Stephen Starr’s El Vez celebrates 20 years of authenticity and imagination

It has been 20 years since Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr opened El Vez—his festive, flashy, designer Mexican hot spot in Midtown Village—and the local favorite has only gotten better with time.

Renowned for trafficking in a mix of authentic yet modern Mexican cuisine with loads of kitsch Las Vegas flair, El Vez – inspired by legendary Mexican Elvis impersonator Robert Lopez — famously welcomed top-notch, then-new Philadelphia chefs such as Jose Garces and Dave Conn to its slick south-of-the-border celebration.

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“When we first opened El Vez, we envisioned a place that melded the vibrant spirit of Mexico with a touch of eclectic Philly charm,” said Starr about his mod Mexican restaurant’s beginnings.

Earlier this month, singer-actor Robert “El Vez” Lopez and current El Vez chef Paul Wachman helped kick off the Midtown Village’s 20th anniversary — a zesty, over-heated party that will last until year’s end.

Speaking to the authenticity of El Vez, now, in a city that houses many richly flavorful traditional Mexican restaurants, Wachman said, “The key to El Vez is having a menu with authentic dishes, ingredients and recipes known to the Mexican community, and the addition of a modern Mexican cuisine which encompasses diners who are unfamiliar with Mexican food but includes the indigenous diners who know and appreciate.”

That includes tortillas made in house, daily, with locally sourced nixtamal masa and dishes with a modern twist, like guacamole with the addition of goat cheese, pistachio, and roasted tomato.

As for singer-actor Lopez, he recalled the origin story of El Vez – the restaurant – by discussing where Philadelphia was in regard to Latin multiculturalism when he first got here.

“I had already been playing in Philly 10 years earlier,” Lopez recalled. “Thirty years ago, the local Latino community wasn’t as big or as diverse as it is now, and was introduced to Philly via its burlesque, its Fringe Festivals and NPR’s connections to World Cafe etc. I got to grow along with the changes of the city… Now with the growing communities North and South in Philadelphia, more styles can have a chance at the table, tables set with great and changing food experiences.”

Talking about how the singer got involved with Starr in the first place two decades ago, Lopez remembered how the restauraunter flew him into Philadelphia to discuss its glittering possibilities.

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“Stephen comes from a rock and roll promotions background so he was familiar with me, and I he. His excitement was great, and of course excited me. We only slightly mentioned the ideas of “and perhaps one day other El Vez restaurants…” and now there are three.”

As for El Vez, the singer’s favorite things about being at El Vez, the restaurant, last week, he enthused: “Man, the 20th Anniversary Sea Bass tacos were pretty amazing. And that Mezcal olde Fashion cocktail was so good. I do miss the low rider bikes that used to make the guacamole right at your table. The bikes are still there though.”

A.D. Amorosi

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