With the relatively recent arrival of a new crop of restaurants in and around Fairmount, the neighborhood seems to finally be finding its groove with, of all unexpected things, Latin-inspired food. La Calaca Feliz (2321 Fairmount Ave.) may be leading the way in this category with its much-lauded Mexican dishes, but Blue Cat is also a worthy addition to the neighborhood. It’s a friendly, casual place with the kind of food that’s comfortable, familiar and well-executed.
Guacamole is generally a good metric by which to measure the aspirations and fundamental grounding of a spot like this: It’s an easy-to-misfire standard that, when done right, implies that the kitchen is paying attention, tasting along the way, and concerned with the details of even the simpler dishes. At Blue Cat, it hits all the right notes; the rough mash of avocado gives just enough crunch with tooth-sized pieces of onion, a scattering of tomato, and the perfumed lift of cilantro and lime. And the excellent housemade chips (malanga, plantain, potato, more) served alongside it are addictive and shatteringly snappy.
Fish tacos also benefit from Chef Guy Shapiro’s acumen at the fryer. Though the cod could have been seasoned more aggressively, their crunchy, almost tempura-like casing and accompanying watermelon- jicama-cucumber salad made it easy to overlook that minor slip-up. Like the cod, arroz con pollo could have used a touch more seasoning: The rice, a tad soft and bland, possessed little of the porky heft I’d have liked from the chorizo. Still, the spicy pique vinegar on the table livened it up admirably, especially against the sweetness of the plantains and the tenderness of the chicken.
Chacarero, a riff on the Chilean sandwich, was piled so high with avocado, string beans, red pepper and grilled chicken that it was difficult to navigate the first bite. The effort was worth it, though: This is a sandwich that’s as filling as it is unexpectedly good for you.
Salmon filet, beneath a gorgeous crust from the cast-iron skillet, was a simple, delicate dish, topped with a mango salsa that was as straightforward as it was bright. Stuffed cubanelle pepper could have been a problem, but ended up succeeding brilliantly. The composition was simple, yet each flavor spoke with clarity; this was a high-wire act. But as with so many vegetarian and vegan dishes in the city these days, this one managed to pull it all off with real grace and flavor. The smoked mushrooms, quinoa and almonds lurking inside were given an appealing sense of personality, and all tied together by the smoke-kissed tomato mole the pepper was braised in. If you can find one, bring a dry rosé or Syrah for this dish. It’ll be worth the headache of finding the bottle for this pairing alone.
Most guests here, in fact, are taking advantage of the range of possible beverage options with this food. On a recent stormy night, I saw everything from beer to liter-sized bottles of Pinot Grigio to high-octane Australian Shiraz scattered around the room. It’s the kind of place where the neighbors clearly feel comfortable bringing a bottle, drinking through it with their friends and family, and doing the post-BYO stutter-step back home.
If you do drink a bit too much, I’d recommend hydrating with the posole, a roasted vegetable soup studded with tender pork ribs and glutinous-textured hominy. It’s hearty, deeply flavorful, and a hot, chile-tingling soup that would work in the warm weather. Alongside the grilled asparagus and smoked mushrooms, it’s a simple, healthy meal in its own right. (You also would do well to absorb the alcohol with co-owner Luli Canuso’s vanilla rice pudding.)
This is all to say that Blue Cat is just what this part of Fairmount has needed (and inched toward) for so long. Its airy, friendly atmosphere, casual and competent service, and comfortable pan-Latin food bring to the block a welcome a sense of freshness and life.
1921 Fairmount Ave. 267.519.2911. bluecatrestaurant.com
Cuisine: Latin-inspired comfort food.
Hours: Tues.-Fri., 11am-10pm; Sat., 10am-11pm; Sun., 10am-9pm.
Price range: $4-$27.
Atmosphere: Bright and cheerful.
Food: Honest, approachable and well-prepared.
Service: Casual and friendly.
Go fish: Fish tacos are brightened up by a watermelon-jicama-cucumber salad.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014