Good Food, Great Service, and a Fun Interior Make This Stephen Starr Restaurant Worth Visiting
Stephen Starr has been a major player in Philadelphia’s dining scene since the 1990s, and recently brought his second Mexican restaurant to the city: El Rey. Taking over an old, seedy diner location on Chestnut Street, just north of Rittenhouse Square, El Rey retains much of the original funky atmosphere to create the feel of a Mexican roadside dive. Yet the food and drink at El Rey is definitely a far step beyond average, featuring fresh ingredients and home-style Mexican cuisine.
El Rey’s head chef, Dionico Jimenez, previously had turned Xochitl Mexican restaurant into a Philadelphia favorite. Here, Jimenez’s food ranges from Puebla to Veracruz specialties, though the emphasis is on basic dishes: tortas, tostadas, quesadillas, tacos and chilaquiles. But this is no simple street food menu – one can also try specialties such as Ceviche A La Veracruzana or Quesadillas with Zucchini Blossoms, Corn and Oaxaca Cheese. El Rey additionally features fresh juices and drinks, and one can even enjoy Mexican Coca-Cola featuring cane sugar instead of corn syrup.
The interior of El Rey makes for an amusing discovery as one enters the old diner’s front door. Much of the original Midtown Diner’s tacky interior remains, only amped up in a wild mish-mash of faux-stone walls, Mexican movie posters, drop ceilings, uncoordinated ceiling lights, flea-market artwork and wrestling action figures. It’s like a Mexican theme park run wild, and oddly accented by a musical soundtrack that blends Mariachi music with 1970s soul and funk. Fun decor has often been a central feature of Stephen Starr’s restaurants, and on this point El Rey definitely delivers.
El Rey recently introduced a two-course “Fast Lunch” special as their entry into Philadelphia’s thriving bargain lunch scene. Served Monday through Friday, this special includes salsa and chips plus two courses from a limited menu, all for $9.99. It was for lunch that I finally made it to El Rey to try their offerings, with quite satisfactory results. The first and second courses for the “Fast Lunch” consist of items off their regular menu, which ordered individually would run $6-10 a piece. As chips and salsa are $3.50 alone, this special is certainly a good deal, worth up to $23.50 if normally ordered individually.
On my first visit, I ordered the Chayote Salad and the Skirt Steak Sopes for my two courses. The chips were nice and crispy, a little on the over-browned side but not burnt. I liked that they were served with freshly made salsa verde, my favorite kind of salsa. With my chips I had a delicious guava margarita, which was a perfect balance between sweet and tart. My salad came quickly, a combination of chayote, corn, pickled onion and avocado in a light vinaigrette. It was refreshingly light and perfectly-dressed, though it could have used just a little more “kick” in the seasonings – perhaps a touch more salt or some chile.
The Sopes were delicious, a masa shell filled with skirt steak, poached egg, chipotle salsa, black beans and crema. I really enjoyed this course, especially with the earthy, smooth flavor of a tamarind margarita.
On another visit, I again went for the two-course lunch, this time ordering the Tortilla Soup and the Short Rib Enchiladas. The chips were better on this visit, less browned yet perfectly crispy. The Tortila Soup was attractively served in a small cup, where the soup was poured at serving time over a heaping portion of thin tortilla strips, avocado chunks, crispy pork rinds called “chicharrones” and cubes of soft cheese. The tomato broth was not overwhelmingly flavorful, but I liked the textural contrast of the crisp tortillas, warm soup and soft avocado.
Quickly – a little too quickly, as I was still finishing my soup – my enchiladas arrived. These were very tasty, full of tender short rib meat and not over-sauced, topped with slivers of red onion. The two enchiladas were a perfect portion size for lunch with the soup, definitely a great deal for $9.99. On this visit I tried two more of El Rey’s signature margaritas, the standard lime version and the mango. The mango margarita was one of the most intensely mango-flavored margaritas I’ve ever tasted, full of fresh, delicious fruit pulp. The lime margarita was also quite good, clearly made with fresh juice and no pre-prepared mix.
The service staff at El Rey really stands out and is incredibly well trained, as is typical for most Stephen Starr restaurants in Philadelphia. On both visits I sat at the bar/counter and was taken care of by the wonderful bartender Ashley, who made for great conversation while I dined on my solo meals. Even nearly a month apart in visits, she remembered me and what I had ordered the last time, and suggested what I should try this time around as well. The rest of the staff I encountered was equally friendly and efficient helping to make the experience a pleasant one.
It is worth noting that all side dishes come separately and for an extra charge, so if you want rice, beans, or corn on the cob, you will have to pay extra for it. Even when ordering the lunch special, if you do have drinks with your meal it can get pricey to eat at El Rey. With drinks in the $7-10 range, my total bill both times with tip was approximately $34.
Overall, El Rey is quickly becoming one of my favorite lunch spots in Philadelphia when I’m in the mood to splurge on a nice meal. It is a great place for solo diners to savor good food in a comfortable and fun atmosphere. The cuisine is a far step above standard Mexican fare, full of very fresh ingredients if only lacking occasionally in sufficient spice and seasoning. I look forward to continuing to visit El Rey in the future to sample more of their menu offerings.