By Amanda McDougall - 11/07/12 11:49 PM EST
If there’s one thing that Washington needs more of, it’s places like El Chucho — neighborhood spots with cute décor, genial staff and good food and drink at moderate prices. Let’s be clear, though. This indoor-outdoor Columbia Heights Mexican cantina is not going to blow you away with amazing tacos auténticos and margaritas — but its tequila and mezcal selection just might.
El Chucho, about mid-block on 11th Street between Lamont Street and Park Road, sits back from the sidewalk, making room for a few tables out front when the weather accommodates. An expansive cantilevered window on the building façade with a wooden bar on the exterior and interior also allows for indoor-outdoor seating. Additionally, there’s a rooftop patio dining room. All the exposed seating is enough to make you think you’re in L.A. or Texas when the weather is right. Too bad that won’t happen for a while.
On that note, let’s get back to that inspired and inspiring tequila menu. A hundred choices strong, it features a finely crafted collection of small-batch micro tequilas and mezcals that will send any tequila-lover into a craze, and possibly later, a haze. This isn’t the lick-shoot-suck kind of tequila; it’s for sipping and appropriately served in a stemmed, fluted glass.
The El Chucho menu offers a fairly wide selection of dishes, from the appetizer-size “bocadillos” to only slightly heartier tacos to hefty sandwiches, called “tortas.”
Huaraches con mole make for a bold and delicious start to a meal. Huaraches are oblong discs of masa dough, deep-fried until slightly crisped on the exterior and adorned with a variety of toppings. In this case, it’s a deeply flavored and hued black mole sauce that has echoes of smoky chiles, spices and chocolate; bright pink pickled shallots; salty crumbled white cotija cheese; and vivid green leaves of a uniquely flavored Mexican herb called epazote.
The “street-style” elote (corn on the cob) is also a winner. It’s coated in crumbled cheese, sprinkled with cilantro and drizzled with just enough spicy mayo to make it irresistible. Flautas de pollo con huitlacoche, rolled and fried tortillas filled with chicken and a fungus delicacy known as the truffle of Mexico (huitlacoche, pronounced hweet-la-KO-chay) are delightfully crisp on the exterior, with a soft, piping-hot interior. But if you know and love the delicate flavor of huitlacoche, this dish will probably disappoint you.
In the tortas category, the Sonoran Dog is a blue-ribbon plate. For 10 bucks, you get a fat sausage decked out with bits of pork belly and layered with spicy black beans, onions, tomato, salsa, cheese and a zigzag of mustard and mayo that will inevitably end up on your cheek. It’s big; it’s messy; it’s deeply satisfying.
The Torta de Huazontle isn’t a flavor-bomb like the dog but is still a mighty meatless meal and an interesting culinary adventure. After all, how many times have you seen huazontle (a green vegetable that looks like mutant broccoli stretched out on a stalk) on a menu in D.C.? In this sandwich, the “wild green” is egg-battered and fried and combined with black beans, sour cream and a slightly sour south-of-the-border version of kimchi.
For tacos, the all-vegetable calabacita is delicate, crispy and flavorful. Rajas (poblano peppers) give the tacos depth of flavor and a kick of spice, while fried and ultra-crisp zucchini sticks are the tender middles; black garlic (it’s black because it’s fermented) adds another dimension of sweet-savory flavor.
The asada (steak) tacos strike out into a whole other continent with their miso marinade but end up just tasting like grilled chunks of steak all the same. They’re not bad by any means, but not as intriguing on the palate as one might hope. The al pastor tacos, a staple marinated pork taco if ever there was one, are also decent, but the finely minced meat has a somewhat baby-food texture that leaves room for improvement.
Desserts are still being worked out (they literally have no room in the kitchen, explains a server) and for now are small dishes of cinnamon-spiked chocolate mousse with a heavy dose of whipped cream. A handful of house-made refrescos (juices) can suffice if you need a bit of sweetness to end the meal.
For deal seekers — or just straight-up taco and tequila fanatics — check out the half-price tacos on Mondays; 20 percent off tequilas on Tuesdays; and daily happy hour (4 to 6:30 p.m.) with $4 draft beer and margaritas, $1 chips and salsa, $5 guacamole and half-price tacos. Now, wouldn’t it be nice to have more places like this in your neighborhood?
EL CHUCHO COCINA SUPERIOR
3313 11th St. NW
Hours: Monday – Thursday, 4 p.m. – 2 a.m.; Friday, 4 p.m. – 3 a.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m. – 3 a.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. – 2 a.m.
Prices: Bocadillos range from $4 to $9; tacos from $5 to $8; tortas from $10 to $12.
Ideal Meal: Elote (corn on the cob), Huaraches con Mole or Tacos Calabacita, Sonoran Dog