Mexican

Must Haves: A Well Dressed Burrito

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Must Haves focuses on some of D.C's best dishes.

It's a burrito joint, so the penguin is confusing. The location -- down an alley by Rumors -- isn't great, either.

Fortunately none of that matters because the burrito that you came for is what you came for. The Well Dressed Burrito's marinated burrito is one of the best you'll find in the District.

You either know this or you should.

It's not hard to find a burrito in D.C. There are the fast food options, like Chipotle, Taco Bell and Qdoba, but they're not that good. Despite the lines that wind their way through Chipotle, the weighty burritos are bloated bundles of rice. Taco Bell always seems like a great idea on road trips (when choices are few), but when you have options the allure of the Burrito Supreme fades fast. And Qdoba and the rest of the fast food options are cranking out crap for the hurried masses.

So you hop the Metro to Dupont and wander down an alley for what you know will be right. Between 11:30 and 1 p.m., the cramped space is as crowded as an Orange Line train. There are specials, like salmon quesadias and Mexican bread pudding, but you're there for the real specialty. You're there for a marinated burrito.

DSCN5443 Beef or chicken (there's a vegetarian option, but who cares) marinated in a "seasoned Mexican sauce," swaddled in a four tortilla and surrounded by black or refried beans, lettuce, Mexican rice, shredded cheese, sour cream and tomatoes. You ask for the hot salsa, thick with bits of peppers and spices.

You could get a fajita-style grilled burrito instead. For a moment you're tempted. You think that it'll be like a marinated burrito, but better because it's grilled. Then you remember the last time you ordered one and realized the meat isn't marinated, so the magic was missing.

No, you stick with the marinated burrito. Order beef or chicken, it doesn't matter because both a fantastic. You ask for it with black beans, because you know if you say nothing it will come with refried beans. Glancing at the beverage cooler, you wish there was a cold bottle of Hatuey waiting for you, but you settle for a Snapple.

Three minutes later, someone behind the cramped counter that keeps the crowd at bay calls your number. It's time to make a choice: do you shoulder your way back through the interns and office workers for one of the few seats among the filing cabinets, or do you tuck that fat baby under your arm and head to the circle for lunch on the lawn?

Doesn't matter, because it's the burrito that matters now. It's big, but unlike the popular Chipotle burrito, this well-dressed one has flavor. The mingling of marinated meat, beans and cheese may not be the most authentic burrito (you can head up to Columbia Heights for that), but it's the best thing you've eaten all week. It takes three bites to go left to right, but the deep, savory flavors and pinch of heat from the salsa help you make short work of the hefty lunch.

Sure you should've had a salad instead. You're pretty sure the dapper penguin's salads are good, but you've never had one. Come to think of it, you've never had anything else one the Well Dressed menu.

Why would you have? You're there for the marinated burrito.


El Chilango: Autenticos Tacos Mexicanos en Arlington

TacoTruck2 Over the past couple years, food trucks have hit DC in a big way -- a veritable convoy of the suckers have descended, bringing with them a bit of west coast charm hitherto unseen. Cuisines and attitude vary, from the over-the-top antics of the curry slinging Fojol Brothers, to the constantly Twittering bakers @CurbsideCupcakes. Several rock the social media like nobody's business, whereas others fly well below the radar.

El Chilango is definitely one of the quieter, less exposed trucks on the block. I had never seen nor heard of it until one cold December afternoon, when my girlfriend came home bearing tacos (that's why I love her!). She said she'd gotten them from a truck on Barton Street, and that the nice man cooking them even invited her into the truck, as it was rather blustery outside. Since then we have gone back several times, and have sampled practically everything they offer -- which is tacos. Just tacos. But, oh, what tacos!

TacoTruck3 Jesús, the truck's lively proprietor, serves up six different kinds of tacos: Lengua (beef tongue), Chorizo, Asada (grilled steak), Pollo (chicken), Al Pastor (marinated pork), and Res (beef), each available for $2.00 apiece. All come dressed in the traditional Mexican style, topped with plenty of cilantro and onion, double wrapped in crisp re-fried tortillas. Cucumber, radishes, and salsas verde and rojo are thrown in the deal on the house -- it really turns out to be quite a bit of food for the modest price tag.

