May 19, 2024 - Food and Drink

D.C. is now a Mexican food town

Gorditos with flying ants at Chicatana. Photo: Scott Suchman for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Gorditas with flying ants at Chicatana. Photo: Scott Suchman/The Washington Post via Getty Images

D.C. hasn't had a reputation as a Mexican food town — but that's quickly changing.

Why it matters: A new wave of Mexican chefs and restaurateurs are upping the game on all levels, from stellar taquerías to chic hotspots and neighborhood haunts mining regional specialties.

Driving the news: A bunch of exciting openings. Everyone's talking about Capitol Hill's wood-fired Mexican restaurant, Pascual. And buzzing about Vera, a vibrant Mexican-Lebanese club-straunt in Ivy City. Or packing into Amparo Fondita, chef Christian Irabién's cozy, contemporary Dupont Circle spot.

  • That's not to say it's all fancy. Chicatana has heads turning in Columbia Heights for its trompo-cooked al pastor tacos. And the birria bombshells behind Taqueria Xochi keep dropping new taquerias.

The big picture: Mexican restaurants, once staples only of the Southwest and parts of the Midwest, have proliferated across the country over the last few decades — highlighting the effects of increased migration and the growing influence of Mexican Americans on U.S. culture, Axios' Russell Contreras reports.

State of play: The DMV's Mexican food scene has long thrived in the 'burbs. Take Maryland's "taco triangle," an area around Hyattsville bursting with great taquerias. Or Manassas Park, home to Abuelita Mexican Foods that's churned out chips and tortillas for over 50 years.

  • "Salvadoran-Mexican" restaurants like El Tamarindo once dominated D.C.'s scene after Salvadoran refugees fled en masse to D.C. in the '80s. Their food wasn't as familiar or popular, so many immigrants opened "Sal-Mex" spots hawking tacos alongside pupusas — still a unique fusion in the DMV.
Red Pozole at Amparo Fondita. Photo: Scott Suchman for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Pozole at Amparo Fondita. Photo: Scott Suchman/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Now, there's a new guard of Mexican chefs opening D.C. restaurants that pay homage to the traditions and flavors of their homelands.

  • More are bucking against what Irabién calls "The Disneyfication of Mexican food" — a narrowed focus on tacos, tequila, and mariachi.

Zoom in: At Amparo Fondita, Irabién homes in on Indigenous ingredients like Oaxacan grasshoppers, or immigrant influences from Italy.

  • The Chihuahua native once swore he wouldn't make tacos or guacamole. Instead, he'd introduce diners to Mexican pastas and huitlacoche. He budged — popular demand — but still delves deep, fashioning chamoy from scratch and sprinkling flying ants into dishes.

What they're saying: "It's a pivotal time for Mexican cuisine in D.C. because the public is getting retrained on what Mexican food can be," says Irabién.

Lebanese-Mexican hummus at Vera. Photo: Scott Suchman for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Lebanese-Mexican hummus at Vera. Photo: Scott Suchman/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The intrigue: Vera's menu also highlights Mexican immigrant cuisine. The owners pay tribute to their family ancestry — 19th-century Lebanese who migrated to Mexico — in dishes like fattoush tostadas.

Meanwhile, Mexican chefs are also finding a loyal following for their regional cooking.

  • Chicatana chef/co-owner Marcelino Zamudio started as a dishwasher at Rosa Mexicano and worked his way up the line at Oyamel — two big-name Mexican restaurants owned by non-Mexicans. Many years later, he and three industry friends — all from Guerrero — gathered their savings and opened their own place to rave reviews.
  • "I do all Guerrero — no Puebla, no Oaxaca," says Zamudio. "I want to keep it traditional."
Isabel Coss and her buñuelo. Photo: Deb Lindsey
Isabel Coss and her buñuelo. Photo: Deb Lindsey

Between the lines: The scene is also growing with Mexican empire-builders. Siblings Jessica and chef Alfredo Solis from Mexico City are among the biggest, with seven D.C. ventures over the past decade, including two Mezcaleros, seafood-centric Mariscos 3311, and Mexi-pizza parlor Anafre.

What's next: Pascual — the hottest ticket in town — just opened an outdoor patio for same-day reservations (impossible to snag otherwise). This summer, Mexico City native Isabel Coss and co-chef/husband Matt Conroy will debut Volcán, a morning café and panadería, for Coss' sublime pastries and sweet/savory creations.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Chicatana is located in Columbia Heights (not Shaw).

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