There’s a lot to be said for throwbacks, for looking into our collective or personal past for inspiration, or nostalgia, or humor. It may not have won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, but Hot Tub Time Machine cracks me up every time I see it. And the occasional surprise airing of, say, “Girl You Know It’s True” on the radio makes me smile, despite the fact that it’s really a terrible song.
But nostalgia only works, in general, if it’s engaged in knowingly, with a sense of whimsy and a gentle tweaking of the details that always made the thing so charming or enjoyable in the first place. I desperately wanted to love eating at Lucha Cartel for its nostalgic reliance on the classic Mexican flavors so many of us grew up on; while the vibe is spot on, the food never quite arrived at that point for me.
Located at an address that’s turned over a fair bit over the years—it was Philadelphia Fish & Co. before it was Q before it was Lucha—the physical space has always been appealing. The wooden patio, with plenty of outdoor seating and abundant tourist foot traffic to watch as it jiggles by in its jeans shorts and fanny packs and Rocky T-shirts, remains just as lovely as ever, and the inside has been cleverly redecorated in a Mexican wrestling-mask motif, replete with a triptych in the men’s room of Darth Vader’s own mask variously rendered au naturel and luchador-style.
It’s exactly the sort of attention to detail I’d expected. This is the team, after all, that keeps National Mechanics revving along, a beloved mainstay in the neighborhood that I’ve always enjoyed. Which is why I was surprised that the food didn’t come alive in the same way; in fact, too many dishes at Lucha simply didn’t elicit much reaction from me at all.
The guacamole is made fresh to order, and smooth as a wrestler’s shorn chest, but it screams out for more acid; with each bite, my craving for a more assertive squirt of lime juice grew more passionate. As it was, scoop after scoop of guac became little more than a study in creamy textures. A bit of pico de gallo helped this problem along—though nothing could redeem my disconcertingly stale nachos themselves. Now, to be fair, they’re made in-house, too, so I’m hoping this is a problem that will dissipate once the summer heat breaks. This time of year, when the ambient humidity wreaks havoc with items like these, monitoring chip texture is crucial; even at home, when my bag of store-bought triangles gets too stale, I make sure to give them a quick re-fry before serving guests.
Texture wasn’t an issue with the crispy fish tacos: Each thumbnail-sized piece was perfectly fried and crunchy with beer batter. Their pleasantly nutty flavor came accompanied by inoffensively standard trimmings: iceberg, tomatoes, a smear of sour cream, and a dollop of well-crafted raw salsa verde. The chorizo burger was better—traditional and jalapeno-spiked sausages blended with ground beef into a flavorful 9-ounce patty, topped by a crown of fried queso tropical. With a little less avocado and a roll a bit less bready than this particular Sarcone’s bun, this is a sandwich that has real potential.
The real bright spot at Lucha, it seemed, was with pork. A happy hour carnitas taco was anchored by pork confit swirling with life from its overnight orange-juice marinade. Each bite left the faintest aroma on the tongue, the result of smart additions of cinnamon, cumin, clove, and Mexican Coca-Cola. Cochinita pibil—though it, too, might have benefited from a bit of acid—was nonetheless well conceived and executed, each bite ringing with the pleasant tang of guajillo peppers, a whiff of achiote and orange juice.
As for the drinks: The happy hour specials are great deals—a $5 mojito was a pleasant, thirst-quenching way to slide into evening—while the house margarita was made without triple sec or Cointreau, which would be fine if there were enough lime juice, which there wasn’t. Fortunately, the beer selection is thoughtfully conceived, and there is very little in this world that swallow after swallow of Modelo or Tecate can’t cure.
Right now, Lucha Cartel is long on atmosphere, innocuous and forgettable on the menu. Except for those pork dishes—it should all be that exciting. There’s such an abundance of great, relatively inexpensive Mexican food in this city that I hope this team hits their groove sooner rather than later.
207 Chestnut St. 267.825.7103. luchacartel.com
Cuisine type: Mexican- and Latin-inspired food.
Hours: Tues.–Fri., 11am–2am; Sat., 3pm–2am; Sun., 3–9pm.
Price range: $3-$18.