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March 11, 2010


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Economy closes a door, but another opens in Mt. Airy
Avenida: youthful vibe, family-friendly, fine Latin food

Husband-and-wife chef team Edgar and Kim Alvarez, who both have extensive restaurant backgrounds, opened Avenida, a Mexican restaurant, at 7402 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy last Dec.17. (Photos by Len Lear)

According to a recent CNN Money article, “More than 45,000 businesses closed their doors for good in 2009, including some that survived for more than a century.” The article profiled six century-old businesses in various parts of the country that were victimized last year by the economic hard times. One of those businesses placed under the microscope was the Delaware Market House, a gourmet food market and catering operation in Gladwyne.

You might think that Gladwyne, the wealthiest community in the entire Delaware Valley where million-dollar homes are as common as pasta in an Italian restaurant, would be immune from the vagaries of the economy. But you’d be wrong.

Although the Delaware Market House had been serving the community since the presidential administration of Theodore Roosevelt, and since Edgar and Kim Katz Alvarez had won more than 10 awards from local magazines and organizations since they bought the business in 2004, the floor still dropped out from under them. “We couldn’t survive anymore,” said Edgar, 43. “People just weren’t buying as much as they used to.”

Last December 17, however, several months after leaving Gladwyne, Kim and Edgar opened their first restaurant, Avenida (“Avenue” in Spanish), in the former location of Cresheim Cottage Café, 7402 Germantown Ave. (at Gowen). Cresheim Cottage Café, which was originally owned by Ken Weinstein, owner of the Trolley Car Diner, was basically put out of business not only by the collapse of the national economy but also by the city and state governments, which had closed off Germantown Avenue from Cresheim Valley Drive to Gowen Avenue for nine months. Customers practically needed a helicopter to get to the restaurant.

One of the most yummy desserts anywhere in the area is Avenida’s mango upside-down cake, with accompanying caramel vanilla ice cream racheting the dessert to soaring heights.

But according to Kim Alvarez, “Things just fell into place for us. When one door closed, another opened. We were even able to hire back some of our 15 employees who lost their jobs when we closed the Delaware Market House.”

The restaurant business always has its head on a swivel, looking for the next big thing. Avenida, on the other hand, features something very familiar but done extremely well — comforting, flavorful Latin food inspired by Edgar’s Guatemalan heritage and the couple’s time spent working in some of Philadelphia’s finest kitchens. Avenida is a restaurant with all menu items priced under $20 and an ideal place for diners to enjoy a leisurely meal of quesadillas, tamales, enchiladas and fresh salsas.

We were at another restaurant recently where the bartender was so old that the tip jar contained his teeth. On the other hand, despite the fact that the building is between 260 and 310 years old, Avenida, with its colorful new Spanish colonial décor (Latin art objects and woven textiles), pocket-sized bar, smiling young servers and family-friendly focus, has a youthful vibe. In fact, the owners' own children, Emma, 8, and Alejandro, 6, designed the restaurant's children’s menu.

When we had dinner recently at Avenida, it was not al fresco; it was al freezo! Despite the mountains of snow and freezing temperature outside and the fact that it was a midweek night, there was a pretty good crowd inside. Two fellow workers in the Local building — Jennifer Katz (no relation to Kim) and Noreen Spota — had both had dinner recently at Avenida, and both raved about the food, insisting there wasn't a joker in the deck.

During our own dinner in mid-February, a bowl of black bean soup with cream was a sublime rendition of this Latin staple, although it was not served hot enough ($6). Queso fondido was a hearty combination of fabulous Chihuahua cheese (our favorite), black beans, chorizo and roasted poblanos in a ceramic dish ($8) with just the right touch of spice. Grilled octopus was a plate of unbridled gastro indulgence, as good a version of this dish you're likely to find outside of Greece ($9). The long cylinders of octopus were matched with an exquisitely delicate tequila roasted tomato sauce and a marriage of textures and flavors that include garlic and avocado.

A majestic seared red snapper entree, aesthetically presented with tomatillo salsa, sauteed vegetables and Spanish rice, was an edible still-life ($19) and a show-stealing revelation of flavor. A coconut tres leches dessert (with excellent mango sorbet, $6) was just so-so, but a mango upside-down cake was pitch-perfect to look at and taste, with accompanying caramel vanilla ice cream racheting the dessert ($6) to soaring heights. Avenida has a small wine list but lots of reasonably priced cocktails that go well with Latin cuisine. You can't go wrong with any of the flavored Margaritas such as those with watermelon, mango, passion fruit and pomegranate.

A center city restaurant owner we had met the week before visiting Avenida was so wooden he should have been checked for termites, but Kim and Edgar, on the other hand, are clearly suffused with passion for their food and their restaurant. Edgar grew up in Guatemala with food playing a major role in family life. “When my mother, grandmother and aunts would prepare a meal, it was an all-day affair,” he said, “because we were a giant family. When breakfast ended, all the women in the family would go off to the market to buy the freshest produce, meat and fish for lunch and dinner.

“My mother was truly an amazing chef, although she would never consider herself one. But she taught me everything I know. I watched closely the way she would add some of this and not too much of that. She gave me a love for good, healthy, hearty food, just the kind I prepare today.”

Kim Katz Alvarez, 40, who grew up in Lafayette Hill and attended Plymouth Meeting High School ???, had a passion for food since she was a child, as did Edgar. “I clearly remember the day my mom enrolled me in a cooking class at Bloomingdale’s in Jenkintown,” she said. “It was Thanksgiving time, and our first assignment was to make homemade stuffing. My cousin, Brandi, was also in the class, and she also liked the tearing of the bread and combining it with wet ingredients, using her fingers. We loved it. It was the best stuffing I have ever tasted, and every Thanksgiving I still make it for my own family.”

Kim graduated from the restaurant management program at Syracuse University and from the chef program at the Culinary Institute of America in New York state, considered the Harvard of culinary schools. In her two decades as a professional chef, Kim has cooked at fine restaurants and gourmet markets in California and Philadelphia and was second-in-command under Alison Barshak at Striped Bass at 15th and Walnut Streets, where Kim and Edgar met.

Edgar and Kim are partners in Avenida with Wayne Zukin, a real estate developer and Mt. Airy neighbor. Avenida is open Tuesday through Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. (except Sunday, when it's 9 p.m.). The Alvarezes plan to open for lunch when weather permits, and outdoor dining will be available on their beautiful flagstone patio. Those who ate to Cresheim Cottage Cafe may remember that they were allowed to park in the beer distributor's parking lot across the street, but that is no longer the case with Avenida, although Kim and Edgar hope to remedy this situation in the near future. (Edgar, like former residents of the building, insists that a ghost named Emily lives there. “Doors may start moving at night with no reason,” said Edgar. “I say 'Goodnight, Emily' every night.”) For more information or to make a reservation, call 267-385-6857 or visit www.avenidarestaurant.com.



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