Mex and the City

Las Bugambilias blooms with authenticity.

By Adam Erace
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 30, 2008

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Souper bowl: The crema poblano looks like liquid Kermit but tastes like heaven. (photo by: michael persico)

Eating Mexican is a game of trade-offs and concessions. Atmosphere, authenticity and price are the players, and we are the pawns.

The evil game goes something like this: You can get really great Mexican fare for pennies, but you'll be dining � la taqueria, where the only ambience is Telemundo and lots of neon.

On the other hand, there's style for miles at glossy nuevo Mexicano kitchens like Xochitl, Lolita and their ilk, but they cost a whole lot more and aren't always the best reflection of traditional Mexican cooking.

What's a huitlacoche-craving Philadelphian to do? Until recently, nothing. But hark! The restaurant gods have delivered unto us a savior, Las Bugambilias--a Mexican restaurant offering scrubbed authenticity that's high on finesse and low on flash. Rejoice and be glad.

Done in dark woods and soft light, Las Bugambilias looks like a scene from Touch of Evil or Out of the Past--noir flicks that portray Mexico as a mysterious land of romance and danger. Autographed black-and-white photos of raven-haired starlets hang on the exposed brick and banana yellow walls. They gaze knowingly through thick-lashed eyes as mariachi music floats through the room. All that's missing is cigarette smoke, and Orson Welles trying to swipe the tacos from your plate.

And yet there's something very now about Las Bugambilias. Maybe it's the organic fruit syrups in the throat-blazing tequila cocktails. Or the preponderance of Frida Kahlo paraphernalia (including Frida sticky notes).

The restaurant takes its name from the Spanish for bougainvillea, the creeping flowers that color Mexico in sprays of violet, orange and magenta.

Formerly of upscale Philly mexaurant Tequila's, chef/owner Carlos Molina pulls from coastal resorts and land-locked ciudades alike. The diversity has major flavor payoff, from his pineapple-studded tacos al pastor to the fragrant mole blanketing two turkey breasts.

Chipotle butter melts over a tender delmonico steak flashed with tequila, while sweet shrimp get the rellenos treatment: stuffed with corn, queso, zucchini and pumpkin blossoms, wrapped in bacon, and battered and fried. Morsels of skirt steak are tender, braised in a molcajete among scallions, cilantro and Oaxaca cheese. Sizzling and spitting on the way to the table, the bowl of volcanic rock elicits envious I-shoulda-got-that sighs from neighboring diners.

Simple sopes--soft tortillas the size of silver-dollar pancakes--are bar snacks of the highest order. They come in threes (pulled chicken, chorizo and ground beef) capped with Chihuahua cheese, sour cream, cilantro and refried beans. Plantains and the same beans come with most entrees--but be on the lookout for corn on the cob, skewered and showered with queso and chili.

The ensalada Primavera (the name of the trattoria formerly located in the Las Bugambilias space) is a tropical bounty of mango, strawberries, jicama, pomegranate seeds and sun-dried peaches that chew like fruit jerky. The crop is tossed with baby greens, red onion, spiced pecans and a fiery floral dressing made from hibiscus flower and chile de arbol.

The flavors are wild--something I never thought I'd say about a salad, typically the menu's resident wuss. The Kermit-colored crema poblano soup is deep, soothing and nourishing to the core. Zucchini gives the soup an earthy, vegetal base, while the roasted peppers impart a husky current of heat that doesn't really hit till you're halfway through. It's the best soup I've had in a very long time.

Dessert is the domain of Molina's wife Michelle Zimmerman. She turns out a peerless tres leches cake that's moist but not mushy, a springy coconut flan, and cocoa crepes stuffed with kiwi, strawberries and fresh whipped cream.

Raw inside, over-sugared outside, and served with a soupy eggnog sauce, the churros are the only complaint I can level against Las Bugambilias. That, and the staff's mariachi outfits. The fringe and floppy red ties are costumey, but the able waitresses are so warm and gracious it would be wrong to make fun.

Fortunately, it's nothing a cup of black cafe de olla can't cure. Spiced with brown sugar, cinnamon and fresh orange, the coffee is assertive, sweet and awesome, though I might be a tad influenced by the delicious pecan butter cookies that come with it.

Las Bugambilias
148 South St. 215.922.3190
Cuisine: Mexican.
Hours: Tues.-Thurs., and Sun., 4-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 4-11pm.
Prices: $5-$21.
Sound advice: Not too noisy.
Atmosphere: Warm and inviting.
Service: Genuinely likable.
Mucho gusto.

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