Philadelphia restaurant mogul Stephen Starr is no stranger to big, over-the-top spaces that are as much about the scene as they are about the food. In his hometown, Starr is a true rockstar(r), with 14 spots packing them in nightly, and he's enjoyed some success here in the big town as well, with versions of his Philly mega-hits Morimoto and Buddakan feeding the Meatpacking since 2006.
Now Starr has opened a gigantic decorated-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life Mexican restaurant in Battery Park City, El Vez. Featuring a big open bar for area finance drones AND a family-friendly (if a tad expensive) menu, it seems like El Vez is going to have to try really hard to not be a big neighborhood hit.
Some Sink and Some Swim
I went to El Vez for dinner on the restaurant's second night, and was able to sample a number of items from all over the somewhat ambitious menu. Bottom line, food-wise: stick to the basics. By far the best thing I ate was the Queso Fundido con Carne, which is essentially a big bowl of gooey cheese with (not terribly spicy) chorizo that you slather onto the soft flour tortillas. It's hard to mess up this dish, and they didn't. The Nacho Mama, which looks like a pizza, was solid as well. Unfortunately, the kitchen badly stumbled on several other items, including my Grilled Fish Tacos, the Shrimp Tlayuda (which has since been removed from the menu), and the Tuna Tostados which, at $5 a bite, is right now a contender for worst dish of the year. Was the fish bad, or just badly seasoned? Hard to tell. Maybe just avoid anything that swims?
We'll Be Back For Seconds
Starr has too much experience, and too much success, to let things slip too far, or for too long, so I'll go back in a few weeks–maybe snag one of those outdoor tables–to see how they've adjusted. In the meantime, I would suggest checking out El Vez for the strong margaritas, the aforementioned cheesy dishes, and just the spectacle of the place. The kitsch level is through the roof, with tacky posters and murals, glittering "trees" made from empty booze bottles, and a photo booth complete with prop sombreros. If the night I went is any indication, you will not be lonely in the bar area.
El Vez is located on the corner of Vesey Street and North End Avenue and is open for lunch, brunch, and dinner starting at 4:00 p.m. every day.