Philadining Home

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Zhi Wei Guan - The Tao of Dough - Hangzhou Cuisine in Chinatown

Update: Sadly, this address has been bad luck for a series of restaurants. Zhi Wei Guan closed, and at least for now, I know of no place to find Hangzhou cuisine in the Philly area. They're missed...

The storefront that housed the Dumpling House (for about a minute and a half) has been the site of a lot of restaurants that have come and gone quickly. Let's hope Zhi Wei Guan stays around a lot longer!

They are a welcome addition to Chinatown, adding to the increasing diversity of regional cuisines we're seeing lately. For many years, and even today, most of the restaurants in Chinatown have served an Americanized version of Cantonese cuisine. That food is often unrecognizable as "Chinese food" to people from China.

In some of the better places, there is serious traditional Cantonese food to be found, but you have to know how to find it. Sometimes it's right on the main menu, sometimes it's relegated to a Chinese-language menu, sometimes it's only specials on the wall, sometimes you just have to ask. And when it's done in a traditional way by a skilled chef, real Cantonese food bears little resemblance to the sweet, gooey, saucey, American style food most places serve.

But Cantonese is only one of many regional styles of Chinese cooking. because of the large number of immigrants from Guangzhou, it became the dominant style in restaurants in the US, but it's by no means the only kind of food one finds in China.

Despite the prevalence of homogenized American style food, we're fortunate to have a few alternatives in Philly's Chinatown. Some places have featured these other cuisines for quite a while, often just as a small section of a more mainstream Americanized menu. Empress Garden has Shanghainese food (if you know where to look.) Four Rivers, Chung King Garden and Szechuan Tasty House purvey the numbing spice of Sichuan province. Dim Sum Garden trades in the comforting noodles and buns of Shanghai. Ong's offers Chiu Chow cooking. Pot Luck Café serves Fujian and other styles. If you want to venture out to the suburbs, Han Dynasty has great Sichuan and Taiwanese.

And importantly, Zhi Wei Guan serves Hangzhou cuisine, noted for delicate, light flavors. They've started out modestly, hoping to build up to a larger, more elaborate menu. They've decided to start by concentrating on noodles and other dough-based foods, leading to the slightly quirky sign in the front window proclaiming "Magic Kingdom of Dough." There's actually more on the menu beyond dumplings, noodles and other dough-based snacks, but the focus is on the starchy stuff.

The best news is that they make very good Xiao Long Bao, the "steamed juicy buns" or "soup dumplings" that are so popular in nearby Shanghai. It wasn't long ago that we would bemoan the lack of good Xiao Long Bao in Philly, a few places had them, but they seemed to be pre-made, probably frozen, or even if not, they were lacking the delicacy of the truly great juicy buns.

Now we have Dim Sum Garden, making very good ones, and Zhi Wei Guan which might be making my favorites right now. The first time I tried them, back in the spring, I thought the wrappers were too thick, and there wasn't enough broth inside. I liked the flavor, but the overall texture and balance seemed off. In the intervening months, the chef had intensive training with a master chef visiting from China, and he told us they spent a whole day just on Xiao Long Bao technique. And I think it shows, the ones I had most recently were excellent, with delicate wrappers and a perfect soup-to-dough ratio.

We also tried their wontons, ethereally silky noodles encasing a small ball of pork, in a light broth. This really showed off the elegance of their dough, clearly made freshly, and with great care.

One note about the menu: it's not always completely clear what will be served in a soup, so ask if you're not sure, if you care. I've usually just ordered stuff and seen what shows up. Sometimes I get something with a sauce over noodles that I thought would be a soup, other times it's a soup that I thought would be dry. I never really care, it's always tasty.

But if one is not careful, it's possible to order a lot of similar things without realizing it, so pay attention, and make sure you don't order 7 variations on the same thing. Eventually, they hope to expand the menu even further, so I suspect it will be less likely to order a whole dinner of noodles...

