On my whirlwind weekend visit home to Philadelphia last month, I knew that I wanted to take advantage of the city’s awesome foodie scene, which meant dining out as much as humanly possible. So on the one full day there (the other day was spent visiting my grandparents who live about 90 minutes away), my parents and I dined out for both lunch AND dinner. While normally I never do this, I don’t get back to Philadelphia nearly enough and my restaurant wishlist is already too long to begin with, so I knew I would need to man up, all for the sake of my stomach of course.
I’ve complained/lamented over the fact that Pittsburgh really doesn’t have a lot of authentic Mexican restaurants and the couple that are, tend to be casual, nothing fancy. (On a side note, I always find it comical when I hear Pittsburgh people claiming certain Mexican restaurants here are the real deal when in fact they’re glorified Tex-Mex spots that are catering to the American palate.)
While Los Catrines Tequilas will always be my favorite Mexican spot in Philadelphia (I celebrated numerous birthdays there as a teenager), I’m always up for trying someplace new and in this instance, new was Stephen Starr’s El Rey. (For anyone not familiar, Stephen Starr is one of the biggest names in Philadelphia’s food and restaurant scene.) Anyhow, El Rey is located in the city’s Center City neighborhood and serves up authentic Mexican fare. It’s definitely a casual spot, but one with flair all the same. The fact that they had a life size calavera couple displayed immediately after entering from off the street meant that I fell in love with the place even before sitting down.
I decided to go there for lunch since they had a pretty awesome lunch menu, both features and cost wise. Lunch is served Monday-Friday from 11:30 AM to 5 PM and if you’re looking to dine at a normal lunch hour (i.e. not at 3 PM), I would recommend going as close to opening as possible. Center City is home to thousands of workers during the week at the many businesses and companies located there. We arrived just before noon and by the middle part of our meal, the place was basically all filled up and by the time we left, people were waiting to be seated (they don’t take reservations at all, first come first served).
What made El Rey’s lunch menu so appealing was that it offered “express lunches.” For $10, you could get a three course lunch (chips and salsa and then your choice of an appetizer and entree). All appetizer and main course selections come from its regular lunch menu, the only difference being that portions are smaller. But it truly is an amazing deal and both my parents and I opted for this.
The chips and salsa were delicious and went great with my horchata, a Mexican drink that’s made with rice, milk, vanilla and cinnamon. (If you ask me, a Mexican restaurant is authentic when it has agua fresca selections on the menu.)
For my appetizer I selected the sopa de tortilla (tortilla soup) which was a good choice as the day was particularly cold and dreary. It did come with chicharron (fried pork rinds) which I didn’t care for at all (this was my first AND last time eating them).
For my main course, I went with a favorite of mine (ever since I first had it in Cuernavaca, Mexico), sopes. These are basically masa (corn dough basically) shells topped with steak, salsa, onion and cream. Sopes have definitely replaced my number one love, which used to be enchiladas.
My mom started off with the chayote salad, which in addition to the chayote (it looks like a pear but is part of the squash family), came with corn, pickled onion and avocado and was topped with a lime vinaigrette. For her entree, she selected the gorditas, which consisted of a corn masa bun, pork pibil (a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatán Península), and a hard boiled egg.
My dad opted to start with a new favorite of his (he gets these whenever possible), croquetas (croquettes). And for his entree he ordered the pork tacos.
We thoroughly enjoyed my lunch at El Rey and all I have to say is that if I worked in the area, I would definitely dine there as often as my wallet allowed.
2013 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA. 19103