[ review ]
"We kinda missed the city," Tim Spinner says, his voice edged with a Villanova empty-nester's wistfulness.
It's been a minute since he and Brian Sirhal opened Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington, long enough for "kinda" to grow into "definitely," for "maybe we're ready to do a second place" to become the reality of La Calaca Feliz (the happy skeleton), their vivacious new Mexican tavern in Fairmount.
The suburbs don't make buildings with bones like this, home for nearly 10 years to Illuminare. Spinner and Sirhal toured the space two years ago, in the planning phase for Cantina Feliz, and they fell hard for its artisan woodwork, breezy patio, wood-burning oven and dramatic dining-room ceiling, a puzzle of beams and skylights seemingly envisioned by M.C. Escher.
When time came for a city-side sequel, Spinner and Sirhal returned to this place. Today a constellation of tin lanterns dangles from that ceiling, and the restaurant's walls are wrapped in a panoramic mural of Day of the Dead skeletons painted by Alison Dilworth. Wood got polished, sheetrock painted turquoise and crusted in Mexican tile and stacked stone. Animal skulls went up on the walls, Virgin Mary statues on the shelves. On warm nights, when the noisy dining room's opened patio doors blur the boundary between inside and out, the vibe is downright tropical. Are we in Fairmount or at the Fairmount Acapulco?
Sirhal lubricates the scene with 48 tequilas and intelligently crafted drinks named for Grateful Dead songs. House-infused spirits (hibiscus gin, green-tea cachaca) headline this tidy cocktail program and find their supporting cast in bruised herbs, fresh fruit, artisanal bitters and fashionable liqueurs. My choice? I'm a King Bee, a dashing elixir of chamomile-laced tequila, honey, lemon and basil, a summery aperitif and a cozy nightcap all in one. Drinks like that launch Calaca out of the standard margarita-and-sangria setup, though they pour both of those, too. Only the michelada disappointed; watery and bland, it tasted like Coors Light blushed with V8.
Staff whizzed through the bustling room bearing shots of Espolon Blanco with Mountain Dew sidecars — a fun riff on the tequila/grapefruit-soda Palomas at Cantina Feliz and Spinner's old stomping ground, Distrito — and heavy molcajetes loaded with guacamole. Served with or without seasonal fruit (recently, pomegranate seeds), the guac glowed green against the black stone bowl.
Spinner crushes onion and jalapeño right in the molcajete, then folds in the avocado, tomato and cilantro, to smooth, supple results. The only cantina with guac this bright and balanced was Xochitl in its Cook-and-Solo days. Good thing Spinner hired former Xochitl chef Lucio Palazzo as his right-hand man. The two divide time in Calaca's cramped open kitchen, an extension of the 12-seat bar with a pass that runs into the hallway leading to the dining room. The corridor is so tight, I could feel the warmth off the heat lamps as I squeezed by Palazzo en route to my table.
Food flies off Calaca's line, remarkable considering the cooks are working in about 100 square feet of space. The labor-intensive meats (canela-and-allspice-scented duck confit, stuffed with apricots and papaya into Anaheim chilies for the deliriously good duck en nogada) and complex sauce bases are done ahead of time in the basement prep-kitchen. Upstairs, it's evident the menu is built for speed, full of tacos, brochetas (I loved the guajillo-spiced octopus with silky potato purée) and quick-marinated ceviches. Pearly curls of hiramasa resonated a sonic boom of citrus; lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit juices make up the marinade, fresh blood orange, orange zest and orange sorbet the plating accessories. Some sweet-hot papaya-habañero reduction and a dice of cooling English cucumber and you have a ceviche so dynamic, I could have eaten three plates' worth. And at a stingy five pieces of fish per order, that wouldn't be a challenge. Old habits from Distrito die hard.
That said, Calaca's menu tops out at affordable $22.95 for a reprint of the black bass served at Cantina Feliz. I skipped that entrada in favor of the smoky flank steak dappled with chimichurri and the grilled shrimp over braised black-eyed peas and favas. Both were good, but in a chaste, technical way, devoid of the rabid joy I felt while devouring the carnitas tacos. Panes of crunchy skin and pockets of unctuous fat lurked in each bite of slow-cooked, pan-crisped pork, so primal and satisfying I was stoked to see it again, mingling with chorizo, short rib, ancho-spiced tomato sauce and a bubbling blend of cheeses atop the tlayuda campechano, Mexico's version of a meat lover's pizza on house-made corn tortillas.
Spinner and Palazzo dispatch the same tortillas to poached shrimp and lump crab for the rich enchiladas mariscos. Bound in a thick crema warmed with chipotles and poblanos and baked in a sauce flamed with habañeros and Fresnos, the welcome heat radiates through the dish, searing through its fattiness like a flare gun through butter.
The spice stayed with me until an extinguishing forkful of feather-light tres leches cake topped with mango and kiwi, the finest of pastry chef Adriane Appleby's wares. There's also a brownie sundae gobbed with caramel corn and churro bits, as well as a more refined flourless chocolate cake with caramelized bananas. For balance, I'd like to see more bright, tangy and fruit-based offerings on the dessert list — Calaca's theme certainly calls for passion fruit, soursop, coconut, lime. The orange sorbet made a fair consolation; it was too bad I'd already tasted it on the hiramasa ceviche.
Calaca has a lot going for it, but there are areas in which Spinner and Sirhal can step up their game. (The menu could be more diverse, my too-cool-for-school server more attentive.) They ain't in Fort Washington anymore. Fairmount is the big leagues, with enough pressure and expectations to turn a restaurateur's brain to arroz con leche. But I'm glad to see them here, and I think La Calaca Feliz is exactly what this neighborhood needs.
La Calaca Feliz | 2321 Fairmount Ave., 215-787-9930, lacalacafeliz.com. Open Sun.-Wed., 4 p.m.-midnight; Thu.-Sat., 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Appetizers, $5.95-$12.95; tacos and enchiladas, $9.95-$14.95; entrées, $17.95-$22.95; dessert, $4.75-$7.