The phrase “Happy Hour Deal” is a common misnomer. In Philadelphia, it generally means the time between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays during which restaurants provide discounts on drinks in order to encourage patronage. But, usually, prices are still quite high. Often, menus only include the “house” drinks and, worse, omit food entirely. As a result, many “Happy Hour Deals” are neither happy, nor an hour, nor a deal.
But El Rey’s, while lasting an hour and a half, is still two of these things. Here’s how to make the most of it.
1. Arrive, hungry, at 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, or a few minutes before if you can. This spot is both small and popular, and is therefore usually full by 5:30 p.m.
2. Get whichever flavored Margarita fits your mood (price varies). For happy hour, El Rey offers one rotating flavor for $5. Otherwise, margaritas are $8.50 for the classic and frozen options, or $9 for flavored margaritas. Choose from jalapeño pineapple, blackberry cabernet, tamarind, guava, a frozen one whose flavors vary by the month and more. The bell pepper basil margarita is neither excessively sweet nor too thick. Its two slightly unconventional flavors enhance rather than mask the taste of the tequila. The drink is light, refreshing, delicious and—don’t worry—strong.
3. Share the Nachos ($12) if you’re with a few people. The genius of this dish lies not in its gigantic portion, but in its arrangement. It comes on a huge plate, its ingredients in thin layers rather than a stack so that all of its components are distributed evenly. The cheese layer that coats the tortilla chips acts as a kind of cement, ensuring that each chip gets a little bit of sour cream, black bean, and spicy crumbled chorizo. As a result, each bite provides the full spectrum of nacho taste—spicy, salty, creamy—and texture—meaty, crunchy, gooey.
4. Get a Taco ($1) For happy hour, the options are chicken, black bean, cheese, steak and fish.The meats are succulent and smoked in–house. Oh, and nestled inside a soft, textured, house–made tortilla blanket.
5. Get a few more Tacos ($8.50-$12.00) If you're curious to try some regularly priced options, there’s the carnitas pork—which, like the brisket, is smoked in–house. But there’s also duck, which comes with a little egg. There’s tofu, which is somehow almost as moist and flavorful as the meat. And there’s lamb, which is crispy, topped with yogurt sauce, and totally at home in a taco.
6. Get another Margarita ($8.50). It's not a happy hour option, but you know you’re curious about the Passion in Oaxaca, though you butcher the pronunciation as you order it.
7. Use flash with any photos you take. The dim lighting is part of the atmosphere and the experience, but the food is too colorful and artistically arranged not to document.
8. Check out the art, some of which is the work of prison inmates. Furnished by , the restaurant’s décor and mix–and–matched dishware is collected from flea markets and antique shops across the country. The general aesthetic is one of a slightly gritty—yet somehow trendy—Mexican roadside diner.
9. Get a to–go box. There will be leftover nachos, and these tortilla chips—textured, flavorful and made in–house—still taste great after being refrigerated, microwaved, and even stripped of their toppings.
10. Realize you just had a fantastic boozy meal for a ridiculous price. (~$20 + tax and tip).
TL;DR: Happiness can be bought. For $20.
Location: 2013 Chestnut Street
Monday–Thursday: 11:30 a.m.–11:00 p.m.
Friday–Saturday: 11:30 a.m.–12:00 a.m.
Sunday: 11:30 a.m.–11:00 p.m.
A previous version of this article stated that brisket tacos were a happy hour special, though they are not. We regret this error.