When it comes to crossing the Delaware, George Washington set the gold standard. But in the last couple years, four Philadelphia chefs have followed the cannot-tell-a-lie guy to our side, albeit not in rowboats. They are Matthew Ridgway (The Pass); Josh Lawler (Farm and Fisherman Tavern); Marc Vetri (Osteria); and Jose Garces. Garces, in fact, was the first of this group, starting three restaurants in Revel when it opened in 2012. He is also the most recent, having opened a branch of his casual Mexican restaurant, Distrito, in the Moorestown Mall last July.
“Today,” Garces told me on the phone after my visits, “so many incredible chefs are opening up—in airports, casinos, stadiums and other places where you don’t typically find great food—because they want to change the notion that those are food wastelands.”
Garces, an Iron Chef, opened the original Distrito in 2008. Among the dozen or so restaurants his Philadelphia-based group owns is a Distrito in Scottsdale and one in Palm Springs (called El Jefe). In 2012, the Pennsylvania Real Estate Trust (PREIT), which bought and was about to renovate the Moorestown Mall, courted Garces.
“Jersey is a huge feeder market for us, especially with its proximity to Philadelphia,” Garces told me. “So when PREIT approached us, we saw an opportunity to fill a niche for people who want a quality experience without having to travel all the way into the city.”
Garces knew that Vetri had signed a lease to open a branch of Osteria in the mall. “I definitely picked up the phone to get his thoughts on it,” Garces said. “I respect him as a friend and restaurateur, so his trust in the project reinforced that we wanted to be part of it.” Judging from the crowds packing Distrito during both my visits, Garces’s bet on the Moorestown Mall has paid off.
Dash Design of New York and Miami was given a big bland box to work with. They managed to add warmth and texture with geometric-patterned space dividers, a suspended fireplace, chandeliers shaped like hoop skirts with ribs wrapped in artificial flowers, colorful rugs, and a wall display of hundreds of fierce Lucha Libre wrestling masks. Still, there are too many empty stretches, blank corners and exposed HVAC in the high ceiling, all drab gray.
The food is another story. Executed by chef de cuisine Nate Johnson, the tacos, enchiladas, ceviches and other tweaked Mexican favorites are easily the best not-trying-to-be-authentic Mexican fare in South Jersey. Take the nachos encarnación. They are baked in a single crunchy layer, so each chip gets a bit of the crispy fried skirt steak, refried beans, poblano peppers, caramelized onions, melted cheese, raw shaved radish and micro-cilantro. Paired with a couple of refreshing watermelon-and-pineapple El Tigre de Oro (Gold Tiger) margaritas, Distrito’s nachos encarnación are my new happy-hour go-to.
Tacos come three to an order on warm, house-made corn tortillas. Get the braised chicken breast and thigh, spiked with chipotle and guajillo salsas. Huaraches (tender flatbreads made with masa dough) come in easy-to-share slices. I liked the La Merced, a chorizo flatbread layered with smoked potato purée, serrano ham and juicy carnitas. I loved the hongos, a mushroom flatbread of cremini and royal-trumpet mushrooms with truffle-y huitlacoche (corn fungus) sauce under a storm of pale yellow corn shoots.
Enchiladas are served three ways: chicken in fiery coconut-habanero sauce; sweet crab in poblano-pepper crema; and vegetarian, featuring grated zucchini, corn, spinach and ricotta baked with smoky chipotle crema. You can order them individually, or as a trio for $24. That’s serious dinero, but the enchiladas are big and satisfying. Being an avid carnivore, I was surprised to find I liked the vegetarian best.
Pozole, a traditional Mexican hominy stew, was green with herbs, rich with pork belly and briny with littleneck clams. Among entrées, a smoked, then roasted, bone-in chicken breast had golden skin, tender meat and a side of crunchy coconut-and-cabbage slaw. Sweet, smoky, charred pineapple-and-cactus salsa lit up a moist, perfectly grilled pork chop that had been bathed in a penetrating al pastor-style marinade of pineapple purée, achiote, cinnamon, cider vinegar and honey.
While some entrées come with a vegetable, servers still cheerfully push the à la carte sides. My favorites included parfait of esquites (a lime-splashed Mexico City street snack of layered corn, queso fresco and chipotle mayo); crocks dense with refried beans or brothy with stewed black beans; and a pan of honey-glazed, lime-buttered cornbread that could almost qualify as dessert.
You don’t want to miss the actual desserts, whether cinnamon-sugared fried churros with goat’s-milk caramel or a sweet, soaked wedge of tres leches cake. The jiggling cinnamon-cardamom custard, topped with fresh berries and maple granola, was almost healthful in its restrained sweetness. Vanilla ice cream, seemingly less sexy than strawberry-basil or coconut-lime sorbet, should not be missed for its deep ivory hue and pure, rich vanilla-bean flavor.
A few items did fall short: a chopped salad with too little dressing; ice-cold guacamole gratuitously mixed with crabmeat; a fajita of tequila-lime shrimp that tasted of neither tequila nor lime. Rellenitos, a smart take on jalapeño poppers made with milder, trendier shishito peppers, had wonderful panko crusts but stingy traces of Chihuahua cheese filling. Tuna ceviche was just raw petals of yellowfin in a thin, coconut-serrano chile sauce topped with a scoop of coconut sorbet. Good flavors, but messy looking on a long-thin plate, and difficult to eat.
That aside, Distrito is a great addition to the South Jersey scene. I hope more Philadelphia chefs follow General Washington’s lead.
Cuisine Type:Central American - Mexican