Though the Pollo is a little dull (as might be expected), and the Asada only so-so, the rest of Jesús' offerings are out of this world. The Lengua is only slightly beefy, but has a wonderful, almost fluffy texture -- this taco would be a great intro for someone who 'doesn't like tongue,' so buy it for a friend, and don't tell him what it is. The Chorizo has a good amount of spice, but isn't offensively salty, which can TacoPlate often be the case with cheap Mexican sausage. Though I am not 100% sure what the difference is between the Asada and the Res, I can say that the latter has an outstanding texture, both crunchy and fatty at the same time, and a great blackened flavor.

The Al Pastor, though, is my hands-down favorite. This traditional Mexico City dish is made from adobo and chili marinated pork, which is cooked rotisserie-style with pineapple. I think he might cheat on the rotisserie part, but the pork itself has just the right level of fat content, and the smokey adobo and pineapple fruit come through nicely. With a bit of green chili sauce splashed on the top, the sweet, spicy, and smokey flavors meld into something truly beautiful.

When you visit, don't miss Chilango's homemade horchata. A combination of honey, rice milk, and spices, horchata has the consistency of skim milk, but is obviously much sweeter, and bears a faint flavor of cinnamon. I had ordered a Jarritos, but they were out, so when I was handed a cup of this opaque white TacoTruck1 stuff instead, I was very skeptical, but damned if it didn't make a perfect accompaniment to my tacos! Though I was disappointed to miss out on my favorite pineapple-flavored soda, the horchata's mellow sweetness made a soothing counterpoint to my spicy entree.

What El Chilango lacks in variety, it more than makes up for in quality. Even at some of your more expensive Mexican joints, the tortillas can be soaked and flabby, and the meat bland and over salted. I love the double tortilla at El Chilango, which is always crisp and firm, and the fillings are well above the curve. These are some of the best tacos I've had in the area, and when you throw in the fixins', it ain't much more expensive than Taco Bell.

El Chilango is normally parked on N. 14th St, between Quinn and Queen St, right off of Route 50, between the hours of 1:30 and 10:30. In the springtime, Jesús will likely shift the operation to Barton Street, between Fairfax Drive and N. 11th St.


Cinco de Mayo in the District: Putting the Si! in DC

CoronaPop Quiz: What does Cinco de Mayo actually celebrate?

1)  Mexico's independence from Spain in 1810
2)  Corona's independence from the Gambrinus import company in 2007
3)  Nothing.  It's a play on the use of "fifth" to refer to a handle of alcohol, in this case tequila.
4)  Mexico's victory over French forces at Puebla in 1862

The answer, it turns out, is 4.  But the reality is that Cinco de Mayo celebrations in America most often resemble a sort of Mexican Saint Patrick's Day - a chance to consume alcoholic beverages in the name of cultural heritage.

Here in Washington, there is no shortage of Tex-Mex and Mexican restaurants where you can celebrate Cinco de Mayo next Monday.  Since we're enjoying the glorious mid-spring weather that brings mild temperatures and low humidity but lasts all of three weeks here in the District, I thought I would share some of my favorite places to enjoy margaritas and cervezas that will allow you to celebrate Mexico's military prowess in a variety of styles.

And, as a dedicated cheese lover, I can assure you that each of these places offers a variation on traditional Mexican queso-focused dishes - from the ubiquitous chile con queso cheese dip (most often made from good old American cheese) to more ambitious offerings like queso fundido con tequila at Oyamel and chiles rellenos at Cactus Cantina.  The best of these feature authentic queso blanco and other Mexican cheeses that are otherwise overlooked.

La Loma
316 Massachusetts Avenue, NE
Washington, DC  20002
(202) 548-2550
Img_4652Recommended for: Happy hour groups, especially young professionals on the Hill
This Massachusetts Avenue establishment serves up margaritas and sangria to a mostly Hill staffer crowd who appreciate the strength of the beverages and the outdoor patio seating as the weather gets warmer.  Although I'm no expert in Tex-Mex cuisine, friends have assured me that the menu here offers some of the most authentic flavors they've found in Washington.  Even so, the cuisine is not the best reason to check out La Loma.  That honor goes to the original margaritas (on the rocks with or without a salt rim), which are sweet and sour enough to cover the burn of the tequila.  Frozen margaritas are available, as are flavored options, but the original is king here.  Their sangria is sweet, with definite citrus notes and an unexpected kick that can sneak up on you unexpectedly.  If you can score a table on the patio, this is a great place to sit and celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a group of friends - but be prepared to get there early and share the space with other fiesta-minded groups.

