Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Don't Worry, Be Happy

Like a renowned scholar, Jose Garces, too, has disciples. After working for the Iron Chef at Distrito, chef Tim Spinner and manager Brian Sirhal went out on their own to open Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington in 2011. Their Mexican concept caught on in the suburbs and they came back into Philadelphia with an offshoot, La Calaca Feliz ("The Happy Skeleton" in Spanish), earlier this year . (A third location, Taqueria Feliz, is planned for Manayunk in 2013.)

It was La Calaca Feliz (2321 Fairmount Ave., 215-787-9930) that we checked out on a recent Sunday night. Coming from the Garces universe, Spinner is well versed in gluten-free cooking. The majority of menu items are safe for those avoiding wheat.

Chicken tinga sope
The freshly mixed Feliz Margarita, made with tequila from the bar well, was just what I needed after a long Thanksgiving weekend with my wife's relatives (Hi, sweetie!), though it didn't call for too many sips.

My 12-year-old and I began the meal sharing an appetizer special. The outstanding chicken tinga sopes were mini corn masa "bowls" filled with smoky pulled chicken and refried beans and topped with pickled red cabbage and cotija cheese. My wife and younger son opted for the non-gluten-free pork belly gordita. A bowlful of tortilla chips - at a small but nonetheless additional charge - went quickly among the four of us. (There are no gluten-containing items fried in the kitchen's fryer.)

Baja fish tacos
For the main course we shared an assortment of artfully plated tacos. The outstanding fish and pulled pork tacos more than offset the routine chicken. The lemon vinaigrette drizzled on the slivers of blue tilapia made the fish tacos particularly tangy. A side of brussels sprouts rounded out the filling meal.

Modern Mexican restaurants have staked out a middle ground between no-frills South Philly taquerias and bland Tex-Mex chains. Though not at the top of the list, La Calaca Feliz is a welcome addition to that sweet spot.
La Calaca Feliz on Urbanspoon
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