For Senate lunchers, Mexico’s just a few blocks away

The trick to Taqueria Nacional is finding it. Once you’re there, you’ve left Washington behind and stepped into an outpost of Mexico City.

Taqueria Nacional is a counter restaurant tucked into a courtyard in front of the office building at 400 N. Capitol St. NW. Its location — just behind the patio seating for the well-known Capitol Hill restaurant Johnny’s Half Shell — is no coincidence. The taco takeout place is the brainchild of Johnny’s Half Shell owners Ann Cashion and John Fulchino.

But the atmosphere of Taqueria Nacional is a world away from D.C.’s seafood restaurant-and-steakhouse culture. Cashion and Fulchino embraced the vibrant colors of Mexican street food, scrawling the menu in neon-colored markers and displaying several glass jugs of the fresh, multi-colored fruit aguas in the counter front. On a recent visit, an employee dipped an oversized ladle into a pool of watermelon juice to fill an order.

The restaurant’s culinary strength is its simplicity. A pork taco comes out with nothing more than shredded pork on top of the traditional double corn tortilla. A fish taco contains lightly breaded, carefully cooked white fish underneath a tuft of cabbage and a drizzle of cream. The guacamole is fresh and chunky and scoops easily onto the crackly, yellow nacho chips. Three kinds of salsa — two red and one green — spice each dish according to diners’ tastes. Everything washes down nicely with one of the several aguas.

For Senate staffers who have trouble digesting Mexican food because of the heavy spice factor, Taqueria Nacional offers daily specials. One day it’s a turkey pot pie and a ham sandwich. The pot pie comes out small and is heavy on the mushrooms, but its lattice top shows the signs of a baker’s touch.

Taqueria Nacional is perfect for a 45-minute lunch in nice weather — limited seating is available outside — but a surer bet for takeout in winter. The line moves quickly, so take a moment to contemplate the various taco options before reaching the cashier. Once you get your order, stock up on salsa, grab a few napkins and enjoy the epitome of Mexican street food.

Out to Lunch is a new feature that will introduce readers to Capitol Hill’s many options for their midday meal. Any suggestions, e-mail Capital Living at betsyr@thehill.com.