We're encouraging them to offer some of the classics of Hangzhou, Like Dong Po Rou and West Lake Fish, and they may do that if traffic increases enough to justify keeping those expensive ingredients around. So, for completely selfish reasons, GO HERE NOW!!! I want to see what else they can do, and that's going to require some more customers!

As the magic kingdom of dough, it makes sense that they'd have breads too, and this combination of steamed bread and fried bread is a good intro. They're fairly plain, but dipped into the condensed milk served alongside, both styles make a nice snack. I much preferred the fried version, which seemed a bit like a nice fresh donut, and they tell me you could ask for just fried if you want. I'd imagine these breads might be nice alongside other savory dishes as well.

They do an nice version of a few classic noodle dishes as well. The Zha Jiang Mian had a delicious ground pork topping. The sauce on the sesame noodles was light and subtle, but very tasty. Basic fried dumplings and shu mai were well-made, if not especially distinctive from other versions we've had.

We really loved the Hangzou Duck on noodles (pictured at top). We got it another time as just duck, and while it was every bit as delicious, we really missed the opportunity to soak up that deep, dark, concentrated sauce with the noodles.

It could get a little tedious if everything were based on dough, so I'm glad to report that there are a few vegetable and meat dishes that even someone on Atkins could get excited about. Our favorites are the double-cooked pork dishes. They're currently running a Spicy Double-Cooked Pork Belly that places the braised, then stir-fried, slices of pork in a slightly spicy sauce. The preparation technique renders the pork very tender, and not too fatty. The flavors reminded us a little of a Sa Cha sauce, but with a more delicate touch. The fresh bell peppers gave the dish a welcome lightness.

We'd had another version of this with a lighter sauce that was almost as seductive, but this spicy sauce is something special, I'm eager to get back and have that again. As is often the case in traditional Chinese restaurants, it's worth taking care to make sure you're getting pork belly, if that's what you want, and not pork stomach, which is sometimes offered as well. We tried the pork stomach here, and it was not bad, with a texture and flavor similar to tripe, but it's not nearly as luxuriously meaty or fatty as the belly. It's worth asking if it's bacon, or fatty pork, or streaky pork, or 5-layer pork, those terms usually mean pork belly.

On an early visit we ordered the Pork Tongue in Herb Sauce. We found the meat to have a delightful soft texture, the reddish "herb sauce" to have a mysterious sweetness with a touch of anise. This may only be listed on the menu as a noodle dish now, but we liked it better plain, the flavors were more intense. Although having it on noodles is not so bad either...

Amidst all this dough and meat, it's nice to have some vegetables, and I'm happy to report that they do a nice job with some basic greens.

Baby Bok Choi is prepared in a fairly typical way, with lots of garlic, but it's worth noting that they do it just right: the tiny vegetables are tender and sweet, artfully cooked to just the right point, strongly garlicky, but not overwhelming.

We've also had excellent snow pea greens, prepared similarly. We just ask what greens they have, and go with whatever they recommend.

Zhi Wei Guan may not have the largest menu in Chinatown, but they have lots of interesting options, and most importantly, they provide a welcome alternative to the same-old menus around town. Hangzou cuisine offers some excitingly different flavors and textures from the Americanized Chinese food that 's so pervasive, and even other authentic regional Chinese cooking we're more likely to find in the US.

You'll find a few familiar things on the menu, perhaps prepared in a different style than you're used to, and plenty of things you won't find anywhere else. I hope we can support this elegant style of cooking, and continue to see more authentic regional specialties of all kinds.

Zhi Wei Guan
925 Race St.
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Kanella - Cypriot food in Center CIty

We finally tried Kanella this weekend, and were somewhat surprised to find it less than packed, it's gotten some very good press lately, so we assumed it would be jammed. It did get full-ish later, but I'm pretty sure I noticed people walking-in without reservations. I suspect it might be summer-in-Philly syndrome, everything seems a bit slow. Anyway, go now, I'm sure it's going to be packed solid come fall.

We really enjoyed it a lot, out of the many things we ordered we didn't dislike anything, and there were only a couple of things that didn't thrill us.

