How did a South Philly pub land a lauded New York City chef?
In the spring of 2008, just days before my review of Devil’s Den was slated to run, the downtown beer bar’s chef was fired, or quit, depending on whom you ask. The story was pulled, 700 words sequestered to my hard drive. But this past January, the digitally dusty critique saw sunlight. Its liberator? Alex Ureña, a James Beard-nominated New Yorker that, serendipitously, has become Devil’s Den’s latest chef.
After closing his restaurant, Pamplona, Ureña moved to Philly for the executive chef position at Daniel Stern’s rarefied skybox, R2L, but when delays pushed the project from November to February—actually not that bad for this town—“I just wasn’t comfortable,” says Ureña. “We both decided it wasn’t the right fit.” So out went copies of Ureña’s resume, one landing in the hands of Devil’s Den’s owners Scott and Erin Wallace. Now the gastropub has a new chef, menu and energy. Now there’s a new reason to visit.
I’d forgotten the staggering beer list, furnished with the likes of Bruery Trade Winds tripel, brewed with Thai basil and rice, Van Twee, a very-cherry collabo between Bell’s and DeProef, and other rare and weird brews that deserve better than the cheap-looking menu in which they’re compiled. You wouldn’t put Adriana Lima in a dress from Dots. Nor should Palo Santo, Ruination and Three Philosophers be attired so shabbily.
That aside, the beer list is straight. The question is the food: Will such high-caliber talent translate to casual grub, or will it be as uncomfortable as a silver-screener doing a turn on a made-for-TV Lifetime movie? Good cooking is good cooking, sure, but keep in mind Devil’s Den is a place that once served something called Uncle Ho’s Hot Sticks.
The trio of sliders underscores this quagmire. The frustratingly perfect rib eye patties are wasted on slacker toppings and oversized pull-apart buns so absorbent you might as well be getting a cavity filled at the dentist. A roasted tomato wasn’t roasted. A fried green one wasn’t there at all. Drooling liquidy blue cheese sauce, a leaf of romaine hung out one slider’s side like a lolling tongue. For all his accolades, it seems Alex Ureña—or at least the crew executing his vision—can’t put together a proper burger. (Fries, though, are no problem: crisp, skin-on potato stalactites drizzled liberally with Sly Fox cheese sauce.)
What he can put together includes a dashing pork flatbread. And a Spanish-style bouillabaisse. And Parmiggiano-enriched gnocchi that could chill in any Roman trattoria. You needn’t have eaten Ureña’s food in New York to realize this kind of spirited, effortless cooking comes naturally to him.
A tall hedge of arugula, cilantro, pea shoots and chives tops the flatbread, freshening up the Sly Fox-braised pork, fatty in a good way, beneath. There’s beer in the actual bread, too, more of a delightfully brittle cracker than the pizza-like base you might expect. The Spanish fish stew echoes the flatbread’s herbaceous nature with a basil oil-tinted Albariño broth brimming with mussels, clams, shrimp and salmon. Grassy and bright, the wine reinforces those fresh-cut flavors in the broth, and while you could certainly order a glass from the bar, it’s hard to argue with lemon-headed HopSlam IPA, the last of a Beer Weekend Bell’s promo on tap the night I dined. IPA also pairs well with the gnocchi, the acid of the beer playing off the acid of the blood-red crushed tomato sauce tossed with Swiss chard and ricotta.
It’ll be interesting to see how Devil’s Den will continue to evolve with Ureña at the helm, but the pub should definitely take a page from Ladder 15, where the menu has received the culinary equivalent of a Pulp Fiction adrenaline shot courtesy of recently recruited chef David Ansill. Plans are under way for special dinners featuring the die-hard dishes that made Ansill a food-geek darling. I’ll be first in line for that, as I would be for a Pamplona pre-fixe at Devil’s Den. We don’t really know that Alex Ureña. I, at least, would like to meet him.
For more on Philly's food scene, visit blogalicious-adam.blogspot.com.
1148 S. 11th St. 215.339.0855.
Hours: Kitchen: Daily, 11am-1am. Brunch, Sat.-Sun., 10:30am-3pm; Bar till 2am.
Atmosphere: Polished pub furnished with fireplace, warm woodwork and picture windows.
Service: Casual and friendly.
Food: Worth a revisit.
Dinner with Luke Palladino