re done eating them.

Not your father's sushi chef's bluefin tuna.

Not your father's sushi chef's bluefin tuna.

Off the menu, we started with the waitress’ recommended blue fin tuna from the ceviche section. (I would have guessed this was some sort of Japanese fusion, but that’s just me.) The pickled fresno chile pepper and kecap manis (a sweet Indonesian soy sauce) made this unique. But hey, it’s still raw tuna. Not the most flavorful of the species to eat raw, but it works.

If Kobe tartare isn't enough, Chifa will serve it to you with trout roe and a quail egg.

Mix-your-own Kobe tartare

Also in the ceviche section was a Kobe beef tartare. I’m guessing actual Peruvian Chinese people (or is it Chinese Peruvian?) are not eating Kobe, let alone with trout roe and a quail egg. But they’d probably go for the scallions and a vinaigrette made with XO sauce, which provided the bulk of the flavoring to the meat. While the flavors were there, the meat did not completely work as tartare. Each individual piece of beef was perceptible, coming together like a mouthful of tapioca beads, which was surprising given Kobe’s reputation for being so marbled. I would suggest they redo this dish with a different cut of beef.

Pork belly, Peking duck style.

Pork belly, Peking duck style.

Whereas the two ceviche dishes had distinct Peruvian and Chinese or Asian influences, the other dishes tended to lean toward one culture or the other. The pork belly sliders, I mean buns, were a knockout, reminiscent more of the favors of Peking duck but even more fatty. But wait, there was something distinctly non-Chinese in this dish: togarashi mayo. That’s the seasoned pepper you find in a little jar on the table of Japanese restaurants. I think a choice like this, to veer outside the preset limits of “Chinese-Peruvian” and pick a Japanese ingredient that totally works in the dish, shows the independent thinking and creativity of Chef Garces. A nice touch.

The noodles with chile-enhanced short ribs and bok choy was even more rooted in the Chinese style.

Not a soup and not a mushroom pot pie.

Not really a soup and not exactly a mushroom pot pie.

The “aji mushrooms”, seen above with the noodles, was the more Peruvian dish, one of those vegetable dishes that makes you happy to forget there’s anything healthy contained in a vegetable. Pastry encrusted, the little bowl was filled with a cream sauce flavored with aji peppers, along with potato and, as if just to qualify the dish as “fusion”, some tofu.

What either won the gold medal for taste, or tied for first with the pork buns, was the grilled octopus. These are obviously flavors that have come together before, but cook an octopus well for me, and serve me a tiny portion of purple potato and bacon salad just because it would be entirely cool to do so, and you have me.

What would pulpo and purple potatoes be without bacon?

What would pulpo and purple potatoes be without bacon? Clearly, it would be something also missing rocoto puree and olive escabeche.

The fondness Chef Jose Garces has for tapas-style cooking, with a conscious decision to add interesting and unusual ingredients to so many of his dishes, make the dining experience at his restaurants such a pleasure. It’s as if his menu is constructed not just for the benefit of the part of your brain that perceives deliciousness, but the part that wants to have fun. It’s an admirable goal, and one that I hope he soon sets forth to accomplish here in New York.

An after-dinner gift. My mom would say it looks too nice to open.

Here, have the world's fanciest Rice Krispies treat before you leave.

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