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Review: My disappointing night at El Vez in Fort Lauderdale ended with a trip to Taco Bell | Video

 

★½

My evening at El Vez in Fort Lauderdale began promisingly enough, with a terrace table overlooking the Atlantic, a pitcher of margaritas for my tablemates and a bowl of good (albeit small and, at $14, a bit pricey) guacamole. There was salt in the air from the ocean breeze and salt on the rims of the margarita glasses. We were happy. The server was cheerful and smiled.

Tortilla chips abounded, with baskets brought for a complimentary starter of chips and salsa (smoky and good) and the guacamole (creamy and vibrant with lime and serrano peppers). Seafood verde ceviche ($15) was likewise vibrant and good, although clumsily large cilantro leaves that should have been chopped finer marred the dish of shrimp, crab and fluke. A cool and smoky gazpacho ($5.50) was perfect for a humid summer night, with roasted tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers that were more subtle than spicy (piquillo and supposedly habanero),

Then, things took a wrong turn. I ordered a red sangria because I can’t drink tequila — an incident from my youth — and it came out in a tall soda glass, not the usual wine goblet, with barely any fruit and an unpalatable fizz. It tasted like a bad red-wine spritzer. I took two sips and let it sit the rest of the meal. Nobody followed up to see if there was a problem.

It was an omen for the main course, a procession of disappointing and disastrous dishes that was matched only by the growing indifference of the service. The chicken enchiladas ($15) were a mediocre mess, with mealy masa surrounding flavorless, shredded chicken and glops of cheese and sauce. Steak El Vez ($24), a sliced cut of flat iron steak, was overwhelmed by its spicy chili rub and overcooked way beyond the ordered medium rare to almost well done (thank goodness for a side serving of good corn relish). A side dish of cheesy skillet potatoes ($8) was good but seemed as if it had wandered over from Steak 954 next door, a French-tasting dish seasoned with herbs such as rosemary and thyme.

And the shrimp taco platter ($15) perhaps should have qualified as a Superfund site: a heap of coated fried things surrounded by fried, hard taco shells that left us all shaking our heads in wonderment and disgust. Cut-up chunks of what the menu described as “honey chile marinated shrimp” tasted old and of iodine, coagulated with “orange, habanero, radish and charred salsa.” It was the worst restaurant dish I have tasted this year.

Instead of sensing that something was amiss, our server asked if we wanted to box our uneaten food to take home. We declined.

I looked around at the colorful, festive dining room and the crowd of tourists and locals at the W Fort Lauderdale who all seemed to be enjoying their meals and wondered if perhaps it was us. People sure do love Mexican food. But I didn’t like this.

I suppose I’ll just have to consider myself Starr-crossed. El Vez is from the acclaimed Stephen Starr, who has won a James Beard Award as best restaurateur (in the country!) for his culinary empire that stretches from New York to Miami Beach. I have not had good luck with Starr’s latest South Florida ventures, with a similarly jarring ride at the widely liked Upland in Miami Beach.

It is a riddle, because I have always liked Steak 954, the solid and stylish (albeit expensive) steakhouse at the W that was Starr’s first foray into Fort Lauderdale. One can see Steak 954 from the terrace of El Vez, but they seem worlds apart.

While Steak 954 seems designed for people who appreciate the finer things in life (and can afford them), El Vez, which opened in May, seems a cynical exercise in exploiting Americans’ (and international tourists’) affinity for overpriced Mexican mediocrity. Fort Lauderdale is the longtime home to Carlos & Pepe’s and more recenlty home to the off-kilter Lona from Mexican chef Pablo Salas (at the Westin Fort Lauderdale across the street from El Vez). Market research likely suggests a need and desire for more upscale Mexican options in Fort Lauderdale. Instead, with El Vez, we have gotten more of the same.

The original El Vez in Philadelphia, Starr’s home base, and an El Vez offshoot in New York have done well. The Fort Lauderdale outpost seems just as successful, with sizable crowds lapping up tacos, nachos and margaritas day and night (when dim, amber lighting mandated by local authorities to protect turtle hatchlings gives the food a weird hue).

I’m still scratching my head how a restaurateur such as Starr could have such divergent results under one roof. Desserts at El Vez are a perfect example. They are overseen by Sarah Magoon, the excellent longtime pastry chef at Steak 954. Her talent could be seen in the housemade churros ($8) at El Vez, satisfying fried dough sticks accompanied by dishes of spicy Mexican chocolate and goat’s milk caramel for dunking. But the flan was simply bad, flavorless with texture that was too firm.

El Vez is named for a Mexican Elvis Presley imitator, and when we left the building everyone in my dining posse felt unsatisfied and slightly offended, as if we had just paid $200 to see the sad, bloated and declining Elvis in Las Vegas.

I did the only thing that seemed logical and drove to my local Taco Bell. The $5.03 sack contained a ground beef taco and a grilled chicken Quesarito (a flour tortilla that is a fast-food hybrid of quesadilla and burrito). To its credit, the grilled strips of chicken in the Quesarito were juicy and discernible as chicken. I wouldn’t wish Taco Bell’s ground beef on my worst enemy, but the taco was edible. I don’t know if I could say Taco Bell was better than El Vez, but it certainly provided the better value. We hung our heads in shame and drove off.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

El Vez

401 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale (at W Fort Lauderdale hotel)

954-414-8336 or ElVezFtLauderdale.com

Cuisine: Mexican and Mexican-American

Cost: Moderate to expensive. Soups, chips with salsa, salads and appetizers cost $5.50 to $15.50. Tacos and enchiladas $12-$42 (tacos al carbon platters for two). Entrees $18-$29. Sides $5-$8. Desserts $8.

Hours: Open daily for breakfast (7-11:30 a.m.), lunch (11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.) and dinner (4-11 p.m., until midnight Friday-Saturday)

Reservations: Accepted, by phone and online

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full liquor with pitchers of cocktails including margaritas and sangria

Noise level: Conversational outside with background music

Wheelchair access: Access from hotel entrance and lobby, terrace elevated from sidewalk level with stairs and ramp

Parking: Metered street or discounted valet with validation

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