Simple, homey Mexican

Mexican food is one of those cuisines that can ignite a craving. Nachos can lead to a burrito, which can lead to a couple of tacos, which can end in chips and salsa. Those south-of-the-border flavors have the ability to leave diners wanting more. 

Chef Richard Sandoval hits that sweet spot at his new restaurant, El Centro D.F., part of the buzzing 14th Street corridor in Northwest Washington. The mastermind behind Zengo and Masa 14 (which is on the same block as El Centro) uses simple ingredients that have big flavors to bring Mexican cuisine out of fast-food or chain-restaurant territory.

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The taqueria on the main level accommodates basic Mexican-food needs. Visitors can grab a taco to go, eat at a handful of tall tables in the front or sit at a stool along the kitchen wall to watch orders fly out. The “tequileria” in the basement conquers bigger demands, and all can be washed down with a beer or one of the 200 tequilas and mezcals on hand.

Tequila: The name alone can invoke strong feelings — likely either a memory of that one night you declared never to drink it again, or florid daydreams of a tart and slushy margarita. The bar staff wants to help visitors get out of the lime-slice-and-salt-shaker mindset and educate drinkers that, just like wine, tequila and mezcal, which is made from a different type of cactus, have different tastes, smells and flavor notes. A tasting flight can show off several ages, brands and styles of these liquors, and the able staff knows how to describe them all.

Sandoval’s Mexico City upbringing shines through in the restaurant’s simple and homey cooking style. This is not run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurant food, but neither is it a fine dining experience featuring deconstructed enchiladas. Instead, full-sized, full-flavor entrees carry a hint of sophistication, and each is memorable in its own way, explaining why the dining room’s tables remain full throughout service.

The bottomless brunch on Saturdays and Sundays is one of the best ways to try a variety of Sandoval’s creations. It’s $35 per person, and the entire table has to opt in. Once settled, an endless parade of sharable entrees begins. 

Start with a Bloody Maria, which uses tequila instead of the traditional vodka, or a Michilada, a spicy, savory combo of beer and tomato juice. The Aqua Fresca cocktails are sweeter and feature seasonal flavors. They go down fast.

Ever eat cactus for breakfast? Or a taco, for that matter? Sandoval creates such opportunities with 11 taco options, including a grilled nopal (cactus) taco, and grilled cactus with a sprinkling of cheese. The barbacoa taco was the table favorite — corn tortillas came full of shredded beef brisket covered in a smoky barbecue sauce and a dusting of cheese. Chicken Tinga had cilantro, lime, onion and a strong chili flavor. Carne asada brought cubes of steak accompanied by raw, diced onion. Orders come with two tacos at brunch and three at dinner, along with beans and rice. All the tacos feature simple yet attractive flavors. There is no pretense here, just good Mexican food.

The chilaquiles, fried eggs, chopped onion and beans over lightly fried sliced tortillas and either a red or green salsa were the best meal of the brunch. The tortillas had a nice texture, in between raw and chip, that held up well under a liberal smothering of either salsa (hint: order one of each). The fried egg was cooked with crispy edges and a slightly runny center; when pierced, the yolk mixed nicely with the salsa. The dish is almost like breakfast nachos — a salty, indulgent way to start the day.

One downside to the brunch menu is that it masks many of the dinner-menu options simply by plopping an egg on top. This abundance of eggs can get heavy fast. For example, the chile relleno on its own is a great poblano pepper stuffed with vegetables and cheese, but the added egg drowns out the spice. Order the creamy rajas potatoes instead, which make for a zippy hash-browns stand-in.

Sandoval is consistent with cooking no matter the time of day. The jaliscos enchildada was just as delicious at dinner as at brunch. A healthy portion of shrimp and crab is tucked into a corn tortilla and smothered in a Oaxaca cheese and orange-hued sauce and topped with a slice of avocado. At dinner, the enchilada comes with fried plaintains and a scoop of cilantro rice.

The carne asada steak, another dinnertime hit, arrived medium, as ordered, with sliced poblano peppers and sides of a sweet corn tamale and beans. The sliced poblanos provide a very palatable, light heat to the well-seasoned cut of meat.

The queso fundido falls into the “unique dishes” category. A small, square cast-iron skillet of melted Oaxaca, Chihuahua and Monterey cheeses comes to the table with sides of guacamole, different sauces and warm tortillas. This invites the makings of a Mexican grilled cheese sandwich as you take a forkful of the warm cheese and add it to the tortilla with some of the toppings.

The cheese is rich and creamy with a gooey texture that makes it fun to eat. It is an entertaining challenge to wrestle long, stringy scoops of cheese into the tortilla. As the dish disappears, friends might find themselves fighting for the crispy, burnt pieces stuck to the bottom — always the best part. 

That offering also embodies what Sandoval illustrates in his new restaurant: The simplest things can be the tastiest.