Cantina Marina
600 Water Street, SW
Washington, DC  20024
(202) 554-8396
Recommended for: Casual dining and a unique waterfront perspective on Washington
Cantina Marina is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, and they remain a slightly off-the-beaten-path option for anyone who's tired of visiting the usual bar scenes in Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan and Georgetown.  Cantina Marina's location over the water on the Southwest Waterfront provides great views of the Washington Monument while still creating the impression that you're somewhere outside the city, for a change.  Offering a menu that tends more toward pan-Gulf than traditional Mexican, they nevertheless serve up Baja-style fish and shrimp tacos alongside New Orleans-inspired gumbo and po'boy sandwiches.  Their margaritas come in four varieties ranging from $7 to $10 each, making them a pricier option than at some of your other options, but the Cadillac, which blends Cuervo and Grand Marnier, is a smooth ride for the money.  They will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo all weekend with specials on XX Lager, XX Amber and Tecate, and the Marina will open at 10:30 on Monday for a "Breakfast and Beer" special.  During the day, they will be hosting a live broadcast by WJFK's "Big O and Dukes" from 11 to 3.  Expect a lively crowd Monday night.

Cactus Cantina
3300 Wisconsin Avenue, NW
Washington, DC  20016
(202) 686-7222
Recommended for: Unrivaled swirled frozen margaritas and a history of solid Tex-Mex cuisine
Located just up the block from Two Amy's, Cactus Cantina is an old favorite among many people who crave Tex-Mex in Washington.  Fajitas and enchiladas are only the tip of the iceberg, with Mexican soup, chiles rellenos (stuffed with either beef or cheese) and pork ribs a la barbacoa giving diners quite a few options.  Although margarita purists might be put off by their emphasis on their frozen offerings (don't worry - originals are also available), their prices are hard to argue and the flavors, including strawberry, peach and mango,  are spot-on.  At less than $6 per mug (or $26 per pitcher), these really are frozen treats.  Cactus Cantina can easily seat more than 250 guests, making it a great option for those who might be looking for a sit-down dinner.  Their sister restaurant/lounge, Lauriol Plaza on 18th Street, is another option...though it is far more likely to be packed to the gills with a young bar crowd.

Oyamel Cocina Mexicana
401 7th Street, NW
Washington, DC  20004
(202) 628-1005
Img_4658Recommended for:  An authentic Mexican dining experience from the man who brought us Jaleo and Minibar
Grasshopper tacos?  Six kinds of ceviche and a full ceviche bar?  Moles?  Pepitas?  Oyamel is all of these things and more.  Executive Chef Jose Andres, the creative force behind Jaleo, Cafe Atlantico and Minibar, brings a taste of Mexico City to DC at Oyamel, and it really goes above and beyond just about anything else that is currently available in Washington when it comes to Mexican cuisine.  Chef Joe Raffa has been nominated for a RAMMY award by the Restaurant Association of Metro Washington as a 'Rising Star,' so you know the menu is in good hands.  If you're willing to be a little adventurous, this could be the best possible place for a DC Foodie to spend Cinco de Mayo - they've even got signature cocktails and margaritas to help you celebrate.  But you may want to move quickly to lock in a reservation...chances are they're going fast.

And for those of you who prefer something a bit bigger and more active, there is a street festival from 5 to 9 PM on Monday in the Downtown area of Silver Spring.  For more details, check it out here.

Feliz Cinco de Mayo!


Las Margaritas Bar and Grill

Dsc00147About eight months ago, I went to Costa Del Sol for the first time -- or what I thought was Costa Del Sol. The place was in shambles -- the carpets were dirty and ceiling tiles were hanging from the ceiling, but the food was good. The pupusas were especially good (I've developed a very large appreciation for pupusas over the last couple years) and these were good enough to compete with those of Samantha's.

On my return trip a month later, the restaurant looked completely different. All ceiling tiles were securely in place and the carpet had been cleaned. Another detail I noticed was that the owners had decorated the walls and added a little ambiance. Tables were adorned with tablecloths, candles, and new handmade menus, giving it a nice, family-owned restaurant feel.

It turned out that the restaurant was under new ownership, but the kitchen staff still remained. I was happy to hear this, because in my prior trip, I really enjoyed the food. Bethesda really needs a Mexican/Savadoran place like this, amidst the mediocre burritos and fajitas at Rio Grande Cafe and Austin Grill, where people wait an hour in line -- for what, only God knows. Meanwhile, places like Las Margaritas stay empty. On my last visit, I saw the most occupied tables since I've been there -- five.