We started with two apps from the specials.

Grilled Cuttlefish

Very nicely grilled to add a smoky edge, but it still remained tender. I liked the texture, a little more substantial than squid, but still delicate. The citrus dressing brightened it nicely.

Beef Tongue

Very soft, almost falling-apart, it reminded us of long-cooked brisket. And we mean that in a good way... Great intense dark sauce.

Loukanigo Spitisio: Grilled Cyprus Sausage

Loved the grilled crunchiness to the casing, and the spicy flavors within.

Grilled Haloumi

-eh... I don't think there was anything wrong with this, I think I might just not like haloumi all that much. The cheese was kind of dry and mostly tasted salty, and not much else.

Octopus Kathisto

Again - eh... not bad, but we're spoiled here in philly with lots of great octupus. I found this one a little bland and a little chewy, but really not unpleasant in any way, just not up on the same level as most everything else we had here. This was braised, a welcome variation from simple grilling, but in the end we weren't all that excited by it.


Really good meatballs, interesting spicing, crusty but still moist.

For Entrées:

Kouneli (Rabbit Stew)

This was my favorite, and that seemed to be the consensus around the table. The rabbit had an intriguing flavor, I'm not sure if it was from its rabbit-ness or the other ingredients in the stew. The meat was tender and succulent, infused with the slightly sweet herby broth. I think I tasted some of Kanella's namesake cinnamon in this dish, which worked really well. Excellent.


These had very nice flavor, but as is so often the case with quail, it was a little tricky to get at the tasty parts. In a different preparation once could pick up pieces and gnaw on them, but in this soupy presentation that would get a bit messy. So, although it tasted good, it was a little annoying to do battle with.


The crusty outsides of this were just spectacular. And the rarer insides were good too, although some parts of it were a little too rare, to the point of being chewy. Still, overall very enjoyable.

Grilled Dorado

A close second to the rabbit in my opinion, this was a very high quality fish, with a pleasing twist from being grilled in a grape leaf, imparting some of that flavor while protecting the flesh a bit. But there was still some good smoke from the grill infiltrating into the fish, a subtle sauce underneath adding to the complexity.

We didn't really have room for dessert, but curiosity got the best of us, and I'm glad we indulged.

I've forgotten the names of these, but we started with a semolina custard in phyllo

This was quite tasty, it reminded me of a very good cheese blintz, but flakier, crispier...

Lemon Yogurt Mousse

Vividly tart, this was a full-on palate-cleanser! I loved it.

German Chocolate Mousse with lavender ice cream (special)

A bit more restrained than the lemon, this was still pretty intense. The lavender ice cream was perhaps too subtle, but still a very nice parter for the chocolate.

A creamy pannacotta-ish thing with rosewater...
This was as restrained as the lemon mousse was loud, but each had charms. It was not very sweet, which appealed strongly to some in our party, not as much to others. I liked it.

And we finished with thick Greek coffee

Our server was very good, giving helpful suggestions, and pacing the courses very well. He offered to bring the apps in a few waves, which is a welcome alternative to being inundated with plates, especially when over-ordering, as we tend to. He was also very good at keeping wine glasses filled, and overall checking in on us, even though it did finally get a little busy later.

The overall vibe was very pleasant there, we even ended up chatting with neighboring tables. One party in particular give us some helpful reviews of dishes we didn't get to try (rabbit tenderloin appetizer gets a thumbs-up.) I suspect they might be checking-in here, if so - hey, hi, nice to meet you folks!

We liked this place a lot, there are a few dishes I'd get again anytime, and there were several more things on the menu we want to try.

Distrito - Nuevo Mexican from Jose Garces

My eyes hurt. I just got over my ringing ears from a cacophonous dinner at Parc, and now my eyes are ringing. I don't think I've been this overwhelmed by vivid pink since I accidentally wandered down the Barbie isle at Toys R Us.

