La Calaca Feliz

By Phyllis Stein-Novack
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 24 | Posted Feb. 23, 2012

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La Calaca Feliz, a Mexican eatery, recently opened at a Fairmount location that formerly housed Illuminaire, which shuttered over the summer.

Photo by Greg Bezanis

I rarely fall for TV commercials, but when ads for Old El Paso tacos kept interrupting my viewing, all I could think of was Mexican food. I have not reviewed a Mexican restaurant since last fall when Sandy, Edward and I discovered Isabel, a marvelous BYOB. I did some culinary sleuthing on the Internet and came up with La Calaca Feliz.

The restaurant, which translates as “the happy skeleton,” opened last month in Fairmount on the site of the former Illuminaire, which served some of the best pizza in the city.

La Calaca Feliz consists of a bar and dining room in the back of the restaurant. It was quite dark. Thank goodness I remembered my flashlight. There’s a colorful painted mural on one wall, booths are covered in red leather and the sound system wasn’t too loud.

“Have you been here before? Let me tell you about the menu. Can I explain the drinks menu?” our server said.

I thought — I’ve been coming to restaurants when I was still in the womb and I learned to read quite early in life. Edward joked he learned to read at age 6.

When guest arrive after a long, hard day at work, the last thing they wish to endure is a long song and dance. We ordered a Rob Roy ($11.50) and a martini ($9.50) made with house gin. Sandy, Edward and I talked about the menu and decided on three appetizers, as well as a taco, an enchilada and a duck entrée.

Every Mexican restaurant in the city offers complimentary chips and salsa. When none appeared, I asked our server “do you offer complimentary chips and salsa?”

She asked if we would like to place an order. Here comes the stream again. She’s answering a question with a question and she’s not even Jewish. After she told us the charge is $1.75 for as much as you want, we told her to go ahead. At this point a gentleman began to make his way through the room chatting with customers. The room was filled.

“The basket of chips is on me,” he said.

They were warm from the oven but the salsa had an unpleasant smoky flavor, which made me think of bottled barbecue sauce.

We began dinner with meatballs ($10.95), octopus ($12.95) and a Mexican version of mushroom pizza ($10.95)

Three wooden skewers held a nice-sized spiced meatball that we all enjoyed. Unfortunately for us, the octopus was more than disappointing. It lacked flavor and was a bit chewy. The pizza, on the other hand, was the best dish of the night. The crust was a cross between a crisp sheet of matzo and pita bread. It was sliced into four wedges and included heady mushrooms, a bit of crema and the right touch of truffle oil.

Enchiladas are so good when properly done. La Calaca Feliz offers several sauces. The aforementioned one, which came with the chips, a mole and a salsa verde. I have never tasted a good mole in Philadelphia. The only mole I ever have loved was prepared by Chicago chef Rick Bayless. The sample was dreadful and grainy. The salsa verde was a bit better but contained way too much acidic lime juice. Still, I thought, if properly sauced, the enchiladas would be fine.

Enchiladas stuffed with shrimp and crab ($14.95) were more than disappointing. They were lukewarm inside, topped with way too much sauce, which was piping hot. It killed the delicacy of the seafood.

Sandy’s mushroom tacos ($10.95) were OK. She received three small, open-faced tacos, topped with mushrooms and asparagus that were laced with so much lime juice, it ruined the flavor.

Duck confit ($17.95) was another disappointment. It was cloyingly sweet and barely resembled its always first-rate French cousin. It also contained much too much cinnamon.

During dinner, we noticed people of all ages, including a few families with small children. The pizza was good but the kitchen needs to lighten up on the sauces.

One tip of the toque to La Calaca Feliz. SPR

La Calaca Feliz

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Comments 1 - 24 of 24
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1. Marty Medals said... on Feb 23, 2012 at 08:47AM

“Duck Confit in a Mexican Restaurant? What next tacos at Au Bon Pain?


I lived at 10th and Kimball streets for years and watched the opening of one Mexican restaurant after another. Some really authentic and excellent.
At the following link I found 23 Mexican Restaurants in SOUTH PHILLY.
Thirteen of which have a four start rating or better.”

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2. Phyllis Stein-Novack said... on Feb 23, 2012 at 10:29AM

“Dear Marty:

I have already reviewed a number of Mexican retaurants in South Philly. I, too, found duck confit very strange in a Mexican restaurant.”

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3. PhyllisPhan said... on Feb 23, 2012 at 01:52PM

“Nice slander of the Jewish people. Ed probably said it after 3 Martinis. Mushroom tacos? Really Sandy? The first time some place didn't get the customary 3 tokes!! Does anyone read your reviews for actual info or just the comedic value? I would love to be a fly on the wall next to you 3 clowns the next time you do a review. I would even pay!! Don't tell Ed the Mooch and Sandy that.”

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4. Michelle said... on Feb 24, 2012 at 10:03AM

“This place doesn't sound very appetizing nor does it provoke any interest in me to eat there. The salsa sounded disgusting. One tip sounds about right.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Feb 24, 2012 at 12:07PM

“Who goes to review a Mexican restaurant and orders a Rob Roy and a Martini?”

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6. Anonymous said... on Feb 24, 2012 at 03:37PM


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7. Edward said... on Feb 24, 2012 at 10:59PM

“I began reading at an early age. I remember studying the Martini & Rossi labels when I was four. There were the green ones (dry) and the red ones (sweet). That really excited me. Just like Christmas colors! I asked Santa for one bottle of each.

Things haven't been the same ever since...”

