Tasting menu at Jose Garces’ Distrito

by Chris on January 31, 2010

Chef tasting menu at Distrito restaurant, one of Iron Chef Jose Garces’ Philadelphia restaurants.

Bar at Distrito

I went back to Jose Garces’ restaurant Distrito last night for what ended up being a “quadruple date” with four couples. Distrito had been my favorite of the new Iron Chef’s five Philadelphia restaurants so I was looking forward to the meal.

We started with drinks at the downstairs bar, which is meant to emulate a Mexico City cantina. There are white signs like you’d see on the roadside up on the bar, and beautifully lit bottles of tequila in the background. The bar has a full menu of tequilas – blanco, reposado, anejo and suprema, all served in snifter glasses – and also has  flights from $16 to $100. I went with sangria instead. (Read about my trip to Tequila in Mexico here).

Tequila bar at Distrito

All of Jose Garces’ restaurants in Philly boast interesting and varied decor. At Distrito, there’s lots of bright colors, and design elements meant to evoke the spirit of Mexico, if not the culture.

Wall of Mexican wrestling masks, Distrito

You can eat in a VW bug, for example, or check out the Mexican movies being projected above the staircase. I love the wall of Mexican wrestling masks, as well as the scorpions embedded in the bar’s counter. I also like the chairs, which are covered in the plastic material that used for shopping bags in Mexican markets. All in all, lots of clever touches.

Nachos at Distrito

As we waited for our party to show up, we ordered some of the vegetarian nachos, which come blazing hot in a skillet. Garces has been part of the trend where chefs use quality ingredients for upscale bar food (see my post on lunch at Village Whiskey here) so even this standard appetizer had a few tricks in it (radishes as a garnish lent a bright taste to the beans, cheese and chips).

Once our group arrived, we were seated upstairs. Because the food is served tapas style, the servers recommended two to three dishes per person. Four in our group decided to do th $35 Diego Rivera tasting menu. The restaurant offers a more elaborate tasting menu for $55 (called the Frida Kahlo, natch) and will pair tequilas with your meal for $25 extra.

Chips, salsa and guacamole, Distrito

Our tasting menu started with chips, a salsa with a smoky chipolte flavor and guacamole made with cotilia cheese. Garces’ guac is not the best in town – I give that honor to the more authentic  Taqueria Veracruzana on Washington Avenue – and I also like the version made tableside at Steven Starr’s El Vez a little better. But it was creamy and flavorful.

Ceviche at Distrito

Next we received the Camarones ceviche, consisting of shrimp in a  spicy tomato sauce, dressed with avocado and plantain chips. This was very good, although it lacked the bright flavor that I tend to associate with ceviches. It arrived with a Cilango chop salad , a welcome bit of greenery with arugula, watercress, green apples, cranberries, spiced pecans, and a honey-lime yogurt dressing.

Los Hongos - mushroom huarache at Distrito

The next course produced some oohs and aahs, and was probably the most successful. Everyone raved about the huaraches, Mexican flatbreads that seem a little bit like pizza. The tasting menu included Los Hongos, a combination of earthy flavors that were simply outstanding (forest mushrooms, huitlacoche sauce, queso mixto, black truffle, and corn shoot). Another member of our group ordered the Costillas huarache which had short ribs on it, and I could hear the exclamations across the table.

Distrito has seven types of tacos on their menu, ranging from pulled pork to shrimp and chorizo to tongue. You get three with each order. Our tasting menu group received a Hamachi taco , consisting of fried yellowtail tuna topped with chipolte remoulade, avocado and red cabbage. Several in our group pronounced this the best dish of the night (I liked the huarache a little better).

Rabbit mole at Distrito

Distrito has three moles on the menu, and we could hear the table next to us raving over their pork belly mole. We received rabbit instead, which was tasty – but not a must-have. The mole is served with rice, and we also had a side of black beans included in the meal.

Carne Asada at Distrito

And finally, our group split a portion of the Carne Asada entree. I don’t think I’d feel the need to order this as a separate entree – at $32, it’s one of the most expensive menu items. Distrito’s small plates are so full of flavor that a bigger entree seems a little out of place. It seemed that the poblano corn rice (cooked risotto style) that accompanied the dish was more of a hit than the meat.

Finally, the tasting menu finished with a pumpkin-flavored flan. I’m not a big flan person, so I was a little jealous of the tres leche cake ordered at the other end of the table. Distrito also has churros in chocolate sauce. I’ll have to leave room for that next time.

Our bill came to $114 per person. That’s steep, mostly because members of our group ordered a pitcher of margaritas (at $49, expensive). Later in the night, they switched to Tecate, the Mexican beer that comes in cans – although a few people dipped into the tequila menu. If you don’t drink, it would be easy to cut your bill down, as the plates themselves are in the $7 to $12 range. Entrees are more expensive, but honestly, the smalll plates are so good that you are better off ordering those.

We all left satisfied with our quadruple date out. I’m not sure if Distrito is my favorite anymore, as the choices on the tasting menu this time didn’t quite match the last time I was here with my husband. But I know that we will be back, if only so I can order the huarache, tacos and churros again.

Do you have a favorite Garces restaurant? I’ve been to all of them and the jury is still out. Tell me which one you like the best below.

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

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