Alex Ureña Transforms Devil's Den
BY BRIAN FREEDMAN
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JASON VARNEY
Devil’s Den’s beer-braised mussels
NOW THAT ALEX UREÑA is helming the kitchen at Devil’s Den, Philadelphia is officially stepping up to the comfort-food big leagues.
Not that we lack our share of gastropub standouts. Pub & Kitchen and Royal Tavern are local favorites, and a cursory survey of restaurants at all levels of price and formality shows menus studded with the kind of hearty classics that are the hallmark of home-style eateries. But Ureña’s move to Devil’s Den—and his background in fine dining, replete with a James Beard nomination and working relationships with some of the best chefs in the country—marks a turning point of sorts in this city’s casual-dining scene.
The chef, who made his name in New York City in such legendary kitchens as Marseille, Blue Hill and Pamplona, originally headed down the New Jersey Turnpike to work as chef de cuisine at Daniel Stern’s new R2L. He left before it opened, however, and found himself in charge of a very different sort of menu at Devil’s Den. In Ureña’s words, he’s taking the career shift in stride.
“For me, it was not a difficult adjustment,” he says. “While my transition from fine dining to gastropub cuisine was a change, I think that a sign of a good chef is one who is able to utilize his culinary expertise and experience to make whatever [he is] working on a success.”
That expertise and experience, though they may at first seem like overqualifications for a spot like Devil’s Den, have actually allowed him to take what was already a very good menu and maximize its potential, all without losing what made it work in the first place.
“My main goal is to keep my dishes simple and clean,” Ureña says. “I definitely plan to infuse the menu with my culinary flavor, but it’s very important for me to get to know my clientele before altering the menu.
“Subtle,” he adds, “is better than a complete changeover.” In keeping with that mission, Ureña has pared down the menu’s individual dishes to showcase just the essentials. “My main goal is to let the food shine through. I prefer to use no more than three ingredients for a dish. It’s all about keeping things simple and delicious.”
Which is where items like cider-brined chicken fingers come in, or even the more exotic olive oil-braised shrimp with risotto and chorizo sauce. These are, despite the slightly more sophisticated techniques applied to them, as homey and classic as great pub food gets.
The dishes are also exceptionally beer friendly, which is one of the keys to Ureña’s success at a gastropub. The new cuisine, says general manager Mick Hally, gives Devil’s Den the opportunity to expand its beer list. It also will allow the kitchen and bar staff to “really incorporate the food and the beer more closely together, to pair things up more often and have entrées specifically designed to be eaten with certain beers.”
While Devil’s Den may not be the reason that Ureña came to Philly in the fi rst place, his presence there is already having an impact on the local dining and drinking world. Which is pretty much all that a great chef—and his customers—can ask for in the end. 1148 S. 11th St., 215-339-0855; devilsdenphilly.com