This modern Mexican spot delights and surprises with original flavors and a boldness for using specialty produce.
Originally printed in the September 2022 issue of Produce Business.
Philadelphia houses a vast number of Mexican restaurants, but Condesa captures the flavor and freshness of Mexico City cuisine like no other. A contemporary eatery named after the vibrant neighborhood in Mexico City, the restaurant features a menu highlighting regionally inspired dishes and showcasing produce.
“Condesa is a modern Mexican restaurant with authentic touches,” says Jerome Skaggs, culinary director at Defined Hospitality in Philadelphia, PA.
In addition to the 160-seat indoor/outdoor space on the first floor of the Hilton Motto Hotel near Rittenhouse Square, the restaurant also has a bar and taqueria, El Techo, on the rooftop of the hotel. Condesa is owned and operated by Defined Hospitality, a restaurant group that also owns and operates Suraya, Pizzeria Beddia and R&D Cocktail Lounge.
CENTERED ON PRODUCE
The restaurant’s menu boasts a significant produce component to just about every dish.
“Produce is the heart of our menu,” says Skaggs. “We make everything from scratch daily, including all of our salsas, which means the quality of our produce directly impacts our guest experience.”
Condesa’s kitchen is focused on sourcing and serving the highest quality produce items. “One of the core values of our companies is ‘Brilliant at the Basics’ and we believe there is nothing more basic to a kitchen than high-quality produce,” says Skaggs. “We want the ripest and highest quality year-round. We will shift from different vendors, depending on the season to make sure we always have the best products available.”
The restaurant spends approximately $25,000 monthly on produce, and sources produce from a variety of purveyors, including wholesalers such as Baldor and John Vena (JVI), says Skaggs. “For seasonal produce, we rely on local growers. One of our owners has a garden in Maryland that grows heirloom tomatillos, tomatoes and Mexican herbs. We also use Lancaster Farm Fresh, a farmers’ cooperative in central PA.”
For the restaurant’s unique use of specialty imported produce, it looks to JVI, located on the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. “John Vena sources hard-to-find ingredients that are essential to our cuisine,” says Skaggs. “Items such as avocado leaf, tropical fruits, verdolagas (purslane) and Mexican herbs are hard to locate and often are of low quality. Vena sources hard-to-find products and takes extra care of them throughout the entire supply chain.”
A PALETTE FOR PRODUCE
Chef Alberto Sandoval infuses authentic flavor into dishes yet elevates them through innovative ingredients. The entire menu displays the restaurant’s commitment to fresh flavor, starting with the appetizers. The exceptional guacamole reflects the quality of avocado used. “If you don’t start with good ripe avocados, there’s nothing else you can do,” says Skaggs. “You can’t cover up the ingredients in this case.”
The savory Cóctel de Mariscos bathes tender shrimp and octopus in a salsa valentina and comes amply garnished with cilantro leaves, avocado and tomato. Crunchy tostadas form a canvass for marinated tomatoes, charred peaches and requesón cheese. They’re topped generously with mint leaves and fresh dill. The unassuming surprise of the appetizers is the Sikil Pak, a Mayan pumpkin seed dip that Sandoval transforms into a flavor explosion and serves with a crudité of European cucumbers, Granny Smith apples, mini lettuce and red bell pepper, all sprinkled with tajín.
The tacos boast a wealth of produce partnership. Pollo Adobado serves up grilled chicken in an authentically delicious Mexican red adobo sauce along with tangy pickled red cabbage. The Camarones a las Brasas pairs grilled shrimp with charred cabbage and pineapple in an avocado cream sauce. Verduras Fritas showcase fried caulini on a bed of sweet plantain puree topped with a smooth and savory salsa of shishito and pepitas.
The Platos (or entrees) marry interesting proteins, including duck and goat, with produce. Pescado al Pastor runs a sweet, charred pineapple line parallel to a perfectly-grilled branzino topped with watercress, avocado and spring onion. The Bistec, a mouth-watering New York strip with a molcajete sauce, adds charred nopales and potatoes.
Dessert continues to push the envelope on incorporating produce with a Chamoyada, layering mango sorbet, chamoy (a savory sauce made from pickled fruit), coconut cream and angel food cake. A buttery Pineapple Upside-Down Corn Cake melts in the mouth along with its delicately sweet horchata ice cream. “Our pastry chef has made paletas (Mexican popsicles) out of savory ingredients including tomatillos,” says Skaggs. “They are amazing.”