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4 Nights in PHL, pt3 - Tacos Don Memo, Matyson

i started a thread looking for suggestions to narrow down some options for 4 nights in philadelphia and thought i'd share my experiences in your lovely city. the original thread can be found here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/633872 my final destination line-up did change as my work demanded it but i think i got in what i really wanted to. i'm going to write-up a post for each day/night in the hopes that it will be more useful... and still not cluttering.

pt1 - Morimoto, Foodery, Capogiro: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/639786
pt2 - Paesano's, Brown Betty, more Foodery, Jim's Steaks: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/640055

TACOS DON MEMO - 38th and Sansom

i don't know if i ate them correctly, so bear with me!

i found the truck with relative ease though it is very much dwarfed by other trucks on the street and the tall buildings along the sidewalk. there was only one person perched on the grassy bank waiting for their order at noon which would've normally concluded to me that this might not be a worthwhile truck. it would be a cheap mistake should they turn out to just be ok, so why not! and really could it be that bad considering the atrocious state of mexican food in toronto? not likely. the menu listed all the options for tacos with a $2 marked above and so i got a carnitas and al pastor. they were quickly assembled and passed out of the window after a couple minutes wait and i headed over to where my coworkers were dining.

opening the foil package i noticed that two tortillas were layered on top of each other with filling running down the center for each type that i picked. a tight bundle of lime pyramids also came in the bag. the meat was all very moist but certainly no excess juices running out of either of them. unfortunately i didn't take pictures and so i'm a bit hazy on what exactly each were topped with, but the overall blandness of them even with the request of medium heat is what i noticed most. the textures were spot on but the flavour of the meat was so mild and unpronounced that it was just sort of porky. the cilantro onion mix on top added a bit of flavour but most was contributed by my generous squeezes of lime. the guacamole on top of the other was utterly useless. why so stingy on the spices!? is this typical?

the shining moment of these tacos were actually the tortillas, just the right thickness for each and so soft. they had corn flavour but appeared to have been made with a flour blend to achieve the lovely flexibility and smoothness they had. can anyone confirm how they are made?

my confusion lies with the two layers of tortillas... were they mending a broken tortilla? was i supposed to split them apart and have 4 tacos in total? do philadelphia mexicans like tortillas a lot? what was this about!? at $2 a pop if i ever make it back i will try them again to find the answers to the taco mystery and definitely get high heat, in the meantime i'll easily be sated with making my own pork and guacamole at home though i do regret not bringing back a pile of the tortillas.


should you have read my other postings and disagreed with my assessments, you will surely disagree with me now.... matyson is at best mediocre and at worst... kind of terrible. let me explain.

one of the most lauded byobs in the city would obviously be the best option for a client dinner that included a couple of less experienced palates, especially considering the dining tour i was attempting to do the rest of the week. the timing was a bit of a last minute decision and so i had to secure us a table for about 5:30 or so. calling the restaurant, there was no hesitation to deny me anything past 5:15pm, it was just impossible they said. not even 15 minutes later would do. this sent us into a rush and with traffic being what it was going down market st we were 10 minutes late... and the only ones in the restaurant.

it was empty, it was the start of the dinner service so i understood but expected it would fill up as we continued our evening. the bunch of beers i had brought were whisked away to be chilled and we sat down to peruse the menu. perhaps this is where it went all wrong. perhaps the tasting menu was the direction to go down. but the sweetbreads always call to me and so i ditched the tasting and went a la carte. and this is where the disaster began.

service was sweet and helpful, i will say that to start. they were going to bring out each beer one by one and then presented a pail with ice and water to leave them on the table for our own selection. they offered up suggestions which we took for the most part and brought out dishes very timely. but the food, oh that food. my dining companions are significantly less critical of food and considering the situation no one was going to complain aloud about anything they ate. i'm sure that for the most part, they actually did enjoy their meals but i cannot say the same.