It's got an open, fun, casual feel, with scorpions embedded in the bar, movie-marquee-style signs, a wall of luchador masks along the stairway, rattan booths, swinging seats, other chairs seem a bit like patio furniture. Overall it looks and feels a bit like a beach party.

To be blunt, I don't like the look. But that might just be me, I'll bet most people will be fine with it, and the lighthearted vibe will almost certainly appeal to the 8 bazillion college students nearby. But it just strikes me as a little too silly, and a bit cold and empty-feeling.

More importantly, the vibe of the restaurant seems completely out-of-synch with the food coming out of the kitchen, which is extremely elegant and refined, tiny jewel-like constructions of delicate flavors and complex textures. Everything we tried was absolutely delicious, often surprising, and very meticulously composed.

On one hand, this should be no surprise, given the level of polish seen on the dishes at Amada and Tinto. Those places are a good analogy for Distrito: there was some grumbling about how the casual, informal tradition of tapas may have been buffed to too high a gloss at those places, resulting in expensive, overly polite versions of the originals. But beyond that conceptual argument about what tapas should be, there was (general) agreement that Garces's food was very well-executed and quite delicious.

The same philosophy in in effect at Distrito. The concept is "small plates" and indeed the portions are surprisingly diminutive. But within those compact proportions are some amazing flavors, and extremely artful constructions. I think that the portions might be exactly right, that these particular versions of dishes should be experienced in measured doses, rather than in massive bowl-fulls. Just don't be surprised when your order of Pork Belly with Mole Verde arrives in a 4-inch Staub mini cocotte, four bite-sized pieces of meltingly tender pork over rice, a dollop of green sauce. It's delicious, but not what one would expect at a Oaxacan restaurant, or quite what I was expecting in this party-like atmosphere.

I had the good fortune of dining with Katie Loeb, on her night off from Chick's. She knew some of the staff from her days working at Amada, so we benefitted from a little special attention, and a couple of complimentary dishes. The first of those was a revelation. It didn't sound all that interesting from the menu description, but after a few bites, we were telling our waiter that they should make this a mandatory item: just put it on the table without asking, nobody will ever complain.

Jicama Salad

It's somehow sweet and savory at once, crunchy and juicy, refreshing and intriguing. I strongly advise you to just get one of these no matter what, it's a nice starter, a perfect palate-cleanser, it would even be a good dessert.

The chef was also kind enough to send us a Tuna Ceviche
Pristine raw tuna, very gently touched by citrus, if at all, but nicely salted, accompanied by spicy creamy coconut, cool lime sorbet and a nice crunch from crispy micro tortillas. Very nice.

From the "Huraches" section, we ordered the Los Hongos, which featured mushrooms, huitlacoche sauce, cheese and corn shoots.
The huarache itself, a very thin, crispy flatbread, was much thinner than any I've had before, but it worked very nicely, transmitting an earthy corn flavor and nice crunch. The topping was very tasty, the creamy wild mushroom flavors lightened by the corn shoots.

Carne Kobe Tacos

This is one of those dishes that may induce portion size sticker shock: it's two tiny tacos, maybe 4 inches in diameter, with a few slices of beef on each, for $12. Yes it's luxuriously tender beef, yes it's extremely tasty, and yes, I'd order it again. But it's a bit of a surprise when they arrive, looking so... dainty! The flavors are anything but: the meat is assertively beefy, there's a tingle of horseradish, a crunch of potato straws, and a comforting smear of truffled potato.

Mole Verde with Pork Belly

As mentioned earlier, I laughed a little when this arrived, I'm used to Moles being large, deep plates of sauce, with a chicken breast island in the middle. This is obviously a whole different thing. And for what it is, it is quite satisfying. Four bites of pork belly might not seem like much, but what there is is very nicely executed. The rice is light and tender, the sauce vibrant and complex. I could use a little more sauce... I could use a little more of everything in this dish, but it's only $8, and I did enjoy it quite a lot.

Queso Fundido with Duck Barbacoa

I was a little skeptical about this one: I love queso fundido, I love duck, I never thought of them together. I must say, I thought it worked very well. Smear some of that on delicate, made-to-order tortillas, and it's a great flavor combo.

