Team Behind Philly Hit Suraya Opens Mexico City-Inspired Restaurant with Street Taco Cred
Defined Hospitality restaurant group runs some of Philadelphia’s most beloved restaurants, including all-day Lebanese cafe Suraya and Pizzeria Beddia—what might be the nation’s buzziest pizza spot with its own hoagie omakase. Up until now, all have been located in the city’s Fishtown neighborhood, but that changes today. Inside the new Pod Philly hotel in Center City, Condesa is a restaurant inspired by the cuisine of Mexico City.
Led by Nick Kennedy, Al Lucas, and Greg Root, the restaurant group was first approached for the project by Modus Hotels, which also operates hotels in several other cities, over two years ago. In addition to Condesa—named after a neighborhood in Mexico City—Pod Philly is home to two other Defined Hospitality-created concepts: El Café, serving breakfast tacos, pastries, and drinks like agua frescas, atole de chocolate, and coffee, and El Techo, a rooftop taqueria.
The partnership enabled the restaurant group to expand to a new neighborhood, and offer more opportunities to their growing team. That team includes Condesa’s co-chefs de cuisine Jerome Skaggs and Alberto Sandoval, who originally hails from Mexico City but has called Philly home for years, working at Suraya and Volvér. James Beard Award-semifinalist James Matty heads Condesa’s pastry program, and Aaron Deary, a partner in the group’s R&D cocktail bar who also created the beverage menu at Suraya, runs the bar program.
Kennedy, who has also worked at Jean Georges, Del Posto, and the Inn at Little Washington, says, “I’m coming from the outside into the cuisine, so I want to be respectful, and honor what it is,” noting that the team has done a deep dive into education on the region—via research, training, and tapping experts—so they can be thoughtful about details.
The menu features a selection of small plates like surf clam ensenada and shrimp tostada, larger platters of chicken or goat with fresh tortillas and salsas on the side to build-your-own, and tacos come in carnitas, fish, lamb, and vegetarian varieties, plus suadero. Sandoval’s father had a taco stand in Mexico City that served suadero, a dish made with a thin cut of meat (akin to flank steak) and served on fresh tortillas. “My dad has been doing this since I was a kid,” says the chef.
Masa is the cornerstone of the menu, and makes an appearance in nearly every dish; the team is working with a company in Mexico that sources heirloom corn varieties from small farmers.
“They’re trying to sustainably grow and increase production of these rare varieties, because everything is getting pushed out by GMO corn,” says Kennedy. After adding in natural mineral calcium chloride and water, and letting it soak overnight (which releases nutrients and vitamins), they put the corn through a volcanic stone griner. The two cylindrical gray stones were custom made by a manufacturer in San Diego. The resulting masa is flattened with a 20-pound manual press that Kennedy brought back in his suitcase from Oaxaca, then thrown on the griddle until it’s hot and bubbled.
The moles and salsas are also made from scratch, including the salsa verde, fiery chile del arbol, and smoky tatemada, created with charred chiles and tomatoes. When Kennedy wasn’t able to find some of the ingredients he wanted to use—like hoja santa (Mexican pepperleaf) and papalo (a cilantro-like herb), he turned to his mom, a certified master gardener. “She found the seeds through [heirloom seed exchange] Seed Savers, she went through her whole network of people, and she started testing them out in the springtime.”
Condesa’s bar program will focus on agave-based spirits like tequila and mezcal, plus margaritas and other cocktails that complement the menu. Meanwhile, the breakfast menu at El Café showcases Matty’s sweets, with Mexican pastries like vanilla concha (which can be served with a side of freshly-milled dipping chocolate by local company Éclat), filled conchas with apple almond tamarind or guava coconut cheese, and a flaky ojo de pancha with a center of banana and cream cheese. Breakfast tacos filled with eggs, chorizo, beans, and more are also on offer.
Designed by Philadelphia firm Stokes Architecture, along with Defined Hospitality Creative Director, Katherine Lundberg, all three spaces have a modern, minimalist feel juxtaposed with some bright, modern pops of color from textiles and artwork, and rustic touches like woven straw light fixtures.
Condesa opens on Tuesday for dinner service, with lunch coming later this month. El Café is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and rooftop taqueria El Techo will open mid-October, serving tacos and cocktails under a dramatic clear, retractable roof that showcases the surrounding city year-round.