Feb 13, 2024 - Food and Drink

Wood-fired Mexican hotspot Pascual opens on Capitol Hill

A spit with Mexican al pastor marinated pork sits above a flame

Wood-fired al pastor for tacos. Photo: Deb Lindsey

Pascual, a wood-fired Mexican bistro from the all-star team behind Lutèce, is opening Thursday on Capitol Hill.

Why it matters: Ask industry insiders which restaurant opening they're most excited about this year, and it's likely Pascual (Bon Appétit was pretty psyched, too) — the kind of intimate, ambitious neighborhood destination that chefs flock to on a night off.

What's happening: The 40-seat restaurant is a Popal family production (Lapis, Lutèce, Lapop) with their executive chefs Matt Conroy and Mexico City native Isabel Coss.

  • Don't expect typical tacos — the chefs are all about modern, local, seasonal plates that showcase heirloom corn and masa, Mexican vegetables and chilis custom-grown by nearby farms, and artful moles and salsas.
  • A mixed-wood hearth fuels the kitchen and touches nearly every one of the dishes — from steak tartare with smoky ember-tortilla aioli to tacos al pastor slow-cooked on a traditional trompo (spit) over the coals.
A dining room with a bar, wooden tables, white paint and potted plants
Freddy's BBQ, no more. Photo courtesy of Deb Lindsey

The intrigue: The space once housed Kenny's BBQ — rumored to have been the inspiration for Freddy's BBQ in "House of Cards." But you wouldn't guess it from Pascual's bright dining room and patio dotted with Mexican ceramics and plants.

Between the lines: Pascual has quietly opened a few nights for test runs with friends and family.

  • So far, the co-chefs say everyone is loving the citrus ceviche ("people were drinking the broth," says Conroy), smoky lamb neck barbacoa, and Coss' parsnip tamal with mole blanco — a celebratory white mole that's traditionally made for weddings.
Ceviche with blue corn tortillas in a small ceramic bowl
Sea bass ceviche with drinkable juice. Photo: Deb Lindsey

Flashback: Conroy grew up in Boston knowing Mexican food as Taco Bell. The script flipped when he got to New York and started working with Alinea alum Alex Stupak at Empollón.

  • "I wanted to become 100% different from what I knew and get out of my comfort zone," Conroy tells Axios.

Meanwhile, Coss was in Mexico City — her first kitchen gig was at modernist Mexican temple Pujol. "They put me in pastry because I was a girl, but I fell in love," she says.

  • It's also where she met Stupak on a visit and ended up moving to New York, working at Empollón, and falling in love yet again — this time with Conroy.
Isabel Coss holds a Mexican pinwheel pastry
Isabel Coss and her confections. Photo courtesy of Deb Lindsey

Flash forward: Conroy opened a wood-fired Oaxacan restaurant in Brooklyn, Oxomoco, in 2018. He tells Axios, "We did pretty well." As in, earned-a-Michelin-star-within-six-months well.

  • It was there that he caught the attention of the Popals, who wooed him and Coss with the idea of opening a Mexican restaurant in D.C.

But first: The duo took over the kitchen at Lutèce. Where, again, they did pretty well — a Food & Wine "best new chef in America" for Coss, a spot on the New York Times' "50 Best Restaurants in America" for everyone. The acclaim goes on.

Guacamole dusted with charred onions on a lazy susan with salsas and pickles
Guacamole dusted with charred onions with salsas and pickles. Photo courtesy of Deb Lindsey

Yes, but: The chefs aren't fixated on awards. What they say is most important about Lutèce, and now Pascual — named for the patron saint of cooks and kitchens — is being a place that's packed with their peers on any given Monday (aka industry night).

  • "We made a restaurant that we as cooks would want to go to," says Conroy. "Let's play the music we like, let's serve the wines we'd drink on our day off, let's do sweetbreads even if no one else is eating them."

What's next: Volcán, a morning café and panadería, will start serving out of Pascual's side window in the coming weeks. Look for aguas frescas, Mexican pastries, and Latin coffee drinks.

  • When the weather warms, a 40-odd-seat outdoor patio will be the place to sip mezcal margaritas and natural wines.

Peek at the menu:

A Mexican menu for Pascual
Menu courtesy of Pascual
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