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8. Phylllis Stein-Novack said... on Feb 25, 2012 at 09:14AM

“I miss Illuminare's pizza, too.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Feb 25, 2012 at 12:19PM

“As a nearby resident at the Philadelphian and a diner at both La Calaca and Illuminaire, I must say your crazy Phyllis. Illuminaire was terrible and thankfully put out of its misery by La Calaca.
I have been to La Calca several times since it opened an haven't been disappointed. You are right on 1 count, the mushroom pizza is fantastic.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Feb 26, 2012 at 06:58PM

“Who reviews a restaurant when it's only been open for a few weeks? I live in the neighborhood and have stopped in a couple of times and the food is very the carnitas, mexican pizza, nachos. I think the House gin in your martini probably threw your taste buds off. BTW...who the heck can tolerate house gin in a martini anyway? answer...someone who's lost their taste buds.”

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11. Sleuth said... on Feb 26, 2012 at 10:00PM

“#10 Anonymous:
Lost taste buds caused the dining room to be quite dark
Lost taste buds caused the server's song/dance with the drinks menu.
Lost taste buds caused the server to answer a question with a question.
Lost taste buds caused the chewy octopus.
Lost taste buds caused the grainy mole.
Lost taste buds caused the lukewarm enchiladas.

Ha ha, I guess you never learned about cause & effect in college. You did go to college, didn't you, Mr. Fairmount Yuppie?”

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12. Andrew said... on Feb 27, 2012 at 01:11PM

I've heard some reviews about you. I heard you and the people you eat with are miserable and weird. After reading a few of your reviews, that sounds accurate.

Your complaint is that the restaurant doesnt give you something for free? Want free chips and salsa? Go to chi-chis. This isnt a "free chips and salsa" type of mexican restaurant.

"open faced tacos"??? Tacos, by their very nature, are open faced.

Also, the Duck Nogada isn't "duck confit". It is a duck nogado. One of the ingredients is duck confit. Thats like calling shepards pie "lamb" or a pepperoni pizza "pepperoni". If you are going to review things, dont be so damned lazy.

Also, its not a god damned pizza. You are so lazy. and miserable. And weird.”

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13. Gustavo said... on Feb 27, 2012 at 02:58PM


You accuse Phyllis of being lazy, and you "hear" she eats with miserable people.  Have you met them?  Isn't weird just a meaningless subjective judgment that depends on each individual?  In other words, isn't your research and opinion of Phyllis based on pure ignorance and  laziness?  Or are you the owner or one of the employees who utters vindictive nonsense as a diversion from your restaurant's shortcomings?

Tacos Dorados are not (and therefore all tacos are not) by their nature open-faced.  Or haven't you been to Mexico to taste them?  How damned lazy of you.

Let's see, is it Nogado or Nogada?  Don't know much Spanish do you?  How lazy of you.  And how weird, using both spellings to modify the same word.

You know a review is right on when the one reviewed resorts to name-calling and personal attacks.”

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14. Anonymous said... on Feb 27, 2012 at 04:25PM


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15. Anonymous said... on Feb 27, 2012 at 04:59PM


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16. No Way José said... on Feb 28, 2012 at 10:21PM

“If you're going to quibble about language, then quibble with the restaurant itself. Check their menu, and you'll see inconsistent mixing of English and Spanish, as well as Spanish useage mistakes. Some gringo (Andrew?) must have put it together.

I also object that the reviewer didn't even use the term Tlayuda, substituting instead the incorrect description "pizza". That patronizes the reader, something you can't do if you're going to review upscale restaurants in a cosmopolitan city.”

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17. Bill said... on Feb 29, 2012 at 08:39AM

“Wow. Do any of these posters realize that the author isn't going to give a rats a** what they think of her, her reviews, her family or anything else?”

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18. No Way José said... on Feb 29, 2012 at 08:58AM

“Wow. No, Bill, we don't realize that. Scroll back and you'll see Phyllis (the reviewer) came on here TWICE, to defend herself about reviewing South Philly restaurants, and agreeing with a poster about pizza. That's pretty good communication with her readers and shows she DOES care about what we say.”

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19. YessereeJose said... on Feb 29, 2012 at 09:44AM

“Yeah, right, that's really Phyllis writing that. WOW”

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20. Aanon said... on Feb 29, 2012 at 09:48AM

“Wonder what Phyllis thought of Andrew's comments, she didn't comment of that one.”

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21. No Way José said... on Feb 29, 2012 at 12:28PM

“Aanon, Phyllis is a professional journalist, and as such uses discretion in who and what she chooses to reply to. Can you imagine how long she would continue to be employed if she got down in the gutter with the likes of Andrew?

Cut her some slack. Most writers don't interact at all. Check back in the archives here to see her many posts. She is selectively choosing the most interesting/relevant comments here and sharing her insights. Craig LeBan does the same through his online forum.”

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22. Aanon said... on Mar 1, 2012 at 08:28AM

“To No Way... I was being sarcastic. Of course she's not going to reply to these idiotic comments.”

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23. PhyllisPhan said... on Mar 2, 2012 at 09:49PM

“No one cares about her slander of an entire country??? No wonder Ed sucks down the free hooch when he's with her. I can't imagine that Sandy is single??? What is this world coming to? Who even goes to these places except tourists or food writers? Now she has a relative? Who would admit to that!”

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24. HumorPhan said... on Mar 4, 2012 at 05:11PM

“"She’s answering a question with a question and she’s not even Jewish." There you have it. A alleged slander of an entire country. ROFLMAO.

I'm not Jewish and I took that remark to be a good example of enjoyable self-deprecating humor. Humor. Not slander. Hardly even close to slander. In case you didn't know, Phyllis is Jewish and it's OK to laugh at oneself.

Some of the humorists we all have enjoyed over the years (from Jack Benny on down) have been Jewish. They've been funny, self-deprecating, and lovable.

Miss PhyllisPhan, you are the one with a real problem here. Did that humorous remark really hurt you? Did it really put the state of Israel on alert? Have you considered counseling?”


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