Dsc00146In my later trips to Las Margaritas, I branched out beyond the pupusas and tried their entrees, ordering masitas de puerco (my new yardstick for judging Salvadoran restaurants). It's tender pork with a tangy Salvadoran citrus sauce with fresh black beans and rice. It's a yummy, homey dish that's sure to please.

There are several tenderloin tip entrees on the menu as well, with the beef always tender and flavorful. And of course, don't miss the pupusas.

One thing to avoid is a beef taco salad which starts out good, but ends up being a little bland towards the end. Also, watch out for semi-stale tortilla chips. I haven't had a chance to try their standard Tex-Mex fare like burritos, chimichangas and enchiladas, but something tells me that it will be better than what you can get at a place like Rio Grande.

Service at Las Margaritas is always good (although there isn't usually a crowd to cause the waitstaff trouble), but the servers and hosts have always been very hospitable and friendly. Las Margaritas is cheap too. For the two of us, we usually get out for under $40 with a few beers.

So if you're in Bethesda catching a flick or you're just passing through, take a chance and walk a little further to Las Margaritas.

Las Margaritas Bar and Grill
4906 Fairmont Ave
Bethesda, MD 20814
Map
(301) 656-2561

Dress Code: Casual
Smoking: Not Allowed
Closest Metro: Bethesda
Parking: Street parking in Bethesda is a pain in the ass. No valet. If you're lucky you can find a spot on the street or in one of the lots.
Reservations: No need
Amy's Bathroom Rating: Charming and clean. Like a little powder room at somebody's house.


Samantha's

Best_damn_dishThis was the best damn dish I've eaten in a long time. I know it doesn't look like much from the pathetic photography (please ignore the shadow cast from my hand in in front of the flash) exhibited here, but it was delicious. Saturday afternoon, Amy and I went to Samantha's because Amy had a craving for some pupusas. Who was I to deny her?

Instead of just blindly ordering something new off the menu, I asked our server what he recommended. He immediately pointed me to a dish on the specials menu -- tenderloin tips with rice, cilantro sauce, black beans and  tomatoes. It sounded simple, but sometimes the simplest things on the menu end up tasting the best.

Amy ordered 5 pupusas as well, which upon ordering, our server looked at us like we were nuts. "You want 5 pupusas?!" He had to double check, but I informed him that I intended to share them with Amy. In case you've never had pupusas at Samantha's, they're quite large.

So back to the tenderloin tips. The smell of this dish when it was first brought to the table made my mouth water. Bright colors of green, red, and purple from the cilantro sauce, tomatoes and pickled red onions made the dish visibly appealing. The tender steak, grilled on a kabab with peppers, onions and mushrooms, is matched with cilantro and mole sauces, pickled red onions, tomatoes, and black beans giving a robust flavor that I've never quite tasted before. I'd practically finished the dish when Amy exclaimed, "You know for the past 10 minutes you've done nothing but moan over every bite of that dish! Are you planning on talking to me at all during this meal? Oh, and you told me you were going to share these pupusas with me."

Read my other writing about Samantha's.


Pupusas at Costa del Sol

Saturday for lunch, Amy and I stopped by Bethesda for a quick lunch. We happened by a Salvadoran place called Costa Del Sol. We remembered eating their pupusas at Taste of Bethesda last year and Amy was having a real craving for them. Costa del Sol is just a small restaurant on Fairmont Ave. Decor is very plain and there is pretty much no ambiance -- but honestly, I couldn't give a crap. What did matter is that we ordered some chicharron pupusas (pork and cheese) and chicken tamales and they were outstanding. The filling was spicy which made up for the fact that the marinated cabbage was fairly plain. Overall, I'd say that Costa del Sol's pupusas competed with those of Samantha's which we all know and love. As well, the tamales we excellent and actually were made with large chunks of potatoe. I don't have much else to report about Costa del Sol except that it is extremely reasonable as far as prices go. Both me and Amy had to pupusas and a chicken tamale and we got out of there for less than $12. If your in the area you should definitly stop by. I certainly plan to.

Click here to see where Costa del Sol is located.


