For the past couple months, we’ve been featuring restaurants known for being the places to which specific communities gravitate for a taste of home (and everyone else gravitates to for a taste of delicious). Picanha Grill, Nan Zhou Noodle House, New Phnom Penh, Brown Sugar Bakery and Cafe—the flavors of these spots can be either a discovery or a nod in the direction of a past spent in a different place, a different world, a different life.
But authenticity itself is a slippery concept, as much a result of context as it is some rigid set of cooking rules. One of my personal madeleines is the salty-sweet General Tso’s chicken and greasy fried rice I devoured at the Willow Grove Mall as a kid—and I’m sure that most everyone reading this can think of some food item that, while no longer authentic to its culture of origin, is extremely authentic to wherever you grew up. Even second-hand cuisines that have been significantly changed by their diffusion around the world are first-hand again, and therefore authentic, for the next generation—a new taste of somebody’s home, no matter where that home is.
Tres Jalapeños, in menu at least, seems to be aiming for a target smack in the middle of these two ideas. These are dishes that, when done right, satisfy as a result of flavor profile and emotional resonance. We’ve all had much of this food before, and when specific dishes hit the appropriate notes, there’s a certain emotional power to them.
Guacamole was spot-on, a silky mash that eschewed fireworks and instead was crafted with the uncommon confidence of simplicity: Avocados, jalapeños, salt and lime juice plus a few other components being held close to the vest. Alongside a basket of crispy tortilla strips, it was an understated highlight. So, too, were the plantains, crisp-crusted medallions whose centers had grown close to molten from their trip through the fryer—difficult to stop munching.
Unfortunately, few other dishes I tasted lived up to those simple, well-considered standards. Tortilla soup was built on the base of a wonderfully decadent stock that was clearly crafted with care, as its deep, pleasant funk could only have come from long hours of simmering. But it didn’t entirely hold together, the tomato component tinny, the sum inexplicably less than the individual parts.
In speaking with general manager Max Di Pettusanto, it became apparent that enormous pride is being taken in the quality of the prep processes here. Lots of love is being lavished on this food, from the in-house crafting of the crispy taco shells to the long work of stewing the meats. Unfortunately, these efforts were too often obscured by errors in execution.
Skirt-steak fajitas lacked punch and texture. The underseasoned meat showed none of the savory depth the cut typically does, nor the kind of caramelized edges that would have afforded the finished construction any real texture beyond softness. At least the accompanying peppers and onions were nice. Tacos al pastor also suffered from a lack of zip—grilling the pineapple with the pork lent a sweet-smoky savor to the dish, but the pork itself was dried out and underseasoned.
Crispy tacos were filled with ground beef that, despite its careful preparation, also found itself undermined by underseasoning. Guacamole tostada managed to cut into the substantial virtues of its marquee ingredient by piling up the lettuce, tomato, beans and monterey jack until it was difficult to differentiate flavors and textures. Cheese enchiladas were a gooey, bland mess, save the sauce. Fluffy rice was disturbingly generic. A side of beans, though underseasoned, was closer to the mark, the velvety textures punched up by toothsome whole beans throughout.
The problems here aren’t so much issues of conception as they are execution. A heavier hand with the seasoning and the confidence to cook meats for shorter periods of time over higher heat could change the entire experience.
Tres Jalapeños has plenty going for it: A festive, comfortable atmosphere, friendly service and a talented chef-owner, Jaime Tapia, who obviously wants to provide an enjoyable experience. Di Pettusanto also brings necessary skills and enthusiasm to the table. But the execution of the dishes has to become more tightly focused than it seems to be right now.
901 S. Eighth St. 267.239.2358
Hours: 11am-10pm daily.
Atmosphere: Festive and pleasantly laid-back.
Service: Friendly and competent.
Food: For all the love lavished on the dishes, too many come up short in the flavor department. Still, the guacamole is excellent, and so is the potential.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014