We also got some black beans and rice, also served in a tiny Staub cocotte, which were basic, but good, but didn't photograph well.

We ended with Tres Leches

This was ethereally light, no small trick for tres leches, and had a nice bright flavor from the mango on top, and nice layers of sweetness that evoked the traditional tastes of this cake, while giving it a modern spin.

I've forgotten most of the details about the drinks, but we had a few, all of which were good, and often quite interesting, with surprising elements like tomatillo, or cumin, or chile incorporated. Oh darn, I'll have to head back and get more drinks to try to refresh my memory. I'll let you know how that goes.

As I mentioned, my dinign partner Katie was recognized, so I'm not sure how typical of a service experience we had, but our waiter was very nice, very well-informed, and gave us good suggestions. There's a hive of worker-bees waiting to refill your water, clear your plates, or bring you another something, so overall, the service seems quite polished, especially for so early on.

So overall, I loved the food, I'm still a little mixed about the whole experience. It'll be interesting to see how it feels with a full room, maybe the decor won't bother me so much, but or right now I just wasn't digging the visual aspect of the space, while quite impressed by the visuals on the table. Plates and glasses and other serviceware are very elegant, as is the food itself.

It's not cheap. The 4 plates we ordered, and a side of beans, and dessert, with three drinks, came in at about $90. That probably would have been enough food for two, although we might have wanted another plate or two. With the two things the kitchen sent us, we were stuffed.

It's an interesting time for Mexican food in Philly. We've slowly accumulated several good basic taquerias, and the last few years have seen a few more upscale offerings as well with Xochitl, Cantina Los Caballitos, and whatever Molcajete Mixto has turned into as good examples.

The also-new Cantina Dos Segundos offers an interesting contrast to Distrito - they too are doing serious cooking, based on traditional recipes, tweaked with high-quality ingredients, but the presentations are very different. Their portions are huge, prices lower, and the overall feel is a bit more relaxed. The food there is surprisingly refined as well, I've been really impressed by a couple of recent meals, but it's presented in a more low-key way. I'm pretty thrilled to have both options.

I like the food at both places, and their approaches are different enough that I don't think I could say one is "better" than the other. I suspect I'll find myself at Dos Segundos more often, as a regular stop in the dining rotation, and reserve Distrito more for special occasions. I'm not sure that's what Garces intended, but by the middle of the meal, it was feeling a bit more like a destination restaurant, not an everyday spot to drop-in on frequently. It'll be interesting to see how others use it. I'm very curious to see what the university community of Penn and Drexel students and staff makes of it. It's got the look of a perfect party spot, but the prices and elegant presentations may dissuade some of them, this is not really a spot for nachos and beer. They do have those things on the menu, along with a few other not-so-challenging dishes, and who knows, maybe that crowd will embrace expensive tiny Kobe beef tacos.

In any case, it's a good time to be in Philly if one is interested in Mexican food...
3945 Chestnut St Philadelphia, PA (entrance on 40th street)
(215) 222-1657

Parc - New Bistro from Steven Starr

What?!? Huh?!? Sorry, I really can't hear you, my ears are still ringing from dinner at Parc, the new bistro on Rittenhouse Square. Of course bistros and brasseries are usually bustling places, but this one is ridiculous. It's a lovely space, carefully reconstructing the romantic notion of the classic Parisian dining establishments, with lots of tile, interrupted only by wood and glass, mottled mirrors, ceiling fans, and light fixtures that imply they might have been switched-over from gas. It feels very authentic, evoking a place like Brasserie Lipp in Paris, more of a see-and-be-seen power spot than a casual neighborhood favorite.

But I've been in some bistros and brasseries in Paris, and in lots of places seeking to imitate that style in the states, and I've never encountered one so deafeningly loud. It's not really a surprise, it's a big space that seats lots of people, constructed with lots of reflective surfaces. But wow, something needs to be done, or I'm only going back when the place is almost empty. A little buzz and energy is desirable in a place like this, but when you can't hear your dining partners, it makes it hard to relax and enjoy your meal.

