Restaurant Review: La Calaca Feliz Aims for Mexican Cuisine but Misses Considerably
La Calaca Feliz (2321 Fairmount Ave.) is a Mexican-American restaurant that is more American than it is Mexican.
With items on their menu like a Cubano Quesadilla — with pork belly, ham, swiss, chipotle dijon and house pickles — it’s fair to say that it’s also catering to a “Latin” menu, rather than a Mexican one. In fact, my girlfriend is Cuban and her family would laugh at the idea of chipotle dijon in one of their meals, because Cubans don’t make spicy foods.
In all fairness, La Calaca Feliz (translation: the happy skeleton) looks unique and has a beautiful atmosphere. The wall is covered in classic skull art that the Mexican culture is known for because of their ancient Aztec ancestors. The art spans across half of the dining room in beautiful bright colors and painted with Spanish calaca, crows and crow-skeletons. The dining room also has a beautiful high ceiling of gold, which retains a traditional charm tourists come to Philadelphia to see. They also have stained glass on display that adds to the texture of the atmosphere. With outdoor seating, it could be a nice place to sit and have a drink in the summer.
Unfortunately, for me, the Picasso Moon — a drink with dios baco amontillado sherry, del maguey vida mezcal, grapefruit, and agave — wasn’t what I was expecting. It was strong… Too strong. When I was 21 and aiming for a fun night out, the stronger the drink the better. It meant I was going to have a fun night filled with regrets. Now that I’m slightly older than that, having strong drinks isn’t the goal anymore. Amontillado is great when it’s not drowning in agave and so is grapefruit when it’s not missing from the drink. It was a bit aggressive and a bit much. But if that is your thing, then go for it.
For dinner, I had a go at the Baha Taco — which comes with plantain crusted blue tilapia, cabbage, avocado, and lemon vinaigrette. The fish was a bit dry and I ate an entire taco before realizing there was a slice of avocado in it. The first taco was engulfed in cabbage. I had to remove half of the garnish from the second taco to enjoy it. I was most excited to try the plantain crust because my mother, who is of Panamanian descent, often made plantains. I grew up with the impression that they are a special food that enriches the meal, but the fish tacos at La Calaca Feliz are unredeemable.
Besides the customer service and atmosphere, their guacamole was also enjoyable. It was creamy. It came in a Mexican grinding bowl, which helped the experience of the rich appetizer. It also came to the table cold. For me, that’s the way it should come. There was a hint of spice in the chunks of avocado that further deepened the dish. The chips it came with were crunchy and held their own when I scooped the guacamole from the bowl. But the salsa the chips came with was not spicy and was a tad bit too sweet and runny.
I’m a believer that restaurants have good and bad days. Hopefully, they were simply having a bad night. For those of you out there looking, there are plenty of great places to have an authentic taste of Mexico in the city and I recommend not going to La Calaca Feliz unless you love guacamole.