A young branch of Stephen Starr’s flagship Philadelphia cantina serves adulterated versions of south-of-the-border classics for the sake of glamorizing the menu.
There is a lot going on at El Vez. From the accordions and guitars mounted on the walls, to the menu that doesn’t seem to discriminate against any ingredient, the restaurant feels rich and unrestrained, a themed party that is simultaneously upscale and raucous.
Yet at 9 PM on a Saturday night, when I enjoyed my first visit to El Vez, I was taken aback by the hospitality of the front of house and the servers, who seem to mellow out what could easily be a friskier restaurant. Located in the northwest corner of Battery Park City, just steps away from the Goldman Alley, El Vez seems to have cautiously adapted to its neighbors, ever so slightly tempering its spirit to make a dinner enjoyable as just a dinner, and not as a pregame.
Sure, some of the food reads as a disaster in the making, a potent combination of hot, name brand ingredients thrown together by the likes of a 5-year old with access to a luxurious pantry. I was convinced by my date to not order guacamole, and from the stories of the hellish landscape that is avocado served with goat cheese, chili flakes, pistachios, mango, red pepper, and jicama, I’m glad I didn’t. Instead we enjoyed the Queso Fundido con Hongos, with truffled wild mushrooms (see what they did there?), huitlacoche, and squash blossoms served alongside soft flour tortillas.
This and the Nacho Mama with melted jack cheese, black beans, salsa ranchera, sour cream, pickled red onions, jalapeno, and chorizo if you make it a "Macho," seem to grace every other table to start. Rightly, the guacamole is nowhere to be found.
Among its main dishes, the Enchiladas are some of El Vez’s best options. The Pollo Rotisado is particularly good, with roasted chicken that seems to melt inside its tortilla blanket covered with a thick mojo de ajo sauce that tastes of chipotle peppers, lime, and garlic. Tacos are average fare, although the many options make the menu more intriguing. Like most of the tacos offered, the Grilled Fish Tacos come in three soft flour tortillas topped with a strangely shaped piece of rectangular white fish, cabbage slaw, and guacamole. If the Crispy Mahi Mahi Tacos sound better to anyone for the same price, be warned that you’ll only enjoy 2, topped with red cabbage, avocado, and a chipotle pepper remoulade. Both will satisfy the craving every Californian has for daily fish tacos, but with a limp, watery slaw and a few too many ingredients, they will not break any records.
The size of the margaritas might, though, served in the large glasses that you’d want come 6 PM on a Friday night. The tequila and cocktail lists are also appropriately long, consistent with El Vez’s attempt to add to serious Mexican cuisine in New York, and yet ending up squarely in the middle of what we expect from it.
Ultimately in the scheme of things, El Vez is likely the best stop for Mexican in the neighborhood. Though that’s like saying that On the Border is the best spot for Mexican in East Brunswick - it’s not saying a lot.