On 13th Street lies one of Center City’s many long–running success stories: El Vez. The modest yet rambunctious Mexican restaurant, which prides itself on its “Mex–Eclectic spirit” and "bright, boisterous" nightlife, is a Philly classic, having been open for 19 years as of 2022. It’s a place that screams fun, even if it pales in comparison to Philly’s ever–growing Mexican food scene.
El Vez is the brainchild of Stephen Starr, arguably Philly’s most illustrious restaurateur. From its contemporary Mexican decor, the Midtown Village staple is distinct, yet still aligned with Starr’s 19 other high–quality restaurants dispersed throughout the city. It speaks volumes that El Vez is one of his few restaurants with a second location—which opened in New York City in 2014.
In terms of aesthetics, the inside of El Vez is dimly lit, with tables surrounding the centerpiece: a circular bar that features a rotating low–rider bike. Gold velvet clamshell booths hug the sides, conjuring images of old Hollywood. Immediately catching the eye is a stunning, picturesque wall mounted with photos and illuminated by light.
Despite its gaudy interior, the restaurant's exterior is surprisingly modest, indicated only by an eccentric yet humble neon sign. Upon arrival for a 5:15 PM reservation, the space was crowded to the brim with people ready to indulge in everything El Vez has to offer.
My group first ordered the Macho Nachos as an appetizer, which was neatly presented on a round pizza tray. We couldn’t stop picking at the nachos even as our entrees arrived; every flavor popped, from the queso mixto to the pickled red onion (the chicken is also a worthwhile addition).
Next up was the taco tasting platter, which included mahi–mahi, shrimp, chicken, chorizo, and steak tacos. A taco rests on each corner of the plate, with one in the center, for an unexpectedly neat presentation. The tacos are understated, filled with classic ingredients like white onion and pico de gallo. Still, each aspect of the shrimp taco was delicious, which is high praise from someone like myself, who usually has a distaste for seafood. One friend also ordered the shrimp enchiladas, although those apparently lacked flavor and paled in comparison to the nachos.
Overall, the service is quick and polite, and the menu is extensive, especially when it comes to the drink offerings. El Vez has a detailed tequila and mezcal list, as well as a generous selection of margaritas. The food itself is reasonably priced as well, with most items ranging between $10 to $25 dollars.
El Vez isn’t the perfect restaurant. But its imperfections—the extremely dim lighting, wobbly tables, and deafening music, to name a few—all contribute to the ambiance of the dining experience. Its menu may not be as ambitious as some of Philly’s emerging Mexican restaurants, but it’s a straightforward crowd–pleaser, and the vibe is vibrant and animated. It’s a restaurant that feels alive, and one where the company is more valuable than the food.
TL;DR: Center City staple with a unique, electric ambiance and crowd–pleasing Mexican food.
Location: 121 S. 13th Street
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 12:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 12:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Sunday, 12:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday, 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.