sweetbreads arrived overcooked and laced with a mellow smokiness that worked well with the natural richness of the offal. the light breading around it was a touch overwhelmed with spice and made even stronger with the chili mayo accompanying it on the plate. when i had originally glanced at the dish i mistook the discus item to the right as a potato pancake of sorts and entirely neglected to note the menu lists a zucchini and crab frittata. there was crab in this thing? zucchini even? it tasted like wet eggy onions and by no means had any place beside sweetbreads. in a separate dish it could have stood out as being tasty but here it was an utterly confusing pairing. looking back at the menu i likely picked the worst dish of the bunch, but being so easily swayed by anything involving sweetbreads is one of my dining downfalls.

next was the five spice duck breast that i had specified to be cooked to a medium rare appearing absolutely grey and not a second under medium-well. the trouble i had chewing on this piece of meat with it's vague asian spicing wasn't worth much of the hassle and so i left all the ends on the plate. the duck jus that trickled out distinctly reminded me of pho broth with a heavy dose of anise and i was thankful for the blueberry jam to at least liven it up a bit even if the ginger was completely unnoticeable. a swipe of yellow mirrored the blueberry sauce, the amount of spicy chinese mustard dressing the plate was surprising... a very potent condiment indeed. it paired poorly with everything in the dish. the accompanying springroll was definitely full of mushroom flavour and greaseless but the foie gras didn't even make it in for a supporting role, it was no where to be found. i wish i could say at the very least the mushrooms provided a tasty filling, but in the end it just felt like a sad attempt at fusion with flavours completely out of whack. the only shining moment in this dish was the red onion marmalade.... sweet, perfectly soft and slightly tangy it was oozing with great flavour, too bad a meal couldn't be made of this. when i first read it on the menu i just simply felt like duck but, again, looking back it reeked of nostalgia and in a bad way.

i like a little sweet to finish a meal and being on company dime i figured why not, i had little to lose besides stomach space for an evening i intended to end early anyways. ordering the coconut cream pie, i was a bit hesitant about the use of ganache. it was a tasty and smooth chocolate layer matched very well with the crust but as suspected it overtook the rest of the dessert. the coconut cream with roasted flakes of coconut was subtle but tasty and texturally nicely contrasted. i could only hope that the filling would tie the two layers together but in the end it was thick, starchy and flavourless so i ate around it after making a few attempts to include it with the better components.

what else can i say? did i simply pick poorly? was this a case of having to be more careful with menu descriptions? more than likely. but i expected that such a well reviewed place wouldn't have such large missteps. and to add a little insult to injury, 3 tables sat empty during our meal and no one walked in for the 10 minutes or so we waited around to get our car across the street. though i obviously can't tell you how quickly they filled up, it just seemed unnecessary to squeeze us by 15 minutes. i guess we turned up late anyway, so oh well.

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  1. I always order Don Memo spicy (because I like it that way), but my girlfriend always gets either mild or medium…both of which are indistinguishable to me. I think they just keep it mild for anyone who doesn't ask for spicy (since they only ask for spicy or mild), but rest assured that Don Memo certainly knows how to bring the heat.

    1. the two tortillas are standard taco protocol. go to any authentic taqueria and that's how they come.

      3 Replies
      1. re: jaba

        good to know! see in toronto that doesn't happen... at all. we get two tacos to an order but not layered into one. unless you're meant to split the filling between the two?

        1. re: pinstripeprincess

          I think you're supposed to eat them stacked. As jaba mentioned this is standard protocol at all the taquerias around here, but I don't get it either. I usually take one off and eat it with one tortilla--otherwise, it is just too bready for me.

          In general, taqueria tacos are pretty simple, but the meat should be flavorful. I've never heard of guac being served on a taco but I guess it could work. Maybe a couple avocado slices with some orders. Most places will give you little containers of spicy red and green sauces, which you can use to kick up the flavor.

          1. re: barryg

            La Lupe puts a little dollop of guacamole on their tacos and they only use one tortilla. But I find their tortillas to be a little more substantial than, say, Los Taquitos de Puebla, where they do stack two of them.

