Pop 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.
316 Massachusetts Avenue, NE
Washington, DC 20002
Recommended 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.
600 Water Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
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.
3300 Wisconsin Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20016
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
Recommended 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!