Every city seems to have a famous chef by the name of Jose. In DC, we have Jose Andres, the Spanish mastermind behind the tapas at Jaleo, Oyamel and minibar (just to name a few). In Philadelphia, Ecaudorian chef Jose Garces has sprinkled the city of brotherly love with several tapas establishments, including Distrito.
Distrito is located in Philadelphia’s University City, right next to UPenn’s campus. The restaurant itself is a feast for the eyes. The decor is a grown-up tacky that miraculously comes off as modern and sophisticated. Highlights include the vintage convertible booth by the entrance and luchador masks that line the wall along the staircase. Upstairs, guests can sit even sit in swings and swiveling booths.
Pink is everywhere, from the walls to the menus, and gold is everywhere else, in the form of glittery tables and straw seating. Lavender linen napkins add another fun, but unexpected pop of color.
The bar area looks like a cantina with an Americana twist. Glowing signs with changeable letters announce happy hour, specials and tasting menus, while guests sit below sipping on one of Distrito’s 100+ tequilas.
My meal at Distrito turned out to be a feast, thanks to the generous gift card that funded the trip. My boyfriend and I each ordered the Diego Rivera tasting menu ($45 per person), which gets you about 5 courses chosen by the chef. We were told that the Frida Kahlo tasting menu ($55 per person) includes dishes that aren’t on the menu. The tasting menus are good options if you are very hungry, indecisive and not on a budget.
Just to warn you, my dear readers, I do not know Spanish. This means that I may have translated some menu items incorrectly while conducting Google searches! I apologize for my lack of expertise with the Spanish language and of Mexican food.
Course 1: Guacamole and Salsa Verde
The table first received a bowl of spiced peanuts. They were warm and slightly spicy. I knew better than to munch on them too much because of the feast that was ahead.
The first course of the Diego Rivera menu included guacamole, tortilla chips, and salsa verde.
The guacamole was delicious and served in a sleek, silver bowl that stood on its side. It was covered with shredded cheese, which initially looked like coconut flakes. There was definitely an emphasis on the lime in this guacamole, and although I usually dislike citruses in savory foods, I thought the lime in the guacamole gave it a really fresh taste. The guacamole was hard to resist, but I knew I had to pace myself!
The salsa verde was pretty mild. Lime and cilantro were the most distinguishable of the flavors.
The tortilla chips were warm and covered in salt crystals. Yum.
Course 2: Salmon Ceviche and Chilango Chopped Salad
Next came a Salmon Ceviche, cured in tequila and served with pineapple, mandarin slices, tepache (pineapple juice) and shiso (a plant in the mint family). I usually shy away from seafood, especially anything seemingly raw, but I really enjoyed this ceviche. The taste of the salmon was masked by the fruity flavor of pineapple and mandarin slices. A spiral, purple jam topped the dish. I have absolutely no idea what it was, but it was sweet and I loved it.
This course also came with a Chilango Chopped Salad. It was made of arugula, charred corn, black beans, avocado and watercress, dressed with a tomato cumin vinaigrette and topped with another variety of tortilla chips. The cumin was very present, which I didn’t love, but at least it was unique. The tortilla chips added a nice crunch.
Course 3: Lamb Tacos and Veal Meatballs
Next came the Cordero (Lamb) Tacos. The lamb was adobo braised and topped with mint pipian (I was unable to find what this is online) and queso panela. The two tacos came on a soft shell. There was definitely a minty taste to the lamb. My boyfriend, who is a huge fan of lamb, loved the tacos.
Accompanying the lamb tacos were Albondigas, or Pork and Veal Meatballs served in a guajillo and tomato stew. My boyfriend was crazy about these meatballs and said they were like “bringing the dead back to life.” The meatballs were very fresh and the stew gave them a great flavor.
Course 4: Pancita Pibil and Esquites
Next came the Pancita Pibil, which was slow roasted pork belly rubbed with achiote and served on a red chile tamale with cebolla criolla (Creole onion) on a bed of pineapple and citrus foam. I’ve never had a tamale before, so the flavor and texture reminded me of polenta, which I have eaten. The pork was very soft and fatty. It didn’t have much flavor, however.
I have never seen anything like Esquites before. It’s basically a hot corn-and-cheese parfait. The cup it was served in was filled with layers of sweet corn, queso fresco (a creamy, mild cheese), chipotle sauce and lime juice. This side dish had a kick of spice to it, probably from the chipotle. It was definitely tasty, but very heavy, so I would recommend it in small portions.
Course 5: Entamatado de Pollo & Pato con Hibisco
At this point in the meal, I was stuffed and wondering if the meal was over yet. Alas, another course was brought to the table. This time the focus was on meat.
We were served Entomado de Pollo, which was basically stewed chipotle chicken served on polenta with sauteed veggies. The chicken was very average and the polenta had a buttery flavor. Overall, this dish was not very impressive.
Next was Pato Con Hibisco, a fondue of duck breast and goat cheese served with tortillas. The fondue had a great roasted red pepper flavor. I used the tortillas like Ethiopian injera to scoop up the fondue. The dish was flavorful, but the cheese made it quite heavy and overwhelming.
Course 6: Churros
Just when we thought the meal was over, the server brought out Churros for dessert. They were served with a spicy chocolate sauce and coconut cream. This was actually my first time having churros! They were hot and covered in sugar. The sauces were great. The chocolate sauce was warm and spicy, whereas the coconut dip was creamy and cool. The churros were good, but I was too stuffed to have much.
Distrito is definitely worth going to for the atmosphere. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a restaurant with an interior as cool as this one. Basically, I wish my dorm room was decorated like Distrito. The restaurant is perfect for a birthday meal or getting drinks and tapas with a friend.
According to my calculations, even without a gift card, the Diego Rivera tasting menu is a pretty good deal. For $45 per person, we got five courses and a dessert priced at about $63 per person, a la carte. Even if you don’t have the stomach of a competitive eating champion, you can take home any and all of your leftovers. I left Distrito with a bag full of boxes… basically enough for another meal or a large midnight snack.
Out of all the dishes I tried at Distrito, I would highly recommend the guacamole, salmon ceviche, albondigas and churros.