Tuesday, April 29, 2003

YES, BUT WERE THE SCALLOPS ON A DAY BOAT, OR A WEEK BOAT? Sara Dickerman's fine piece in today's Slate on deciphering menu English reminded me of the menu at Philadelphia's Los Catrines Restaurant and Tequila's Bar, an authentic Mexican restaurant off Rittenhouse Square housed in the former Magnolia Cafe.

(For trivia buffs, the space also served as the setting of Mr. Glass's high-end comic art gallery, Limited Edition, in Unbreakable).

Anyway, the menu at Los Catrines is the wordiest, oddest thing I've ever seen. You're not just ordering food; you're accepting a multicultural narrative about the legacy colonialism. Here are just some of my favorites:
Nachos Obligatorios: "La Frontera" (Mexican border) has become an illusion. The real frontera is a third country which extends 100 miles into the US and 100 miles into Mexico. Its citizens are the Mexican-Americans. Odd as it may seem, the "Nacho" is the perfect representative of this area. It denounces its traditional origin yet retains it. Simultaneously, it is drawn towards its destiny yet does not embrace it. Corn tortilla chips, refried beans, ground beef and Chihuahua cheese. $6.50.

Salsa Veracruzana: Oh Veracruz!!! Fascinating, enchanting and surreal world! The door through which Europe entered into timeless Mexico. A place where an infinity of culinary marriages occurred and engendered eclectic flavors and incomparable dishes. Such is the case with this delicious salsa which bears the wonderful contributions of the Mediterranean. Olives, capers seduced by the pre-Columbian tomato, all of them shaken with a light touch of jalapeno with its allies, sweet peppers. This delicious meeting of worlds is served to the client's taste, a whole red snapper ($22.95), a grouper fillet ($18.75) or a third choice: jumbo shrimp ($21.75).

Mole Poblano: Spanish colonialism had been the imposing force for decades, yet through inter-marriage a new culture gradually emerged -- the Mestizo. In the city of Puebla, several convents were active in creating much of the traditional Mexican cooking, as we know it today. One such convent was expecting a visit by a distinguished archbishop. A nun decided to serve a sauce known by the Nahuatl Indians as "mulli". However "mulli" is a potpourri of hot chiles. Knowing the holy man was not accustomed to spicy dishes, she set to the task of adding ingredients that would counteract the chiles: chile ancho, dorado bread, tomato, cloves, bitter chocolate, chile poblano, peanuts, sugar, almonds, chile guajillo, friend tortillas, chile chalaca, carrots and garlic. This very combination makes a mole poblano a truly rich and complex sauce. A succulent boiled chicken breast exalted from the past. Served with rice and refried beans. $14.75.

Pollo Entortillado: Our heroine, the tortilla, faithful friend of the Mexican, has been present since the beginning of time. It was holding hands with the tortilla that we were born as a culture. It has always been our source of nourishment, thousands of years cannot pry us apart from this maternal culinary symbol. Through it, everything that goes into the mouth of Mexicans is screened, vigilant of everything we are about to enjoy. In this treat ground tortillas cover two boneless chicken breasts which are fried and then covered with the glorious chile chipotle and tomato sauce. Rice and refried beans as garnish. $16.75.

The full menu is here, and just so you know, Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan is fond of the place. And, for what it's worth, Jen and I may be headed there later this week as we seek out every labor-inducing strategy under the sun . . .

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