Mezcalero

I felt kind of bad about dragging my family in from Virginia just so I could satisfy my craving for tacos, but…I’m not actually sorry. At all.

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Living up to its name, Mezcalero offers all of its margaritas and cocktails with either tequila or mezcal, as well as flights of both. Naturally, my husband ordered a margarita with the mezcal and I had the maracuya (passion fruit) margarita with tequila. The delicious, sour, fruity monstrosity that resulted possibly influenced the way I felt about the meal as a whole. Possibly.

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To start, we ordered the queso fundido with chorizo as well as two kinds of ceviche: the fish and the coctel de mariscos. Have you ever been so drunk and so out of food in your house that you decided to just melt some cheese in a cast iron skillet and eat that? Yeah, we’ve all been there. The queso fundido was like that, but with ample crumbled chorizo and some soft tortillas to boot. I liked both ceviches, although the mariscos was a little too tomato-y for me and I much preferred the simpler, more citrusy fish with red onion.

I ordered three tacos: the pastor, the campechano, and the camarones, and I had the good fortune to also get to sample the nopales from my dear tio. My husband had the torta de chorizo con huevos, and my wonderful cousin went in a completely different direction with the enchiladas mole.

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I can’t choose a clear winner from these three tacos. The camarones were simple and complemented by avocado. The pastor was well-seasoned and savory, and the campechano had a great crunch from shoestring potatoes and a good level of heat. The nopales were also juicy and satisfying.

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Why can’t my mole taste like this mole? It was bitter, nutty, and chocolaty. It was [rightfully] devoured.

The torta de chorizo was a whole other level. Granted, it was no Tortas y Tacos (nothing will ever be Tortas y Tacos), but it was delicious, stuffed with sausage and flavor, and was the perfect hangover food for my spouse after we spent all day at the DC Beer Fest (almost as good as cast iron-fried cheese. Almost).

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Best of all, we got to sit outside on a beautiful evening and eat and drink at a relaxed pace!

Price: $25 per person, at least half of which will be spent on alcohol.

Bottom line: My uncle spent a year driving around rural Mexico and these days is basically a professional Latin American jet-setter and even he gave it his stamp of approval. This one is a keeper for sure.

Maple

Maple is hidden among some other, more well-known 11th Street eateries: Red Rocks, The Coupe, Bad Saint, Meridian Pint, El Chucho, and Room 11 all populate this little stretch in Columbia Heights, and in general I’ve been more let down by these places than impressed, with the notable exception of El Chucho. I love me that elote loco.

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Maple is beautiful inside and out, decorated with exposed brick and innovative art. The ambiance is quiet and cozy, but not so awkwardly romantic that I felt weird being there with my in-laws. They have both a wine and cocktail of the day, although both the draft and bottled beer lists were pretty abysmal (Peroni? Really?!), but all four of us were able to find things that sounded good–the daily wine for my mother-in-law, a dry Anxo cider for my father-in-law, the amaro Manhattan for the hubs, and I ordered a mysterious cocktail, the contents of which I can no longer remember, possibly as a result of the aforementioned mystery cocktail. Drinks were served quickly and everyone was happy except me. Mine was citrusy, but entirely too bitter and herbal. The lesson here is don’t order cocktails if you haven’t heard of any of the ingredients. My mother-in-law loved the Saint Michel Incrocio Manzoni wine, which she enthusiastically called “the best wine she’s ever had.” In time, you, too, will learn to disregard this particular piece of praise.

For an appetizer, we ordered the burrata. It was creamy, melty, and served with cool, blistered cherry tomatoes. The negative is that there wasn’t more of this particular thing, but to be fair, it was a properly-sized appetizer, there’s just no amount of fresh mozzarella that could be too much.

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Now for the entrees…

Lamb ragu: fall-apart meat made this a standout. This was truly a lamb-lover’s dish. It was a solid amount of both the meat and the pasta. My husband took about a third of his enormous portion home “to be healthy.” He ate the leftovers as soon as we walked in our front door.

Pesto gnocchi: the gnocchi was quarter-sized and had the perfect texture of heavenly clouds. A certain someone may have called it “the best gnocchi I’ve ever had,” and I have to admit that the dumplings themselves were phenomenal. On the other hand, the pesto was meh and there was really nothing more to this dish. It was insulting to that gnocchi that it had to be served with such a bland sauce, but at least this error is easily reparable. A little salt and some spinach or green peas would brighten this up quite nicely.

Monkfish tagliatelle: Another great dish all around. Flavorful, well-cooked housemade pasta, broccoli, and carrots paired really well with the light fish. The fish was slightly overcooked and I could have used more of it, but it was perfectly sauced, the portion was not the insane mountain o’ pasta that I originally thought it was, and I appreciated the originality of it. This was totally worth the empty carbs.

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On to dessert: They had a decent whiskey list, especially considering the fact that it’s not a whiskey place. After-dinner drinks aside, we ordered the chocolate espresso flourless torte. Once again, it arrived insanely fast. If I could describe it in one word, it would be dense. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. The flavor was deep and rich, but where was the espresso I was promised in the title? If they just renamed this cake “Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Chew Chew Chew,” it would be acceptable. It was quickly labeled “the best chocolate torte ever,” but in this case, that could possibly be an apt assertion.

