[ review ]
Even if the chefs weren't married with children, or the bar had more than three wooden stools, or the dining room's stone hearth weren't half-blackened with soot, Avenida would still feel as much like somebody's home as a restaurant.
The woman who greets you at the threshold is the same one who'll make your dessert. The young man with an order pad acts less like a waiter than a live-in apprentice, the kind whose fealty has earned him the right to poke fun at paymaster and patron alike. The atmosphere is casual one moment, irreverent the next and genuine all the way through. You get the feeling that if someone sat down to dinner with a dog at his feet, chef-owners Edgar and Kim Alvarez would be less likely to deliver a lecture than a ham bone.
Between them, the Alvarezes have cooked from one end of Philly's food spectrum to the other — whether you define that in terms of cuisine or culinary ambition. Striped Bass and Susanna Foo show up on their collective résumé, as does the Black Sheep Pub and Dock Street Brewing Company. For Avenida they wanted to go back to Edgar's Guatemalan roots, recreating the plain-spoken fare that was the caloric and spiritual ballast of his childhood.
Mt. Airy's old Cresheim Cottage Café gave them the ideal place. They painted the walls the color of tangerine peels and egg yolks, scattered souvenir-market bric-a-brac about the first floor, and let the 18th-century stone dwelling do the rest. The place feels like a home because that's what it was built to be. And its new tenants have made it their own, right down to a kitschy set of whittled wooden figurines that look like mariachi buskers on their way to a yuletide manger display. (You may never have bought questionable craft art on a holiday trip, but I'll bet your mother has.)
So your server may toss a snarky shrug toward the little trumpet player. Or maybe he'll limit himself to a frank verdict on whether there's any reason a non-vegetarian should try the lard-less tamale. ("Pff. And miss the short ribs? No way.") The whole hype-less production may lull you into low expectations for the meal. After all, how good can home-style Latin food be if Jose Garces has been rocking your palate with intricate small-plate creations for the last couple years?
The answer is very good. Avenida is about affordable meals served on Ikea plates, not lamb lollipops in shot glasses, but the Alvarezes do it with uncommon focus and finesse. Don't skimp on appetizers. Slow-cooked octopus arms blistered with tequila poke through a cooling bed of watercress. Chorizo, poblano rajas and al dente black beans achieve a perfect three-way balance under a just-cheesy-enough queso fundido. Already you're having trouble sharing the very sharable portions.
Ceviche is not an apparent strength; pimento-stuffed green olives might elevate cheap white fish in a Mexican street stall, but rich cubes of sashimi-grade tuna deserve something less demotic. So stick to the stuff cooked with actual heat. Short ribs fall off the bone into a vivid mole the color of coffee grounds, with just the right level of chocolate-y bitterness both for the lush strands of meat and the pair of sweet corn fritters on the side. And here's where the waiter is wrong: It's the vegetarians who shouldn't miss this plate, because these hush puppies — brightened with orange juice, of all things — are so good that you could just as well consider the short ribs as the second fiddle.
Or ask for a couple of them to go with the el biche, which is billed as an "Ecuadorian bouillabaisse" but is really a down-home cauldron of lime-spiked snapper stock in which the celery seed is as noticeable as the fennel. This is an outstanding soup of the "everything stew" variety — plantains, shrimp, scallops, peppers, potatoes — just the kind of thing you can imagine Edgar's mother and aunts dreaming about when they tired of plucking chickens on his grandmother's ranch.
Avenida's big entrées are less exciting, but by no means mere filler (except for the bowls of plain white rice that accompany a few of them, which are just that). There are two standouts. Chicken mishote is a bodaciously herbaceous and beautifully glossy quarter bird redolent of bay leaves and the banana frond it's roasted in, with a mild guajillo-pasilla-ancho chili kick that hums on the tongue to a lasting finish. Want something richer? Go for the pork pibil. A mound of shredded pork shoulder is tossed with just enough tomatillo purée to cut through one variety of fat, and enough pulverized pepitas and sesame seeds to layer on another. And sitting opposite that flavor bomb is a savory egg and zucchini flan that could hardly be more delicate if it were whipped with helium.
Amelia Dietrich has a firm grip on dessert. Her banana layer cake is an unexpected surprise — and another credit to a server who didn't miss with a single recommendation — but nothing's likely to top the ancho chili brownie. No sweeter than it needs to be (there's ice cream for that), it packs a huge wallop of chocolate that's chased down the throat by an exquisitely calibrated capsaicin tickle. On second thought, maybe the waiter did mess up. He could have recommended ordering two.
True to the Alvarezes' family-friendly aims, there's an attractive children's menu — plus enough Caribbean-style cocktails to leverage those kiddie-quesadilla orders into a three-mojito playdate. But don't let the whole family-style thing fool you. Avenida may be serving dinner on the same Ikea plates you use at home, but this is the kind of home cooking that merits going out for.
Avenida | 7402 Germantown Ave., 267-385-6857, avenidarestaurant. com. Tue.-Thu., 5-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m.; closed Mon. Soups and salads, $6-$9; appetizers, $6-$10; entrées, $14-$19; desserts, $4-$6.