        1. re: Delucacheesemonger

          thanks :) i was getting a little weary if i should bother writing so much since the response has been rather minimal. one last one to go...

          1. re: pinstripeprincess

            I've been reading them all. I always like to hear a visitors perspective on our food scene.

        2. Matyson is not very accomodating to larger parties, you did not say how big your group was, but they do make you come in early for groups larger than 4 persons.

          Sorry you did not like the food, did your companions like their meals? I have only eaten there once and thought the food was excellent.

          3 Replies
          1. re: rocknroll52

            there were 3 of us, i did neglect some specifics, and two tables of 2 and one table of 4 were the three tables empty while we dined.

            as i said in the report, it wasn't really a situation in which i would get an absolutely earnest response from them. they are also not nearly as critical as i in the sense that they wouldn't pick out such details and specifics but would notice if their main protein was under/over cooked, partly because neither are very food oriented people (the place of choice for more casual client meals is often the new deck tavern on penn campus). the only real comment i got from them was that the melon gazpacho was different but nice (had by client) and that my coworker felt that the client enjoyed the meal quite a bit but made no references to whether they enjoyed it themselves. i didn't press more than that because they even declared when we sat down that finding a place like matyson was beyond their foodish sensibilities and if they enjoyed it and were keen to find others then i wouldn't want to dampen the experience with my own criticisms.

            1. re: pinstripeprincess

              Matyson was a place l never understood the fuss about. Went once early in its run and have not returned, not because it was bad, but there was no reason to eat something that was a bit pricey and nothing on the menu made me go WOW, either wanting to order it or eating it.

              1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                when i was staring at the menu i kind of thought similarly... just that nothing about the combinations really appealed to me and since i had loaded up on pork already and steak is best had at home or steakhouses... i went towards duck. i was just hoping for competency and more so to experience the byob scene the way it should be done (ours is ridiculous... it's not unheard of to have $20-30 corkage fees, only recently has low or no corkage fees been offered on slow nights). i guess prices weren't as much of a concern because it was in range with the white dog and that often is the alternative for the nice dinner night out. paying those prices in toronto (where our dollar is worth less!), i would have been much harsher in my criticisms.

                anyway, now i just know it's not to my tastes.

          2. The doubled tortillas is standard. I think it keeps them from falling apart if you have a lot of sauce or marinade on the meat.

            As for Matyson, I have to admit their menu never tempted me much. I went once for a business lunch and thought the soup was great, but the entree was blah.

            However, I would recommend the opposite of your statement here: "one of the most lauded byobs in the city would obviously be the best option for a client dinner that included a couple of less experienced palates." I think places rec'ed by foodies are actually risky for less experienced palates. What if they'd had nothing but offal dishes and game meats? For a lot of people, anything but chicken, pork, beef and potatos is 'exotic.' I had an aunt once resist going to Estia, because even though they had steak and potatos, it was 'potato tiganites'---gods know what heathen insanity that could be (rolling eyes).

            8 Replies
            1. re: feklar42

              everything i read about matyson never indicated that it was actually for "foodies", just that it was a byob that many many many people enjoyed. the menu is also online and shows your standard proteins with every so slightly interesting sides but nothing offending or that couldn't just be pushed to the side.

              i'll draw the comparison again between the other resto that is often used for nicer evenings out with this crowd, white dog cafe. both menus generally cover all the main proteins so as not to offend and at times offer slightly interesting twists. they seem to like asian fusion twists but neither accomplishes them well at all. it was a fair match for match and i haven't heard any complaints about the white dog cafe from them so i was pretty sure they wouldn't have issues here... and they didn't! but i did.

              i really just wanted to go to find out what all the hype was... the menu doesn't actually read well but maybe they were pulling it off somehow. and to be honest, if i knew someone who was meat and potatoes enough then i wouldn't actually take them to a place like estia myself (if i've read enough about it to understand)... greek is still very ethnic to some people. "less experienced palates" doesn't mean meat and potatoes.

