Main Split Image: Left - Chef Alex Tellez of Sor Ynez (photo by Neal Santos), Right - Chef Randy Rucker of River Twice (photo by Mike Prince)
The Value of Reliability
Turn round from your counter seat, where you face a compact, subway-tiled kitchen lined with shelves stacked with precisely labeled and painstakingly prepared spice blends, powders made from dehydrated vegetables, and sauces concocted of fermented things, the building blocks of the meal you’re lingering over. It’s a kitchen with a clear sense of order: storage and assembly on the right and to the left, a single 8-burner range, where everything, both cooked to order and long-simmering, happens. Looking out from the petite space of River Twice, through its broad windows, you’ll gaze at a square where everyone in South Philadelphia, young, old, with their dogs and cups of coffee, gathers and where everything in the neighborhood happens.
Turn back to your meal. Tonight, it consists of a succession of quirky nori-wrapped, spruce-tip-vinegared hand rolls encasing an unabashedly generous plop of Maine uni, oysters piled with trout roe, a soft-shell crab painted with koji butter and speckled with golden ossetra caviar – shamelessly interrupted by a sloppy, wondrous, Mother Rucker burger, its double-patties oozing everything mayo and American cheese from a sesame seed bun. River Twice, with Chef Randy Rucker at its helm, is a symphony that’s part classical, part rock ‘n roll, shot through with a dash of swagger.
River Twice borrows its name from Heraclitus of Ephesus, the philosopher who was utterly focused on flux or constant change. “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” rang true to the Texas-raised, James Beard-nominated Rucker who opened River Twice with his wife, Amanda Rucker, in a space off East Passyunk Avenue that feels simultaneously open and intimate.
There are the neatly ordered shelves, some counter space and just one source of heat, that Vulcan Range. “Everything we make comes off the Vulcan stove, from stocks to sauces. We cook rice on the stove, the Blue Moon Acres rice from New Jersey that goes into your hand roll. It’s where we sear the meat, cook all the fish, make the butter sauce. We melt the chocolate for dessert on it, infusing it with cream, milk, sugar. This stove is the true hearth of the kitchen and it’s a workhorse,” Rucker says, with a bit of wonder in his voice. “It’s also so easy to clean, and we’ve never had any problems with it.” In an industry where things are constantly shifting, River Twice is able to rely on its stalwart stove.
“River Twice as a restaurant and as a whole is a big, long experiment. We opened six months before the pandemic changed the world. And the menu does change often, when it needs to. Something is different every day,” Rucker ruminates.
The menu is always changing. Rucker, as a chef, is always changing. But it’s still the same menu and he’s the same chef. “Cooking is a constant evolution,” Rucker adds and for him, it’s always happening on the same stove.
The Value of Versatility
On the other side of Philadelphia, in Fishtown, Mexico City native Alex Tellez, the French-trained Executive Chef of Sor Ynez is celebrating vibrant flavors from all over Mexico in his kitchen. After attending culinary school, working as a sous chef at various historical inns in Bucks County, then heading the kitchen at Loco Pez, there is a sense that through Sor Ynez, Tellez has finally come into his own.
The menu of Sor Ynez is at once a faithfully reimagined and reconfigured representation of Mexico’s diverse cuisines. It is transformative – both of Mexican flavors and one’s own perspective. Sitting down in its dining room, beneath a ceiling slung with handwoven hammocks, one is no longer in Philadelphia.
Everything at Sor Ynez is made in house, by hand. The kitchen of Sor Ynez looks nothing like a traditional Mexican kitchen. It is sleek and outfitted entirely in Vulcan equipment: a double convection oven, charbroiler, a 4-burner range, a 6-burner range with convection oven, salamander, and a griddle. This kitchen is a far cry from that of the taco stands in Mexico City that Tellez’s uncles own and operate.
There’s something fitting about how Tellez is manipulating traditional Mexican flavors, as he is doing so in truly unexpected and revelatory ways on Vulcan equipment. Tellez roasts chicken in the convection ovens. He evenly steams flans, braises carnitas and birria, bakes loaves of bolillos and conchas in them, too. He finishes grilled fish with the charbroiler and lays fresh, paper thin, house-made tortillas that ooze cheese which crisp brown around the edges upon the griddle, which mimics the effect of a traditional comal. This griddle sees many types of tortillas, each made fresh daily. Tellez rattles some of them off, “Little hibiscus tortillas, about three to four inches wide for happy hour, guajillo tortillas for the birria, a cactus tortilla that’s ten inches wide for the quesadilla – they all get cooked on the griddle.”
Let’s pause and go back to that chicken. Perfectly roasted, it rests in deep red chipotle mole and a bright green puree, joining two sides of a divided plate. This halved – divorciado – trope is common in bicolored dishes around Mexico with divorced red and green salsas, avocado and tomato gazpachos. Divorced, yet coexisting harmoniously upon a plate. It’s up to the diner to combine the two elements together through the act of eating.
But divorced chipotle mole and pea puree? Then garnished with a fistful of pomegranate seeds? That’s all Telez, who isn’t translating or recreating Mexican food from one particular region, he’s taking words from here and there and stringing them together, crafting his own language. “I love chipotle, it’s the most used pepper where my grandmother is from. I love the history of it, how it starts as a jalapeno and after being smoke-dried, it becomes a chipotle. With those peas, I use them to represent springtime and remind you that we eat vegetables! Not just lettuce! When I cook at Sor Ynez, I’m cooking for the families that don’t know where to go out to eat because some of them have restrictions, whether Celiac’s disease which my mother has, or other allergies. I cook for those people, to bring them together in a happy place. I cook as healthfully as possible. We try to be very diverse, not just making classic Mexican food, but incorporating many vegetables like you would in my grandparents’ hometowns, where you grow vegetables and that’s what you have to cook with.”
Tellez’s kitchen is running on a lean crew, as almost every restaurant is, these days. His reliance on his equipment is thus of the utmost importance. He often works the line, floating between expo or grill, grilling the fish before finishing it on the salamander, grilling the bread on the griddle for service – the bread that was baked in the convection ovens.
As diverse and healthful as Sor Ynez’s menu is, there’s room for indulgence. Tellez’s Flan Napolitano contains a generous helping of cream cheese mingled with evaporated milk and condensed milk, creating a dense flan that deserves to be obsessed over. He steams it in the convection oven for forty minutes at precisely 320 degrees, with a low fan. After it cools, it’s decorated with fresh berries and a rich goat’s milk cajeta.
River Twice and Sor Ynez speak to the diversity of Vulcan’s customers, their cuisines and how one can have an entire fine dining kitchen dependent upon and orbiting around a single Vulcan stove and how one can harness, recreate and reconfigure the vastness of Mexican cuisines in new, personal, and truly innovative ways.