The menu is generally very authentic in both content and design, offering all the classics: raw seafood plateaux, escargots, ontion soup, Lyonnaise salad, steak frites, roast chicken, duck confit, skate Grenobloise, etc.

The staff was very nice, and service was generally very good, especially considering the place had only been open a few days when we went. We only had one problem with service, and that was that the ceiling fans were cranked up so high that we had a strong cold wind on our table, enough that it kept blowing out our candle. More problematic was that it was insta-chilling our food. A manager promised to fix it, but nothing changed and we never saw him again.

That same manager was very helpful when we got a very weird, funky glass of wine. He was very prompt and professional about pouring a replacement and making sure that it was OK. As it turns out, it is a very odd Shiraz in any condition, but that first glass we got was sour and acrid, even more than it was intended to be. The replacement, apparently from a new bottle, was still odd, but significantly better, and they handled the situation well.

One outright rave: the bread is excellent. We loved the baguettes, and liked the heartier, darker bread too. When we first asked for bread (it may have been coming anyway, but we were impatient... ) we got a fairly modest selection, which we powered-through in about 35 seconds.

Shortly afterward, we snagged someone walking by the table and asked for more, and to her credit, her response was "I'll make sure that happens" not "I'll find your waiter" or some other evasion. And indeed, a very short time later, we got a much more generous basket.

I'm only a little embarrassed to say that we came pretty close to finishing all that.

We also thought the charcuterie was very good.
There's prosciutto under the salami, and what I think was duck prosciutto on top of that, all of which were delicious. The country pate and duck rillettes were both quite pleasant, but the unexpected star might have been the chicken liver mousse, which was creamy and airy and intense all at once. Extra points for good cornichons and pickled onions.

On the down side:
The majority of our food was only good - which is to say not at all bad, but not exactly thrilling either, and we're the kind of weirdos that actually do get thrilled by a good steak frites, or a perfectly roasted chicken.

The Lyonnaise Salad was decent, I'd probably get it again, but it was missing a little spark, I think mostly in the dressing, it needed a little more bite, or intensity or something.

I didn't get a good photo of the escargots, but they too were good, but not transcendent. I liked the garlicky sauce soaked up with the nicely-toasted rusks, and the snails were tender, but didn't taste like much themselves. I suspect we're still pining for the Pif snails, and these are a different style, which may be an unfair comparison. Regardless, overall good, but not a must-order.

The frites that accompany the steak are excellent, crisp and tender. The hanger steak itself had a good solid beefy flavor, but that was about it. The compound butter was pretty subtle, and relatively sparse, and there was not much of a sauce, if any, maybe just juices. It just wasn't as vivid as it should be. This dish at Starr's previous bistro Blue Angel was not much different in composition, but tasted WAY better.

My picture of the roast chicken didn't turn out all that well, which seems oddly appropriate, because it tasted kind of blurry too. The texture was not good at all, it had a mushy, mealy feel that I can only assume comes from brining. I can't imagine what else would to that to a chicken. The flavor was a bit muted too, helped along somewhat by a rich sauce, but an ideal roast chicken shouldn't need that.

The lamb was delicious, one of our favorite things all night. This dish, probably because it was sliced, suffered most under the fans, or maybe it wasn't all that hot coming out of the kitchen, but we can only imagine that it would have been even more delicious hot. The polenta that comes with this (which we asked for on the side) was very good. If I had any complaint, it would be that the sauces on everything seemed a litle too similar, as if there were one huge pot simmering back in the kitchen labeled "Le Sauce."

The duck confit had good flavor, but was just too dry for my taste. I've it like this often enough that I feel like it might be a style, not a mistake. But if so, it's not my favorite version. The duck confit at Standard Tap, or one we got as part of a tasting menu at Matyson were much more tender and moist, while still gaining that concentrated flavor from the preservation process. Again, not bad, just not something that I would return for.

