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