Xochitl has an unpronouncable name and irresistible food.
408 S. Second St. 215.238.7280. www.xochitlphilly.com
Hours: Sun. and Tues.-Wed., 5-10pm; Thurs.-Sat., 5-11pm.
Sound advice: Easy listening.
Service: Informed, unobtrusive and friendly.
Naming a restaurant Xochitl might inspire a collective "huh?" in the non-Mexican population, but to agave fanatics it makes perfect sense.
Xochitl (so-cheet) was an 11th-century Toltec queen who, legend has it, discovered that fermenting the liquid of the agave plant produced a fine alcoholic beverage called pulque. You might've met pulque in one of its more popular modern-day permutations: tequila.
So naming a Mexican restaurant after this Meso-American minx of a mixologist is logical. Still, it wasn't easy for owner Steven Cook, who says he and partner Dionicio Jimenez (who's also the chef) debated a long time before pulling the trigger. Xochitl is confusing to pronounce and Google-defiant. What made it click for Cook was that many Mexican restaurants play up the Spanish influence--serving paella or gazpacho--rather than focusing on the tremendous influence Aztec culture has on Mexican cuisine.
So you won't find quisine espa�ol on the menu at Xochitl. But you will find hearty braised meats, crisp seafood cocktails and some familiar appetizers like sopes, queso fundido and guacamole--all dressed in their Sunday best.
You'll also find an inviting atmosphere, despite an awkward layout, in what used to be Filo on Headhouse Square. The walls are painted harvest gold and detailed with braided leather wainscoting while a handsome mahogany bar sits against a backdrop of colorful hand-painted talavera tiles. The dining room is small and boxy, although they've made the best possible use of the limited space. (I prefer the more open bar area.) There's also a cozy downstairs lounge with sapphire blue walls and low banquettes where you can settle in for a night of drinks and snacks.
For starters, try the elegant sopes. A trio of miniature homemade masa tortillas strike just the right balance between crispy and fluffy, each topped with a smear of black beans as an adhesive for piquant, crumbly chorizo, a meltingly tender sliver of duck breast or a thick dollop of warm goat cheese. Or the queso fundido--a gooey crock of Chihuahua cheese fondue served with tortillas for scooping up the hot, viscous ooze. For something lighter, a brisk salad of pristine mixed lettuces tossed with matchsticks of crunchy jicama, colorful papaya and creamy avocado is delicately dressed in a vinaigrette brightened with tequila and lime.
Chef Jimenez, a Puebla native, put in eight years at Vetri, and he's clearly absorbed some of his former employer's techniques. Take the sopa Azteca: a hauntingly light broth deeply flavored with fried pasilla peppers, garlic and onion and punched up with epazote, avocado and cubes of Chihuahua cheese that dissolve on the tongue--a pleasant counterpoint to the crunchy strips of fried tortilla. Sop up the leftovers with a hunk of warm bolillo--a Mexican-style bread made especially for the restaurant by local bakery La Panaderia La Espiga.
Should you be wildly hungover from a night of celebrating Xochitl's contribution to modern spirits, the vuelve a la vida (return to life) cocktail might set you right again. A refreshing jumble of fresh shrimp, tiny octopi and oysters is served alongside a plate of diced cilantro, jalapeno, onion, tomato and avocado--all lined up in tidy rows like a miniature cobb salad.
Shrimp also appear as an entree. Four mighty jumbo crustaceans, head on, are brought to the table, spooning like lovers under a blanket of salt and tequila. They're then returned to the kitchen to be baked. The resulting flesh, once freed from its armored jacket, is lush, sweet and meaty--just right with a mouthful of an accompanying salad that's tricked out with citrus supremes, microgreens and candy-sweet baby beets.
Meats receive the slow and low treatment. Both pork and goat are treated to overnight marinades and long cooking times. The goat, which has a downright barnyard-funky odor that might be a little hard for culinary tenderfoots to handle, is bathed in a mix of avocado leaves, Mexican oregano and pulque. The delicious result is gamey, fork-tender meat that can be tucked into a warm tortilla alongside nopales (cactus) and a scoop of guacamole. Pork shank is seasoned with guajillo and pasilla peppers--plus cinnamon and clove to create layers of warm flavor--then braised and served alongside a seriously spicy garnish of hot chilies. It falls off the bone in moist, flavorful shreds.
There are a few misses: chiles en nogada--a poblano pepper stuffed with ground beef--suffers from dry meat. And a terra cotta casserole full of squid seasoned with guajillo peppers entices with fried garlic and earthy mushrooms, but disappoints with an unpleasant oiliness.
For dessert, beware the in-house ice creams. The Mexican chocolate is utterly addictive, while the chipotle version is distinctly spicy, leaving a long-lasting throat burn. Wash it away with a tequila-based dessert drink like the horchata and brandy-spiked alejandro, and then practice pronouncing Xochitl--you'll want to add it to your restaurant repertoire.
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