In or around the Philly area, Jose Garces sets the bar for Spanish and Latino-influenced tapas restaurants. There's no denying that Amada, Garces' spanish tapas restaurant; Tinto, his Basque tapas restaurant; and Distrito, his Mexican tapas restaurant, are truly top of the line. We diners are fortunate to have his ever expanding empire (Village Whiskey is opening this Thursday! uh, make that Friday) right at our feet, but it is unfortunate for other restaurateurs serving food in the same vein -- they are going to be compared to Garces.
But it's not only other Spanish and Latino tapas restaurants that I compare to Garces, I also pit Garces against Garces. Will one of his restaurants be as good as his others? And so it is, I go to see how Garces' Peruvian and Cantonese-fusion tapas restaurant, Chifa, stacks up?
Pisco sour is the national drink of Peru, and I hear Chifa makes a mean one, but I cannot resist a drink with lima beans as an ingredient, so went with the Lima Bean Fizz, an eerily glowing blue-green drink mixed with cucumber infused vodka, lima beans, and Thai Basil. It's the cucumber and basil that really shines through in this drink, not the lima bean, so the legume leery should not hesitate to order up a Lima Bean Fizz.
These complimentary yucca-flour cheese rolls with sweet and spicy guava butter alone are enough reason to visit Chifa. Warm and aromatically cheesy with a chewy center, these rolls are addictive, and possibly the best part on my entire meal.
You know how people go to Olive Garden and order the cheapest item on the menu just to get the complimentary bread sticks and salad? Not to compare Chifa's rolls to Olive Garden's bread sticks (no comparison!), but I'd go to Chifa and order one of anything just to get these fried cheese rolls.
While I did have two meat eaters with me on this visit, I am not going to cover their meat dishes (other reviews out there have done a great job of this), but will stick to the vegetarian dishes. Be sure to ask your server what dishes can be made vegetarian that aren't under the 'Vegetable' section, because there are a couple.After such a high with the cheese rolls, these scallion pancakes were such a low. Uniformly round with small scallion bits, I thought they lacked the flavor and character of slapdash scallion pancakes packed with scallions found at many Asian restaurants. This is the only dish of the evening (meat dishes included) that we would not order again. Simply put, the scallion pancakes are boring. I asked for Chaufa, a stir fried rice dish with mango and edamame, to be served without the chorizo and scallops. Moister and sweeter than most stir fries I've ever had, I can't say that this sizable-for-tapas hot pot of rice blows stir fried rice from other Chinese restaurants out of the water. Excellent, tasty, sweet, savory? Yes. I'm sure it's the chorizo and scallops that elevate this dish above standard Chinese fare, but without those ingredients, you're looking at a bowl of stir fried rice.Under the vegetable section you'll find a dish called Aji Mushrooms with only Aji mushrooms, tofu, and potatoes listed as a descriptor. I ordered this without asking what the dish was like, and was completely surprised to have a puffy pastry dough baked in a bowl arrive, to which the server poked a hole in the center and poured cream over the mushrooms and tofu inside. It was like eating a pot pie filled with the best mushroom soup you've ever had. This dish even stood out amongst the meat dishes.
By omitting the King Crab, the kitchen can make a vegetarian version of Red Curry Del General with eggplant and tofu. Underneath the sweet and spicy red curry sits a mound of sticky jasmine rice. An excellent red curry, but I've had just as good from most Thai places for much cheaper.
With the recommended three dishes per person, we were too full for dessert, but these complimentary puffed rice bars, otherwise known as Rice Krispie treats, topped with and edible dragon printed paper did the trick of bringing our meal to an end.
As per my experience, I'd recommend staying away from the more classically Asian dishes (although, apparently the pork belly buns are to die for) and order the dishes that cannot be had at every corner Chinese or Thai restaurant, not because these dishes aren't great at Chifa, but because your average (really it would be above-average) Asian restaurant has already perfected these dishes.
With still a few veggie dishes on the menu untried, a return visit is definitely in order, if only to get those fried puffy cheese balls again!
707 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19106
Lunch: Mon-Sat 11:30am-2:30pm
Dinner: Sun-Thurs 5pm-10pm; Fri-Sat 5pm-12am