So overall, I'm just not sure what to make of this place. This style of food isn't really that hard to make, I've been quite happy with meals I've had at other modern recreations of bistros, including Balthazar in NY, Brasserie Jo in Chicago, Jeanty at Jack's in San Francisco, Blue Angel here in Philly, and at Paris bistros so small and undistinguished that I didn't bother noting their names. So I don't think we're holding this place to an impossible standard, it just left us a little cold, in a few senses of the word.

I wouldn't hesitate to go back some time at an off-hour and have some bread, the charcuterie platter, and try some more from the menu. People I trust say the Onion Soup is very good. But I might have to sit outside, or avoid a table anywhere near a ceiling fan. Of course, it is early days, and some of these things, like temperature control, might be still in the process of being worked-out. I hope so - I like the look and feel, it's got the kind of food I'd love to eat on a regular basis, and the prices are not totally out of line. We'll see...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cantina Dos Segundos

I've been very excited about the opening of this new restaurant in Northern Liberties. I'm a big fan of the food at Cantina Los Caballitos in South Philly, and this place, while not an exact duplicate, is owned by the same folks, and the same chef runs both kitchens. The food is not identical at the two places, but if you like one, you'll surely like the other. There's some food in common, but the new place's menu is much bigger, and sometimes delves into the specialties of some of Mexico's regions that are seriously underrepresented here in Philly. Pork Carnitas are slow-cooked in lard, as they are in Michoacan; I've already seen two unusual Moles from Oaxaca; there's a vertical spit for making Al Pastor like they do in Mexico City.

I know some of this just from reading the menu, but I also was lucky enough to get a couple of sneak peeks behind the scenes as they were getting ready to open. I know the owners, and have taken a few photos for them, and even managed to sample a few dishes early on.

As a result, I probably can't be completely objective, and some of the staff surely recognizes me, so I'm not the ideal disinterested anonymous critic, but I think I'm still capable of saying some honest things about the place. I'm pretty sure my tastebuds are still functioning, and I can sincerely say that there's great food coming out of this kitchen. I'm not facing any dilemmas about that: I can wholeheartedly recommend everything that I've tasted so far.

I'm not sure what Chef Mark McKinney's approach is to these traditional dishes, how far he deviates from the conventional preparations, but I do know that the results are delicious. I've had some amazing Oaxacan food at restaurants in southern California, such as Guelaguetza, and McKinney's Coloradito and Amarillo moles stand up very well to those complex concoctions. I've been on a continuous quest for the ideal Tacos al Pastor (pictured above) and this kitchen is currently in the lead. Even the lowly chimichanga is elevated here to something refined, with a light flakiness to the tortilla, rather than the heavy, dense, oily shell one often encounters.

I was out of town for the first few days that "Dos" was open, but as soon as I got back, I made sure to run down there and check it out. I was not disappointed. The place looks great, our server was very nice, and most importantly, the food and drink totally hit the spot. We started with a Bluefin Tuna Ceviche, rich with coconut milk, sweet with onion, and refreshing with a little tomato. This was very good scooped up with plantain chips, or with corn chips, or on its own. McKinney was chef de cuisine at the restaurant Passion during its heyday, and that place had some of the best ceviches I've ever tasted, and it's great to see some of those flavors living on.

We also sampled the baby octopus, which was just outstanding. Philly's a great town for octopus, there are lots of excellent versions of this in the city, but I don't think I've seen any quite like this. These tiny, whole octopuses are tender, yet a little crispy and smoky from some time on the grill, dripping with an herby, garlicky, citrusy dressing. The texture's both tender and crispy, the flavor's earthy, marine and bright all at once. It's a really nice preparation, and a welcome change from the same-old big grilled tentacles. Don't get me wrong, I'm still in love with the old classic at Dmitri's, but this is a great alternative. I've had these whole baby octopuses poached and served cold in Chinatown, but I like this hot, marinated version even better.

