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.

Grouper Tacos and the Deadliest Beer!

Image049 Last year I did a post on grilled octopus tacos. A little bit of Greece. A little bit of South Florida. A little bit of a mixed response.

A reader wrote in and asked me where he could find a fish taco in the D.C. area as good as the ones he had in Southern California. I offered a couple suggestions, but the best advice I had was for the reader to make the tacos himself. (At the risk of alienating quite a few of you, I've had fish tacos in San Diego and didn't think too much of them. The fish was fine, but the corn tortillas were miserable.)

Now that the spring rains are slacking off and we're moving into summer, it seems to be the perfect time to do a fish taco menu of my own. And no offense to my West Coast friends, but the best fish for a fish taco is an ugly bastard swimming around the Gulf of Mexico: grouper.

God, I love grouper. Honestly, I really do. Every time I make it back to Florida, I try to eat two things, a Cuban sandwich and grouper. The duo has been a staple of Tampa since Cubans cigar workers founded the place.

Sadly, like many animal products too loved, grouper is in short supply. As a result of too many years of overfishing, the state of Florida instituted limits on how much can be caught every year. The state also passed a law preventing restaurants from trying to pass off faux grouper as the real thing. Clearly, we take our grouper seriously. 

Image003But if that means my grandkids will be able to enjoy the favor of those weird looking fish, then I'm all for it.

Fortunately, you can still find whole grouper at the Maine Avenue wharf. I spotted a few a while back when I was down there buying oysters for a previous post. You really can't miss grouper as they look like the bastard lovechildren of Mick Jagger and a Rockfish. Still, I can't say enough about the flavor and texture of the meat. I kid you not, cooked properly, and the plump, sweet meat will look like crab meat. Scratch that; what I should say is that lump crab meat looks like properly cooked grouper.

And grouper is easy to cook.

Back home, you're most likely to encounter a fat, fried grouper fillet, sandwiched between a soft, toasted bun. Maybe a bit of tartar and Tabasco to go with it. However, grilled and blackened grouper are nearly as popular.

So when reader "allen" asked me about where he could find fish tacos, I knew I had to enlighten D.C. on the many virtues of this beautifully ugly fish. After all, why go out and buy fish tacos when you can make them yourself? And if you toss down four pounds of whole fish on the grill -- and cook it properly -- you will be King Kong for the afternoon.

Because grouper is the focus here, I went easy on the spices. I made a roasted salsa and grilled scallion guacamole to accompany the fish (we are making tacos, here), but I kept the heat and stronger flavors in check.Image057

To accompany the tacos, I stayed with the nautical theme AND I GOT ON THE CRAB!! Rogue Brewery got together with Sig Hansen, the mean son of a bitch that captains the Northwestern fishing boat and stars on Deadliest Catch. In honor of Sig and his fellow crabbers, Rogue produced Captain Sig's Deadliest Ale.

The beer is a hoppy red ale (red crab, red ale, get it?) that Rogue refers to as an India Red Ale, which clocks in at a modest 6.2 percent ABV. I heard about this beer a couple months ago and have been eager to try it since (I found it at Whole Foods on P Street in Dupont). And as much as I enjoyed the beer, it wasn't the greatest match with the delicate flavors of the grouper tacos. The flavor of the hoppy beer is too much for the grilled grouper. I'd go with Oscar Blues' Mama's Little Yella Pils or even a hefeweizen.

Of course, if you don't go with Captain Sig's ale, how can you frighten your friends and neighbors when you scream: WE'RE ON THE CRAB!!

Grouper tacos with roasted salsa and grilled onion guacamole
(Makes four servings)

1 grouper (Carolina, Black, Strawberry, ect.) about 3.25 to 4 pounds
2 red tomatoes, halved
1 yellow tomato, halved
2 serrano chili peppers
1/2 red onion, diced finely
1 lime, halved
1 lemon, quartered
2 avocados
1 bunch of scallions (about 8 or so)
3 cloves of garlic
Package of 16 flour tortillas
Olive oil
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Image004 This recipe is a little unusual in that the things that can typically be done ahead of time, like the salsa and guacamole, should be done afterward because everything involves the grill. To get started, remove the grouper from the refrigerator and cut three deep slices into either side of the body from dorsal to belly. Coat the fish with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, making sure to get the oil and seasoning into the cuts.

For this recipe, a charcoal grill works best because you can throw a few wood chips on the coals to give the fish that grilled at a beach bonfire taste.

Whatever you're using, fire it up. When the grill is ready, place the fish on the cooler side and close the lid and grill for 15 minutes. If you're using a charcoal grill, toss a couple handfuls of wood chips on the coals before closing the lid.

Image035As the fish cooks, coat the fruit and vegetables with olive oil, salt and pepper. After the fish has been on the grill for 15 minutes, turn it over, squirt some lemon juice on it and put the fruit and vegetables on the hot spot. Start with the tomato and lime halves face down. Cook for about 7 minutes. Check the fruit and vegetables. If they are developing a black char, turn them over. If not, leave them for another three minutes or so. Turn the fruit and vegetables, and grill for another couple minutes with the lid up. When all sides of the fruit and vegetables are thoroughly charred, remove them and the fish from the grill.

Squeeze the remaining lemon on the fish and cover it loosely with a piece of aluminum foil.
Seed one of the two serranos and place them in a food processor with the tomatoes, raw red onion and a finely minced clove of garlic. Juice the grilled lime into the food processor and pulse the mixture until chunky. Add salt and pepper to taste.

For the guacamole, chop the grilled scallions and mix them with the avocado, minced garlic clove and juice of half a lemon. Mix, mash and season with salt and pepper.

When the condiments are ready, take a few tortillas and toss them on the grill for about a minute per side. When the tortillas are warm, pull them off the grill, spread the guacamole, place a few pieces of grouper on top (no skin, no bones) and finish with a little salsa.

People, WE'RE ON THE GROUPER!  (I can't stop myself.)