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Stephen Starr's El Rey on Chestnut by 20th

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El ReyEl Rey, meaning the king in spanish, is a bit more like the pauper in terms of style and design. That does not, however, take away from the fun folk-art decor or delicious, homestyle food. Stephen Starr opened El Rey earlier this year to feature Mexican cuisine from Puebla to Veracruz from chef Dionicio Jimenez, formerly of Xochitl. The restaurant also has a bar in the back with a private entrance. 

When a friend asked me to check out Stephen Starr's new restaurant for lunch, I thought of the trendy, upscale establishment's he's known for and asked if there were some place else a bit more low-key where we could meet. "Trust me," my friend promised. "You'll be surprised."

The location alone was enough to surprise me. Set in the old Midtown IV diner location, the restaurant had a tacky old movie theatre marquee style to the front sign.  The restaurant had not changed much inside since it was a diner (oh, fond memories of cheap, greasy breakfasts and late night bites with friends!). It did, however, get a very interesting facelift. Starr brought in bright colors and flea-market finds to decorate the space. Bold patterns clash around --what I'd call-- the prized possession of the decor: a collection of prison art. Mainly sketches on notebook paper, the prisoners drew everything from scenes of romance to lucha libre mask-donning wrestlers. Those and the black velvet paintings, made my day. 

El Rey

Ah, but the food. Here is where the Stephen Starr name lived up to its reputation. We started with cocktails. The Paloma, blanco tequila with grapefruit soda, was light, refreshing and just strong enough for lunch! The guava margarita was also a nice twist of the traditional. For appetizers, I highly recommend the nachos. Not exactly quintessential Mexican fare, the American bars have perfected nachos to a gourmet feat. The crisp nachos at El Rey served with chorizo and black beans, are no exception. 

The nicest part of the menu was another surprise: the prices. Lunch entrees range from $6-12 and were decent-sized portions of excellent quality food. I enjoyed the chicken tinga tostadas, while my friend had the tamales (1 each, chicken and chihuahua cheese). The entrees are great, but you get what you order, so if you're feeling quite hungry be sure to add on an accompaniment of rice ($4) or refried beans ($3.5) or chips and salsa ($3.5). 

Ask your server about the desserts. When we were there, we had the choice of interesting ice creams or sorbets including chocolate, mango or salted lime. We also had a choice of churros with a goat cheese, caramel sauce, which was the hands down choice to finish off the meal. 

El Rey comes highly recommended. 

Address: 

2013 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103-3335
(215) 563-3330

Hours: 

Open Daily 11:30am-1am