For the Mexican food enthusiast, the search for a perfect taco or enchilada on Penn's campus is far from easy, particularly for two California natives. Carts offer their interpretation of a "burrito" (read: cheesesteak on a tortilla) and then there is Mad 4 Mex, with happy hour as its only redeeming quality, but they fall short in comparison.
Luckily, Z¢calo, a short walk from Penn's campus at 36th Street and Lancaster Avenue, solves this dilemma and proves itself as one of a small handful of quality Mexican food restaurants in Philadelphia. Z¢calo, however, manages to separate itself from these other restaurants with its contemporary fusion, blending complex and fantastically delicious ingredients into more traditional recipes.
For those not expecting an experience full of wild tequila shots and the noise imitative of a mariachi band, Z¢calo is sure to please. The restaurant's atmosphere and interior replicate the surrounding quiet neighborhood.
This is a restaurant for your third date but not a restaurant for your birthday party. Pricing suggests the same -- appetizers run from $4 to $9 and entrees hover around $20. These prices and the quieter setting invite an older, non-student clientele to Z¢calo, which will either add tedium or sophistication to your meal.
Contrasting the 16-degree weather outside on the night of our visit to Z¢calo, we discovered the interior of the restaurant to be bright and warm, and after the spicy Guacamole al Molcajete appetizer that came with handmade tortilla chips, we began to defrost.
Once fully thawed, our waitress brought two of Z¢calo's award-winning margaritas. Of all six selections, the strawberry and the golden margaritas were our favorites. The first, with real strawberries soaked in port wine then blended with tequila and triple sec was amazing and the latter, with gold tequila, Grand Torres orange liquor, lime and orange juices was close competition. The restaurant's margarita selection extended to the Apasionado, with passion fruit extract, and the House Especial, which is a more traditional blend, among several others. Its tequila selection just so happens to be one of the largest in the city.
Continuing the perfection of the guacamole, our entrees, the Yucatecan Grilled Chicken Tacos and the evening's seafood special, Pescado con salsa de habanero, were spectacular.
The chicken for the tacos was grilled to perfection in an achiote-marinade, and the plate offered eaters the chance to create their own tacos, as each ingredient came separately with warm flour tortillas. The Pescado, salmon in a citrus habernero glaze, was insanely spicy and required constant margarita hydration.
A delectably rich Chocolate Grenache finished our meal, served warm with vanilla ice cream and cinnamon crema. Other desserts on the menu include a Lime Empanada -- a zesty lime custard inside a flaky puff pastry, a Chocolate Cactus brownie with nuts and homemade raspberry sauce and of course, Classic Flan.
Our search for the superior Mexican meal, at least outside of California, came to an end with Z¢calo. Well worth the short walk, Z¢calo will not disappoint those who are longing to fill a gap left by other attempts at contemporary Mexican cuisine here in Philadelphia.