by Lou Mancinelli
“Bienvenidos a su casa.” It’s Spanish for “welcome home.” It is also the feeling that emanates throughout Avenida, the Mt. Airy Latin fusion dining establishment that opened last December. Its mango, mandarin and sangria walls, salsa music and hardwood floors create an atmosphere that suggests that the ocean, instead of the intersection of Gowen and Germantown Avenues, lies outside its windows.
Set in an 18th-century colonial home, the snug rooms, hardwood floors and exposed wood and crown-molding have been renovated by co-owner and executive chef Edgar Alvarez. In the dining room hints of the smell from the old stone fireplace float about the room decorated with mosaic masks and textiles from countries like Costa Rica, El Salvador and Mexico.
When two years ago, construction closed Germantown Avenue from Chresheim Valley Drive to Gowen Avenue for nine months, local businesses suffered. The Chresheim Cottage Café closed. But when construction finished last year and the flow of traffic was restored, Avenida moved into the old Cresheim Cottage Café location, and business began to return to the struggling corridor.
Now Tuesdays through Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., one can enjoy items like tortilla soup with fresh avocado and crispy tortillas, black bean hummus, and salads like the Latin milano with shrimp, bacon, tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, chopped egg, and creamy cilantro dressing, as well as many other selections.
Perhaps the story told to me by Mt. Airy resident Susan Flagg at Avenida last week during lunch provides insight into the intangible aspects that have contributed to the success the restaurant has realized during its first year.
When Flagg’s mother was recovering from a near-death illness, the younger Flagg, a regular at Avenida, frequented the restaurant to see if pumpkin soup, her mother’s request, was on the menu. It was spring, so she knew there was no way pumpkin would be available. But one night at dinner, when the restaurant was packed, Edgar, in addition to running the kitchen, made Flagg a vegetable soup from scratch to bring to her mother.
“That blew me away,” said Flagg.
“We wanted to do a little bit of everything,” said Edgar, 45, “Foods from all the countries in Central America…Fusion, no confusion.”
Edgar and his wife, Kim Katz Alvarez, have worked in fine dining for years. Kim, 42, is a graduate of the restaurant management program at Syracuse University and the chef program at the Culinary Institute of America in New York State. Her husband came to America from Guatemala in 1986 to escape a civil war in his native land. He worked in remodeling in Virginia before moving to New York City, where he began to prep food in restaurants. In the mid-‘90s he moved to Philadelphia and met his wife when they worked together at the Striped Bass,15th and Walnut Streets, where Kim was second-in-command.
Before Avenida’s, the Alvarezes too were also subjected to a collapsing economy.
Since 2004, they ran the Delaware Market House in Gladwyne, a location that had served the community for a century. At that location, they won 10 awards from magazines and local organizations. But in 2008, as the American real estate bubble burst and the economy went bad, their numbers got smaller and smaller, and they were forced to close.
If anything can be learned from the couple, it is that you keep going and working hard. This year, their kids’ menu, designed by their children, Emma, 10, and Alejandro, 8, was voted the city’s best by Philadelphia Magazine. To celebrate, Tuesdays through Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., is a Kids Happy Hour, intended to bring kid-friendly specials and events.
When I had lunch at Avenida last week, I also chanced upon actor David L. Smyrl, who played Mr. Handford, the owner of Hooper’s Store on Sesame Street. He also worked as a gag writer for the Cosby Show, and appeared on the television series Law and Order. Smyrl drove from Belmont Hills to Avenida after he saw an online advertisement.
“There’s nothing else around here like it,” said Smyrl. “I had to see what it was about … Oh yeah, I enjoyed it.”
The overwhelming majority of recent restaurant bloggers have enjoyed their experiences at Avenida. For example, on Urbanspoon.com, 44 people voted in an online poll about Avenida. Of those, 93 percent liked it. On Zagat.com, 28 people responded to a poll about Avenida, of whom 88 percent liked it.
A typical comment on Urbanspoon.com came from a Kevin Gilboy: “Our party of five had a very pleasant evening at Avenida … The pumpkin and black bean soups got good reviews, as did the green and red beet salads. The scallops with wheatberries had a delicious sauce; while three scallops seem small for $22, the dish as a whole was ample, especially with the tortillas on the side to sop up the sauce. The shrimp and quinoa were grilled just right … One caveat — the noise level was pretty high in the dining room.” (A Local editor agrees with the noise level issue.)
On Zagat.com, a Jeff H. of Lafayette Hill wrote on June 27: ”Had a fabulous time at Avenida on Saturday. Edgar and Kim were the best. Made our party of six feel so at home. We really did not want to leave. Food was amazing. We allowed Edgar to pick our appetizers, and we were thrilled when they came. The entrees were amazing. The help was so accommodating and nice. A definite return for another meal is needed.”
A Richard N. of Fort Washington wrote on June 5: “Well done, interesting Spanish food with good portions. Have eaten here several times and had good experiences.”
Avenida is also offering “Cena Completa” (Family-style dinners that feed four, featuring an entree and two sides for one fixed price). The chicken dinner for four is $30; fish is $35, and beef is $40. These are available Sunday-Thursday (closed Monday) either in the dining room or as take-out.
Avenida, at 7402 Germantown Ave., does have a liquor license. Lunch: Tuesday – Friday; Dinner: Tuesday – Sunday; Brunch: Sunday 11 to 3. More information at 267-385-6857 or www.AvenidaRestaurant.com.