              1. re: pinstripeprincess

                I can't wait for part 4 of your post. I hope you are still going to le bec fin

                1. re: rocknroll52

                  pt 4 will have to be tomorrow.... i tried writing it today but got distracted by work and other posts i was tending to.

                  let's just say i did and didn't go to le bec fin and i will likely never go again, even if i lived in phl.

                2. re: pinstripeprincess

                  Interesting, for me, Matyson was always one of those places closely linked to foodie recs. I'm not a restaurant historian, but in my mind it is one of the foodie byobs that helped kickstart the current trend. But you are correct that I misunderstood your use of 'less experienced palates' and that I wouldn't really consider WD a foodie place. I'm actually not a fan of WD either--it's kind of boring and workmanlike to me, but at the same time, I would feel it a safer choice for most of the picky eaters I know.

                  1. re: pinstripeprincess

                    FWIW I love Matyson but have never had a good meal at White Dog. Back when I was at Penn it was the place you went with clients/courted students "just because". I always ended up with mediocre food and lousy service for the experience. Yet I've always loved Matyson, and somewhat bristle personally at the "foodie" tag. I usually go there with my SO, one of us orders the tasting menu, one of us orders off the regular menu, and I've never had anything short of a great meal shared between us.

                    1. re: sockii

                      Hmm, is 'foodie' becoming a negative? I didn't think so, but I'm often behind the times. To me it means a place that does daring/interesting/unique things with food. My 2 experiences at Matyson were mixed, but I liked somethings enough to try there again.

                      I've found that places with really distinctive styles either click with a person or not. For example, even though Lolita and Bindi have completely different menus, there is something about the food and the style and balance of spices that is similar to me. I was ok with both on my first attempt, but didn't love them. However I know someone who adores Lolita, when we went to Bindi, I thought it was interesting that the dishes I was most indifferent to--the ones that were more in the spicing style of both places--were the ones he liked best.

                      Personally, after having some bad experiences bringing others to places I didn't think were that 'daring', I appreciate foodie as a code word to warn meat and potato eaters away--yes, I really do think this is a positive. I unfortunately know too many people who would make themselves miserable and me embarrassed rather than try something new. My one aunt would order something and stare at it miserably just to make the rest of us feel too guilty to eat, while my Mom's BF would (loudly) "joke" with the waiter about how there was nothing "normal" [which I think means hamburger, eggs, and bologna] on the menu....god, please give me foodie tags, I never want to go through either experience again.

                      1. re: feklar42

                        > Hmm, is 'foodie' becoming a negative? I didn't think so,
                        > but I'm often behind the times.

                        I guess it depends. To me, it's a bit like "Trekkie" - a word for someone who is not just a fan (of good food, or Star Trek, etc) but someone who takes it to unreasonable/snobbish extremes. I rather liked Dilbert's take on "Foodies" here:



                        I dunno, I just have had mixed experiences with the whole foodie tag & culture. I enjoy food tremendously but my palette is not such that I pick up on so many of the subtle nuances that so many folks can go on and on about (I may have burned out my most delicate taste buds working in a chemical lab in college; I'm not sure). I know what I enjoy, what I don't; I can tell when something is a poor combination or excessively salty but not supremely fussy details as some seem to pick out. At the same time, I don't have the budget to eat out at $50-100/head restaurants anywhere near regularly. I get my groceries at Walmart when I can because it's so much cheaper than Whole Foods and DiBruno Bros shopping. I'm not thrilled with most chain restaurant cuisine but I won't act like it's an abomination if I "have" to eat at one, and in fact I kind of like certain "junky" chain foods, diner grub, and other stuff I see a lot of "foodies" turning their nose up at. I grew up in a very rural area and know how, for some people, it's hard to wrap their heads around eating anything that is outside of the norms they are used to. I may be "lucky" that my mom took me to Japanese restaurants when I was 5-6 years old so I could learn to love sushi and other things that gross people out because they've never been exposed to it (especially not an an early age), but I don't consider myself superior for that.