Samantha's Revisited

Just quick, I wanted to tell everyone that last weekend I went back to Samantha's again and it was even better than the first time I went there. This time, I started with some pupusas and finished with a chicken chimichanga that was probably one of the best I've ever had. The chicken was very tender and fresh. Unlike most other Mexican restaurants, the chimichanga was not deep fried. Instead it was pan fried which I think is one of the reasons it tasted so much better. The Spanish rice it came with was moist and flavorful. I think what made the dish was the refried beans, though. Oh, and the pupusas were excellent. I LOVE their pork pupusas. I ordered a margarita, and it was not as good as the one I remember ordering last time. I think it was made with a mix - you could definitely tell the difference. So for my second drink, I ordered a "Cadillac" margarita which ended up being a lot bigger and a lot better. Service was excellent as well, but we had the same waitress as last time. :) If you guys haven't been to Samantha's, you should go!

More on Samantha's...


Samantha's

First, let me give credit where credit is due. I would not have gone to Samantha's if it were not for two things - Amy suggesting we eat there after reading Tom Seitsema's chat and my reading Tom Sietsema's Fall Dining Guide. If you follow this link, you will see that I even posted to Tom's chat last week and thanked him personally, cause I really loved Samantha's. Can you guess which post was mine??

Samanatha's is located on a small building by the intersection of University Blvd. and Piney Branch Rd. in Silver Spring. We drove over there for lunch a couple of weekends ago because I had a serious craving for some pupusas. The restaurant looks pretty nice on the inside, which you probably wouldn't normally expect from the look of it on the outside. Staff are all in uniform and wearing ties. I imagine the small dining room get's pretty crowded, but that Saturday afternoon, it wasn't even half full. If Samantha's was in Dupont Circle, there would be a constant line out the door.

I have to admit though, Amy and I didn't exactly brank out and try a lot of different food at Samantha's. Mostly we just ordered pupusas. They are $1.50 each, which is an extreme bargain and they're a lot larger than other pupusas I've had. We also ordered the queso fundido to start with. It was not your ordinary queso made of Velveeta and onions. It was actually made of real cheese and peppers, which is nice. Sometimes, though, you just want Velveeta and onions. :) We ordered a couple of each kind of pupusa - chicken, pork, queso, and beef. To say the least, it was more than either Amy or I could eat. I barely finished three.

Since it was lunch time, I only ordered a single margarita just because I wanted to try one. It was made fresh. I don't think they used any mixer to make this margarita unlike most Mexican restaurants around here. (Take a hint Cactus Cantina)

I'm looking forward to going back to Samantha's and trying their other dishes. They had your typical Tex-Mex dishes like you'll find at Rio Grande Cafe and those types of places. I have this feeling though, they will put those places to shame. I especilly want to try their chimichanga.

Samantha's
631 E. University Blvd
Silver Spring, MD 20901

Map
(301) 445-7300

Hours:
Sun-Thu 11am-11pm
Fri-Sat 11am-Midnight

Dress Code: Casual
Reservations: not taken
Parking available on location.


Chipotle Disappointment

After going to the gym last night, I stopped by Chipotle in Tenleytown for dinner - you know, to take in double the calories I had just worked off. I ordered the Carnitas bowl with black beans, cheese, guacamole, and corn and green tomatillo salsas. The pork was really fatty, much to my disappointment. This is the second time this has happened. For some reason, Chipotle has changed the way they make the carnitas. I think I will be ordering the chicken from now on.


Qdoba Mexican Grill

In case you've never heard of it, Qdoba is a Chipotle style, fast casual restaurant. One recently moved in by my office in Largo, I have eaten there a few times for lunch.  (In case you are wondering where Largo is, it is in the middle of nowhere in PG County where south of where RT 50 intersects with the Beltway.) In some respects, I am impressed, and in others, eating there just makes me crave Chipotle.

First, let me talk about the positives. They have more variety than Chipotle. On top of burritos, Qdoba has quesadillas, soups, and salads. I ordered a Chicken Taco Salad today for lunch and I was pretty impressed. On the salad, they put a black bean corn salsa and a spicy ranch dressing. Add the extra hot salsa, and you have yourself a fantastic salad.

I have not ordered it yet, but the Grilled Vegetable Burrito sounds very appetizing. Unlike Chipotle's boring Vegitarian Burrito, this one has zucchini, scallions, eggplant and sweet red peppers. If I were a vegetarian, I would prefer Qdoba over Chipotle. However, I'm not a rabbit.

Now for the negatives. First of all, Qdoba's burritos are not nearly as flavorful as Chipotle's. The meats and rice are not seasoned well and the salsas are not as spicy (of course for some, that might be a positive). The "Extra Hot" salsa is about as hot as Chipotle's medium salsa. Also, the Guacamole is especially bland. If you order a burrito at Qdoba, expect a blander, but possibly more complex, version of what you will get at Chipotle.