At Tequilas, it’s all about the spirits. Day of the Dead mural art greets you at the door and escorts you to a setting where Mexico’s authentic gastronomic influence envelopes you, and the country’s most famous alcoholic spirit finds its way into your system through food and drink.
El Día de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, celebrated in Mexico at the beginning of November, is an ancient celebration during which the departed are honored and remembered. If you’ve ever seen the modern day designs associated with this festival, namely the colorful presentation of skeletal figures, you know that this holiday decor converts death into elegance. In fact, La Catrina, a depiction of a skeleton in ornate, feminine attire, and one of the most recognizable forms in Mexican imagery, translates to “The Elegant”.
Thus, this vibrant artistic choice, while initially shocking, begins to make thematic sense in this graceful space, where candles light the windows on the corner of Locust and 16th Streets. The flames invite passersby to a warm meal inside, where Executive Chef Claudio Soto channels an authentic culinary spirit.
Soto took charge of the kitchen in 2008, and he has upheld the traditionalist vision that has marked Tequilas’ personality since it opened in 1986. The back page of the dinner menu invokes literary legend Pablo Neruda’s call for simplicity, and Soto’s dishes adhere with a poeticism of their own.
After our small group emerges from a small flight of stairs in the entrance foyer, we greet our host, who wears a black buttoned-down uniform donned by all the staff. We proceed to step through a very classical bar setting.
A chandelier illuminates the area—a high-ceilinged space with detailed woodwork and a fireplace lending an aristocratic air to a room akin to a throwback hotel bar.
As much as tequila can often be the culprit for a disastrous night of bar hopping around the surrounding Rittenhouse blocks, in this establishment, it welcomes us with sophisticated warmth. And if you can’t find a tequila to your liking here, you’d be hard pressed to find one that suits you in Mexico proper, or anywhere else for that matter.
One-hundred-plus varieties of the spirit are on the menu, and if you’ve always considered getting the equivalent of a Masters in tequila like I have, Owner David Suro hosts Tequila Night on select Wednesdays. Attendees are treated to a tasting menu of food with premium tequila pairings and an education on Mexico’s favorite libation for $65 per person.
School will be in session for our group another night. Tonight we are here as choosing diners creating our own tasting menu.
We are led beyond the initial grandiose bar setting, through a white curtained opening in the wall, into a small, four-table room. This space offers a more minimalist decor and mellow feel that hints at the straightforward presentation of traditional cuisine to come.
Off-shooting corridors lead to additional dining rooms sure to be abuzz on a weekend evening or during a restaurant event like Tequila Night.
In this room, early-century photos of Mexican personage, including a portrait of revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, fill one wall and seemingly approve of the old-school flavor assigned to each dish. It’s as if they’re presiding over dishes that they themselves had put together for us.
We begin with drinks. One member of our group goes for a specialty cocktail, a Noche Azul, or “Blue Night”, which balances a slightly-aged Siembra Azul tequila with Elderflower Liqueur, minced ginger, lime, and an egg white to give it a frothy texture. The rest of us decide not to boldly wander into the Blue Night, but rather let our traditional setting urge us to order las bebidas clásicas. That’ll be one margarita on the rocks with some white and red sangria for good measure, served in a taller version of a thick-rimmed margarita glass.
If you’re in the mood to dine with wine, the by-the-bottle list incorporates Mexico’s colonial influence with a handful of Spanish Riberas and Crianzas. Chilean reds are the biggest offering from South America, and a selection heavy on Californian Cabernets and Chardonnays provide a domestic option.
As we are settling into our conversation, munching on tortilla chips that are in no need of salt to lend them some flavor, our waiter enters with our drinks, two in hand and one steadily balanced atop his head, adding a little levity to an otherwise formal dining experience to that point.
Out come the appetizers, with purposely ordered contrasts in attitude. Sitting atop a large lettuce leaf, the medium-sized shrimp and chunks of tilapia in the Ceviche de Pescado y Camaron rest among diced tomatoes, Serrano peppers, sliced avocado and a large orange slice to add some extra citrus.
The dish offers our palates a soothingly cool respite from the powerful Queso Fundido appetizer we have alongside it. Melted Chihuahua cheese is served in a small, handled dish over a bed of rajas—poblano peppers sautéed with onions. Bits of chorizo, made in-house, are sprinkled over the rich cheese’s browned upper crust to add a tinge of meaty spice. Flour tortillas accompany the cheese dish but are utilized as wrapping agents for both of the appetizers on the table.
We decide to run the gamut for the main course.
The Enchiladas Playa call forth the spirit of the shellfish holy trinity, by stuffing crabmeat, shrimp and lobster inside a tightly-wrapped, wide tortilla. A chipotle pepper sauce bleeds into a creamy poblano salsa, together adding a fair amount of spice that doesn’t overpower the robust flavor of the meat and melted Chihuahua cheese within.
Chef Soto is clearly Chihuahua happy, as he uses the soft, white cheese in a number of the menu’s offerings, including the Sabana Invierno de Pollo. In this dish, as its name suggests, the cheese blankets a boneless, grilled chicken breast soaked in a pond of tomatillo salsa. The green sauce, usually relegated to a chip-dipping role, is the life of the party on this savory plate.
One of my companions opts for a create-your-own entrée via a soup and salad combo. The Sopa de Tortilla uses epazote, a bold Mexican herb, to season a straightforward version of the tomato and chile based tortilla soup. She couples that with an Ensalada Nopalitos, which shows the refined touch of Tequilas’ kitchen by shredding delicate prickly pear leaves and seasoning them with tomato, onion and cilantro with a crumbled cheese sprinkled on top.
Finally, someone has to spring for the restaurant’s namesake dish. I consider myself a tequila kind of guy, so I step up to the Salsa Tequilas plate. When you think tequila, you think of the pungent smell and brute force emanating from its glass. But the alcohol’s usually mischievous flavor becomes a subtle ingredient of a Chile de Arbol, butter, garlic, and lime juice mixture coating my seafood of choice. Jumbo shrimp and red snapper are the steady choices, but I elect the fish of the day, a hearty grouper filet served on a spinach bed.
All our entrees are accompanied by a mound of colored rice supplying more of the tomato and garlic tang found among a fair share of the menu’s dishes. The celery sits wrapped in an edible bow, once again bringing an extra element of properness to the dining vibe.
Don’t let the delicate flavors and ambiance belie the hefty portions. We are all near capacity when the waiter’s dessert sermon commences. The Tres Leches cake is the appropriate choice for a group looking to share some fluffy fare. This classic Latin pastry is appropriately named for the three varieties of milk—condensed, evaporated and whole—which are combined to form a moist, crumbly texture which nearly evaporates on the tongue.
Time to leave; we saunter back past the bar and into the foyer again. I make eye contact with the massive Catrina on the wall. Her wide smile from bony cheek to bony cheek makes me think, “If I were to die right now, I’d be as happy as she after a meal like that.”