The Carnitas, one of several filling available for tacos, burritos, tortas and more, are made in a way I had not encountered before. The pork is slow-cooked in lard, similar to the classic preparation of duck confit, then shredded, and cripsed-up in a pan. This results in an intense pork flavor, and a nice interplay of moist tenderness and crunch. I really like these a lot, the only downside being that the mix of moist and crunchy isn't always consistent, and sometimes a few bites can be a little dry. But the flavor's great, and a little does of salsa or guacamole tends to fix it right up.

Of course the fabled goat tacos are available here too, and every bit as good as those at the Cantina Los Caballitos in south philly. While it's very hard to distract me from the goat tacos, the Al Pastor, as mentioned above might just do it. They have a vertical spit, as used often in Mexico City, but not seen very much in the states. That particular mechanism, spinning a stack of sliced marinated pork in front of vertical heating elements, results in crusty edges, but a juicy interior. An artful slice off the perimeter gives a mix of both textures, some pineapple adding yet another texture, flavor and element of moisture. Taquitos de Puebla on 9th street in the Italian Market had been the local champion in my assessment, and I still like them there, but "Dos" uses a more aggressive marinade, which adds a welcome extra dimension.

I'm a big fan of mole, and I've been a little frustrated to find little variety in the selections available here in Philly. Mole Negro can be quite good, but there are seven classic moles in Oaxaca, and we rarely see any of the others. So far at Dos, we've sampled a Mole Coloradito, a Mole Amarillo and a Mole Rojo, each served over tender Eberly Turkey, and they've been both delicious and a welcome alternative to that ubiquitous deep, dark mole negro. Here's hoping we'll see the rest of the moles, and other specialties from Oaxaca.

Cantina Dos Segundos has just started serving brunch, and so the menu of brunch-specific items was fairly small this first time, but I'm sure it will expand in future weeks. But I don't care if it ever expands, if they keep this one special on the menu: Huevos Dos Segundos.

Of course, it's a take-off on Eggs Benedict, but in place of the muffins, corn masa cakes. Instead of Canadian Bacon, there's Benton's Bacon, which in my book is the ultimate smoky pork delivery system. It works great here. The hollandaise is perked up with a touch of chorizo, and there's a layer of intensely porky refried beans under the perfectly-poached eggs. This is a really nice twist to the brunch classic, and I'll order it again and again, as long as the Benton's Bacon holds out. I didn't love the potatoes, and the masa cakes might be better with a little more crunch, but even so, I'm craving this again already, and am plotting a return visit for brunch.

We also had another order of the tuna ceviche, some goat tacos, more carnitas tacos, and a couple of sides. Both of those were pretty spectacular. The Elotes was very tasty, the grilling bringing out the sweetness in the corn, the mayo, cheese and lime adding some decadence...

Perhaps more decadent still were the Plantanos Machos. Sweet plantains were caramelized to amplify that candy-like character, then drizzled with crema and sprinkled with cheese.

I could eat those all day!

I'm not sure why I failed to photograph our drinks. We had a few really tasty margaritas, and I really liked my "Los Ovnis" which featured Ginger, Rum, Boing! softdrink, and grape, if I remember correctly. I'd also tried a "Cola de Caballo" which includes, bourbon, cola and liquid smoke! It's odd, but I can feel myself being drawn back to get another...

So again, much like the Cantina Los Caballitos in south philly, "Dos" has drinks perfect for this summer weather, great snacks for bar munching or starting a dinner (I saw lots of orders of ribs go by, and they looked great, but I haven't sampled any at the new place. They look the same, which is fine by me.) I did manage to grab an empanada, and it was just perfect: light and flaky, with an earthy ground-beef filling. And it also has full-on dinner offerings too. I was amused by eavesdropping on a nearby table after brunch, as they rhapsodized about their rib-eye steak.

I might just have to get that steak soon, but in the interim, I'll be dropping in for tacos and empanadas and plantanos... and I'm keeping an eye on the specials, I suspect that's where we're going to see the really interesting stuff.

Cantina Dos Segundos
931 N 2nd St
Northern Liberties
Philadelphia, PA