                      2. re: sockii

                        for some reason i thought i had responded to this.... white dog is certainly the university "upscale/reliable" restaurant on campus and most of the time it has been mediocre but i have actually had some good dishes there and reasonable service. it's not always been that way but i can see it as reliable in the sense that i know exactly what to expect and considering i'm on expense when i go there i have less to complain about since the price tag is less relevant.

                        i'm not a fan of the term foodie, i will use it as a quick way to express my interest in food but nothing else. i feel it more represents trendiness in food culture rather than an actual knowledgeable interest in it. i would rather call a restaurant or menu creative or adventurous than use "foodie" and that is more in response to feklar42.

                  2. I'm surprised by the negative comments about Matyson--we've eaten there a number of times and have always had superlative meals. (BTW, my husband and I are self-proclaimed "foodies" and belong to La Chaine de Rotisseurs.) Thinking back, we have never ordered from the regular menu--always get the tasting menu, and usually decide to go to Matyson based on same. Maybe the kitchen pays more attention to the dishes for the tasting--they've always been creative and flavorful, and for $45 it's a great deal.

                    1. Well I am grateful for your exhaustive account of your meals in our fair city, but I wish I had been around to add my 2 cents during the planning process, as I'd certainly have tried to steer you away from Matyson, where my lone meal was uniformly forgettable, and toward somewhere like Bibou or Meme; and away from Don Memo, which I haven't heard many nice things about, and toward Taqueria La Veracruzana, Taquitos De Pueble, or the other taco truck Taco Loco. Better luck next time!

                      I would like to second your take on the meaning of 'foodie'. I use the term to convey the extent to which I am immersed and interested in food, but not anything to do with the refinement of my palette.

                      10 Replies
                      1. re: nwinkler

                        now see... where were these "negative" (if even just slightly so) reviews when i was searching? matyson has repeatedly come up on this board as one of THE byobs in the city. i was expecting at least competent but i didn't even feel i got that.

                        it looks like i will be back in philadelphia soon but only for a couple of nights... bibou is definitely on the list. tacos weren't really a major draw for me but seeing as how my lunches revolve around what's available on campus and short time frames i figured they would fit in nicely for such restrictive situations. i'm also pretty sure that some of your worst tacos would put to shame the best tacos in my home city.

                        it looks like i might have time for a more leisurely lunch on a wednesday though... any recommendations?

                        i realize i still have to get pt 4 up... most of it is written but i've been a bit distracted.

                        1. re: pinstripeprincess

                          I haven't seen your previous posts, so I don't know what restaurants you've tried in the University area before but here are a couple of recommendations that aren't very "foodie" :-) but make for some nice non-standard meals:

                          You might have enough time to squeeze in a quick ride further west for Ethiopian (Dahlak, or Abyssinia, which is closer -- I think at 41st (?)). Ethiopian restaurants seem to change slightly with every city I've been in -- bland in NYC, super spicy in DC, nicely in between (but a little spicier than Philadelphia) in Boston.

                          There is also a Korean restaurant called Han Wool near the University at 36th and Chestnut. I like Pastoral in Center City better, but a Korean acquaintance prefers Han Wool -- she hasn't had a chance to try Miga which I like better than both.

                          Almost forgot, Marigold and RX are also a little further west of the University. I have heard good things about Marigold, but haven't had the chance to try it. RX I have only been to for brunch but a number of people seem to like it for lunch and dinner.

                          1. re: feklar42

                            i think the only place on your list of suggestions that i've been to is han wool and it was just ok.... nothing that i would consider any better than i can get in my home town.

                            the thing is i really do not have time nor the coworkers who would go to a sit down restaurant like marigold (that has been on my radar forever) and when i have the opportunity to leave university city, you won't be able to stop me. so i suspect that wednesday i will have perhaps 3 hours to myself and will be making the trek... anywhere for a truly delicious lunch.

