No Mexicali Blues Here

Dawn E. Warden visits Distrito, Jose Garces’ latest venture in contemporary Latin cuisine.

It’s been two weeks and A LOT of writing since my visit to Distrito (that’s short for Distrito Federal, another name for Mexico City). It’s the latest—and I’d have to say, most fun—restaurant from Jose Garces.

My head is still spinning from the visuals: blasts of pink, purple, green and blue woven into an electric tapestry that includes plaid chairs; a strolling Mariachi singer; a 4-by-6-ish movie screen showing Nacho Libre; and a wall of Mexican wrestling masks—and with Jose’s recent crushing of Bobby Flay on Iron Chef, it wouldn’t surprise me if these made the local Halloween hot list.

No doubt, my retelling won’t be as sharp as it would have been the morning after, but the lapse in time has enabled me to score a couple of interior shots for your viewing pleasure. (Yes, I forgot my camera.)

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Normally, Garces is more restrained in carrying out his themes, but Distrito is a clear reminder of his days as a member of the Stephen Starr empire. In fact, I’m pretty sure Starr would be proud of Distrito for its whimsical and carefree nature.

Distrito is a must-visit: fun, fresh, vibrant, youthful and nearly as budget-busting as Tinto and Amada—a calculated move on Garces’ part, based on the bread ‘n’ butter constituency of university students in the ’hood. Groups, especially, will have a great time dining on clever adaptations of traditional Mexican fare like silver-dollar-plus-sized tacos filled with tender veal cheeks, salsa verde or yellowtail, plus avocado and red cabbage napped with a chipotle remoulade.

The crisp, clean-tasting fish ceviches were one of the meal’s highlights, particularly the bigeye tuna with serrano-coconut sauce, lime sorbet, tomatillo (small, tangy green tomatoes) and tostadita (I’m not going to lie; I’ve been trying to locate a clear definition of a tostadita and am coming up empty-handed).

From the los moles section of the menu, we sampled the Poblano duck breast, petite pieces of pink breast meat that arrived in a very cute little terrine and was pleasantly sweet and tender. Had I not been part of a press dinner, I would have opted for the pork belly, but that just gives me an excuse to go back. (The bone marrow, tuetano, served with a bacon marmalade, onion, jalapeño and cilantro takes up the most space in my food fantasies, though.)

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To my pleasant surprise, a variation on one of my favorite Tinto dishes was on the menu: Los hongos—forest mushrooms served with huitlacoche (corn truffle) sauce, queso mixto and black truffle corn shoot. YUM pretty much sums that dish up.


Distrito’s Los hongos.

The esquites were a crowd favorite. Served in a petite pilsner glass, this was a creamy mix of sweet corn and queso fresco (fresh cheese), with a little kick of chipotle and lime. As decadent as it was with its spicy-sweet, crunchy-creamy contrasts, I was surprised to learn that it is a very traditional street food and quite simple to prepare.

Another great dish was the carne asada, New York strip steak in an adobe sauce, served with a cornmeal crusted tomatillo and a creamy Poblano corn rice that delivered a satisfying dose of comfort and reminded me of grits but with better texture.
Distrito is inspired by Garces’ favorite mental photo album of energetic and flamboyant Mexico City, complete with a designated karaoke room.

Waiters are decked out in Kelly green tees printed to look like those old-school, thin-cotton, short-sleeve button-downs; and the waitresses have cute pink tees with wedding cakes on them—all for sale, too (I scored one). The ambiance is sheer party time, with a much different vibe than the more serious Tinto and even Amada. The overall vibe is redolent of POD and El Vez—likely as much a response to the university neighborhood as its playfulness and dramatic flair.

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Libations-wise, there are 70-plus tequilas and a Mexican-heavy bottled beer selection, plus plenty of local brews on draught, including a signature tap from the West Philadelphia craft brewery, Dock Street, which was created especially for Distrito.

Highlights from the eight signature margaritas are Distrito, made with Jimador reposado tequila with triple sec and lime; Hemingway, chile-infused Hornitos tequila with maraschino cherries and grapefruit; Frozen Strawberry; and Jefe, or “Chef,” Garces’ signature margarita made with Don Julio reposado tequila, Patron cointreau and lime. There are also numerous non-alcoholic concoctions, wine and, of course, water.

Trust me, you gotta check out Distrito. The place rocks. And if you really want to have some fun, do a shot of tequila and get your karaoke on in the designated—and hopefully soundproof—room hidden behind a secret door near the hostess station.

3945 Chestnut St., Philadelphia; (215) 222-1657, distritorestaurant.com.

In Case You Missed the Big Event on Sunday Night: Jose Garces (yes, we know his name is everywhere), who owns Amada, Tinto and the aforementioned Distrito, competed against—no wait, kicked the butt of—challenger chef Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America, Food Network’s insanely popular series. As is de rigueur, each chef was given one hour to complete five dishes, which had to include the “secret” ingredient du jour—in this case, melon—and have a frozen component (hence the brain-freeze references).

Not to anyone’s surprise, at the conclusion of the hour, Garces was crowned the victor against Flay for his innovative dishes. You can look for a more colorful recap and a full profile on Jose Garces in Main Line Today’s October issue, as well as a Q&A and recipes from his new cookbook online that month.

To celebrate, this week, all three restaurants will offer an Iron Chef America menu, featuring: Desayuno, fresh melon, quail egg and bacon crisp, served with cream and maple, and cooled with an espresso granite; Som Tum, Kobe beef with wintermelon, radish, carrot and pickled honeydew, served with a peanut dressing and topped with fresh herbs; and Sliced Ibérico and Cantaloupe Terrine, with melon and Serrano ice, and served with a fresh herb salad.

Our Best of the Main Line Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!