Price: $30 per person.

Bottom line: Maple was great and I would definitely go back. They had great flavors, service so fast that the servers might be actual wizards, and it was cost-effective too. However, I will wait until they switch their menu for the next season because it was pretty small. Maybe Maple wasn’t a drop everything and go right now restaurant, but it does make good fodder for I’m in the mood for something new. Yes, definitely make your way over here as soon as you have a Saturday night with nothing else planned.

El [Nuevo] Rinconcito II

Two weeks ago, my husband and I were taking a stroll through Columbia Heights and noticed that our old haunt, El Rinconcito II, had reopened after their tragic pupusa fire last year. We’ve been to a number of pupuserias that are closer to us, and also those that I’ve had recommended elsewhere and we’ve always gone back to our old stand-by. It became famous to us as a place we go when we want to spend more money on margaritas than we do on food (a situation we call “winning”). We had to go again, just to make sure it was the same place we knew and loved. I also invited a good friend and her fiance, because everyone loves pupusas. In anticipation of this momentous occasion, I spent the last two days singing “Rin-con-cito” instead of “Despacito.” It’s stuck in your head now, isn’t it? Just try and not come here now.20170930_204649

Step 1: Pitcher of margaritas! You can’t go wrong here. Although in the previous incarnation of El Rinconcito, I believe their margaritas were both cheaper and larger, it is hard to be angry about a $30 pitcher that serves four people. The drinks were strong, limey, and served quickly.

Step 2: Pupusas! We ordered one revueltos (pork and cheese, for the uninitiated) and one frijol y queso. What happened to their curtido?! Where was my salsa roja? The traditional best friends of pupusas everywhere were absent (salsa) or bland (in the case of the curtido), a fact I can’t overlook. Apart from this, the pupusas themselves were deliciously stuffed and hot off the comal.

Step 3: Entree! In lieu of one of my usuals, I mixed it up this time with the ropa vieja off their new “house specialties” menu. The meat was juicy and bathed in tomato goodness, the beans were smoky, the plantains had that crunchy-soft caramelization that I can never get at home, and the tortillas were moist, warm, and perfect for sopping up everything on my plate. Other dishes at the table included chicken enchiladas (one of my all-time favorites here, which went over well tonight too, with plentiful accompaniments), the fish tacos, and the pollo a la parrilla con huevo y chorizo. The fried egg on this was too hard-cooked, and the chicken was very cooked, in true Central American fashion, but it was still delicious.

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Price: $20 per person

Bottom line: I can’t name a better pupuseria in DC proper, the service here can’t be beat, and their new, improved menu includes tons of Latin American specialties that aren’t so fried or carb-heavy. DC is rife with pupuserias; it’s basically our official state food. El Rinconcito is one of the greats.

Bad Saint

This is my birthday weekend, and in lieu of a more upscale place, I opted to finally pull the trigger and wait in line for Bad Saint on a Saturday, a place I’ve been dying to go to since it opened.

We arrived at about 3:15 and were not the first ones in line, but definitely close enough to the front (although the people in front of us would eventually all have their friends show up). Around 5:05, the doors opened, and the hostess began taking in groups one by one, asking each person if they had any allergies and then pointing out which things on the menu they wouldn’t be able to eat (each item included a description in English, so I’m not sure why this was necessary). It took another 15 minutes for us to be allowed in due to this rigmarole, but we were eventually seated on the stools against the wall, where we had a great view of the kitchen, which I was really excited about.

The menu looked fabulous. I wanted everything. I first ordered a cocktail and my husband got a beer and we also heard the daily specials. Because everyone enters at the exact same time, it took forever to get my cocktail, although it was very original and tasty so I’m not sure I can fault them. We eventually ordered four dishes: the banana hearts in coconut milk, the pork sausage, squash blossoms stuffed with squid, and the beef ribs.

First, the good: I have never had Filipino food before and it was different than anything I’d had before. In fact, “interesting” and “unique” were the words my husband and I most often used to describe our dishes. As one might expect, it’s generally got the Southeast Asian ingredients mixed with flavors from the Spanish colonial influence. The banana hearts, which I expected to be on the sweeter side, definitely were not, which I enjoyed. The squash blossoms were really balanced and had a great texture, which I don’t always feel like I get with squid. And the pork sausage had a great, semi-sweet flavor.

The bad: Everything was SO. SALTY. I have no frame of reference for Filipino cuisine, so I can’t speak to its authenticity in this regard. It was not salty in an inedible way, but it was a predominant flavor in everything we ordered (although they deliver a small semi-sweet dessert with the check, which was completely bland, probably because my taste buds had been destroyed by all the salt).

The bottom line: I don’t regret coming here, and I don’t regret waiting in line (OK, maybe a little…), but I will not do it again. Bad Saint is good, but not good enough to merit their first-come-first-serve-no-reservations policy. Not bad bad, just insanely overhyped. They should rename this restuarant “Mediocre Saint.”

Price: $75 per person