                            also, do you have any more detailed comparisons for the ethiopian food. i enjoy it in my home city but was told by a friend that he had a much more amazing experience in msp..... so curious what exactly does get better about? i certainly feel what i have is adequate and then some but i could see it getting better.

                            1. re: pinstripeprincess

                              Did you ever make it to Paesano's? You could the El (Blue Line) up there easily. Also lots of high end places in Center City have great lunch deals.

                              1. re: barryg

                                my paesano night: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/640055

                                i was thinking more the high end places with lunch deals as suggestions. i guess i should do a bit of research! i'm in a bit of a tiff with le bec fin right now though so if they resolve it properly i might head there otherwise it is pretty much the only place off my list.

                                1. re: pinstripeprincess

                                  This might give you some ideas (in the over $20 but still a deal section):

                              2. re: pinstripeprincess

                                Regarding Han Wool: yes, as noted, it is a place where, if you only have an hour, you can get a decent non-standard meal. I'm not a fan of hamburgers, burritos, pizza, avocado-sprout sandwiches..., So I like it a lot better than White Dog (kind of bland and uninteresting to me) and most of the other options in the immediate vicinity of the University. Fortunately, I work in Center City and rarely have to worry about where to get a good meal.

                                Regarding Ethiopian: not being much of a foodie, I can't really deconstruct it the way you do, but... I don't think having a food as spicy as possible is the end-all, be-all, but for me Ethiopian is a cuisine that gets better the spicier it is. In the US, my experience has been that the further north you go, the less spicy food is in general and Ethiopian in particular -- with the exception of one restaurant in Cambridge, M.A.

                                The Ethiopian I had when I lived in New York tended to be so minimally spiced as to be almost bland. In Philadelphia, it seems to vary from cook to cook (or possibly, some cooks lower the spice for non-ethnic guests). In Washington, DC, the Ethiopian was at its most consistently spiciest. Maybe because it's further south? Also, I suspect DC Ethiopian is probably the spiciest because there is a disproportionately large population of immigrants (Ethiopian and otherwise) with a bigger appetite for highly spiced foods. The general flavor and cooking style seems consistent in my experiences across the three cities; the main difference seems to be the level of spice. The Ethiopian I've had in the Cambridge/Boston restaurant wasn't as spicy as in DC (sometimes not as spicy as Philadelphia), but the cook there seems to consistently provide a unique and tongue-tingling blend of spices that I really like. I try to go every time I am in/around Boston.

                                1. re: feklar42

                                  thanks for the insights..... we have pockets of african neighbourhoods in my home city and ethiopian specifically varies quite a bit but still doesn't hit what i think can be it's ultimate awesomeness. my favourite one is the "spiciest" of the bunch (with the understanding spicy really referring to flavour rather than heat) but the texture of the injera is fairly uniform and from my understanding the traditional ingredients used for it not commonly available. i'll admit that my experience is very limited with african cuisines and i can hardly pick out individual flavours and just know that i love the cabbage/potato curry, collard greens and kitfo!

                                  i'll keep that thought bookmarked for another time. i might take advantage of all the happy hour type specials in the recession list that barryg posted. i suspect i might be in phl again in the fall and might have finally gotten the high end dining bug out of my system.


                            2. re: pinstripeprincess

                              For lunch near Penn: Have you been to Distrito? They have a $15 2 courses + drink lunch deal, and the food is excellent. Recommended dishes: tortilla soup, ceviches, fish tacos, mushroom huarache.

                              1. re: nwinkler

                                it's in my pt4 that i haven't posted yet, but i did manage to make it to distrito during their dining days. while it was tasty and interesting i don't know if i'd quite repeat it again. but mostly just because i really can't do a sit down lunch most of the time and will likely have a unique opportunity only on the wednesday and probably will have enough time to haul myself downtown.