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Z¢calo brings real Mex to U. City

(02/26/03 10:00am)

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. Z¢calo 3600 Lancaster Ave. (215) 895-0139 Fare: Mexican 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.

Variety in burgers New Deck's only claim to fame

(02/26/03 10:00am)

The 3400 block of Sansom Street has been christened "Sansom Row" but considering the menus of its restaurants, Burger Row might be a more appropriate title. The hamburgers of White Dog Cafe and LT's Bar have long been hailed as campus favorites; however, if you seek variety in your burgers, New Deck Tavern is the place to go. For all intents and purposes, New Deck is a glorified Chili's minus the annoying jukebox and gaggle of annoying Drexel kids in search of a crazy margarita. The menu reads the same in its attempt to include every boring American classic -- from ribs to pasta to "sizzling" fajitas -- and its blandness is made especially obvious by the inclusion of nearly every kind of cheese possible. Luckily, the variety is successful in some areas, especially in terms of hamburgers, all a bargain at about $7 each. New Deck Tavern 3408 Sansom Street (215) 386-4600 Fare: American and Continental Though it's laughable to suggest any of New Deck's hamburgers could compete with the grand achievement of LT's classic burger, those of New Deck come with a variety of toppings to make them more exciting, without relying on Chili-like gimmicks such as the "Dragon Burger." Of the eight choices, the Pepperjack Burger, topped with pepperjack cheese, red onions and salsa, and the Turkey Pub Burger, with crisp, maple-cured bacon and jack cheese are the best choices. Large wedge fries come with all of the burgers and are perfectly fried and seasoned. Like the Guinness and old sign decorations, personality manages to find its way to a few more of the menu items. The chicken fajita quesadillas and jumbo wings in homemade sauce are deliciously simple appetizers, a perfect complement to a variety of on tap beer selections. New Deck also scores with its reworking of classic sandwiches into bar masterpieces. The grilled chicken sandwich, topped with jack cheese, onions and honey mustard rivals that of the White Dog and the ultimate tuna sandwich, a balsamic-seasoned tuna steak with tartar sauce on a baked roll lives up to its name. Both sandwiches are priced under $10 and are served with a dinner salad for a mere $2 more. Though none of the items of the menu are spectacular, New Deck is a solid place to satisfy your craving for basic American meat and functions just as well as a venue for cheap boozing any night of the week.