Ixtapalpa Taqueria

Grave misfortune (summertime professional development) brought me to the suburban hellscape known as Gaithersburg today. As a teacher, my opportunities for eating a lunch that is anything other than defrosted leftovers shoved in my face during my free 45 minutes is a treat, so I specifically sought out interesting dining options. This stretch of the highway is populated by a lot of mediocre pseudo-Mexican restaurants and peppered with Subways and IHOPs, but then I happened upon Ixtapalpa Taqueria.

Their digs were unexpectedly trendy-looking and industrial, like a wannabe Chipotle, but menu options abounded, each one better sounding than the last. I ordered one pollo taco, one al pastor, and a side of nopales because I had to. I also swung by the salsa bar and was very impressed to see really authentic salsas PLUS sliced limes, julienned radish, and one of my most favorite things in the world: pickled red onion.

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Service was quick, and I was presented with two gorgeous and authentically plain tacos and a substantial portion of tender, juicy cactus pieces. They were peppery and oniony, like juicy green beans.

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The chicken taco was savory with a slightly spicy marinade. It went well with lime and the citrusy mild green salsa from the salsa bar. But with the al pastor, this place shone like the hot desert sun: ample pork, caramelized onions, the slight sweetness of pineapple. I piled this with pickled onions and hot red salsa and savored every bite.

Ixtapalpa was the stuff of dreams and I fear I won’t find a closer taqueria quite this good. This may be my new go-to place when I’m in Gaithersburg (admittedly never), and just a slight detour from 270 (where I drive when I have no other options). They even have margaritas (which I did not get because I want to keep my job).

Price: <$10 per person.

Bottom line: Suburbanites, be advised: Ixtapalpa Taqueria is incredible and worth a small to medium detour for interesting, quality, and cheap tacos and drinks. Every time someone goes to the Chipotle across the street instead of this place, an angel loses its wings.

Ruta del Vino

I was panicked on our too-long rush-hour drive to Ruta del Vino in Petworth. I knew the place was small and refused to take reservations. There were five of us. I really didn’t want to be driving all over town on a Friday night without a clear plan. I did a tuck and roll out of my father-in-law’s car and burst through the door like someone about to object at a wedding to find…a basically empty restaurant.

Now, I feel kind of stupid admitting this, but not one of us drank a drop of wine at this wine bar. How Ruta del Vino can make a profit on $5 happy hour margaritas (or how they managed to be this empty with $5 happy hour margaritas) is totally beyond me, but we took full advantage of that deal. We took so much advantage of that deal that my husband spilled his second one all over me and was immediately brought a third one. The margaritas were great.

Most of us decided to go the share-plates route and we–I mean, I–picked out a few things to try. Let’s get down to business here.

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The first round included the grilled cheese (bottom) which I didn’t try despite my mother-in-law’s pleas. The beet salad (top left) was big enough for four of us to share, and the sweet beets were complemented by tart pineapple and salty cheese, with plenty of greens and cilantro. It tasted so fresh, and I can’t wait to recreate this at home. The empanadas (top right) were stuffed with kale, nuts, pumpkin, and raisins, and the pastry was deliciously flaky, but I feel like the stuffing could have used more sweetness or spice.

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Next came our two seafood dishes: the grilled octopus and chorizo and the tiradito del dia. The octopus was cooked to perfection, not a bit chewy, and went well with the smoky sausage. I wish there had been more of it. The ceviche was again a little small, especially given how delicious it was. It was slightly sweet from mango and grapefruit and simply perfect. One of the best ceviches I’ve had.

Our last share plate was actually an entree: the carne asada. We ordered it medium rare and that is exactly how it came out: a perfect pink throughout despite the thin cut, a good amount of meat to share, a fragrant chimichurri, and some spiced yucca fries that were soft and crispy.

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My husband’s grandmother ordered (or rather, she was forced to order) the pollo a la huancaina. It was a decent size entree and the chicken had a great crispy exterior. Even the potatoes were delicious. I loved everything about this.

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We ended the night with a “bartender’s choice” blind comparison of two mezcals (the $5 margaritas may have played a role in this decision), and we were not disappointed by the two very different and very unique liquors we were brought, one of which was a younger, clear, and bolder flavor, and the other of which had the smoke and burn of oak barrel.

Price: $50 per person.

Bottom line: I don’t know how Ruta del Vino wasn’t more popular on a Friday evening, and even though it was to my distinct pleasure and benefit that we easily found a table, it would be a damn shame to not fill this place up.

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.

Nazca Mochica

I topped off Restaurant Week with Nazca Mochica, a swanky Peruvian joint just East of Dupont Circle. I sometimes feel like I’m a junkie chasing my next restaurant high. I always want to try something newer, more exotic, more interesting. It felt a bit disappointing to be eating Peruvian at a time like this.

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They’ve got some beautiful digs here, including a live stream from the central park of Lima. Like I needed one more reason to feel bad about not actually being in Lima (although in three short days I will be in Brussels, so maybe I’m still winning). Service started out a little slow (including not starting us off with a drink menu. I’m at the point in my life in which I am insulted while being mistaken for being younger than I am and ALSO insulted at being mistaken for older, so I’m sensitive to them not bringing me the drink menu right away). They did, though, and both wine and cocktails were exciting and reasonable. I got the beet and rosemary chilcano and my wonderful spouse ordered a glass of Malbec. “Blech! Is this cranberry or something?!” he said as he recoiled while trying my chilcano. I liked it a lot and appreciated the spicy ginger beer with the subtle sweetness of the beet, but let this serve as a lesson about there being no accounting for taste. Choose your cocktail wisely.

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This was the last time service was slow.

In fact, from this point on, it turned into a fast-motion meal with “Yakety Sax” playing in the background. Our appetizers came out even before the drinks, and a whole ninety seconds after ordering. It wasn’t one minute after we finished those that the entrees came out, and the dessert came as soon as our dinner plates were cleared. Our reservation was at 6:30 and I’m pretty sure we left the restaurant before 7:00. That being said, let’s go over the meal components:

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For the appetizer round, I had the ceviche and my husband got the causitas. That ceviche was ridiculously good. The fish was so soft, not a bit chewy or rubbery, had a light lime touch with something creamy (coconut milk?) as well. The bits of fried yuca complemented the fish well. And it was enormous! The causitas were very soft and plushy but, if I’m being honest, kind of bland. All three were the same with just slightly different toppings.

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For the entree, my husband (at my strong encouragement) got the seco de cordero and I had the pulpo a la parrilla. The perspective on this photo makes it look like I ate an entire sea monster, but in reality the lamb was much larger. The lamb was very tender with not a bit of chewy fat on it and the sauce was rich and winey with a slight spicy bite. It was top-notch and I think we’re both glad that I forced him to get this. Before I talk about the octopus, full disclosure: my husband recently called me “an octopus master” after I cooked PERFECT tentacles. I love octopus, but when it’s bad, it’s really bad. I started with the fat end, knowing it would be the inferior part and it was…quite chewy. I felt like some kind of hoity-toity Captain Ahab hacking at this leg with the provided steak knife. Fortunately, it improved from there. The sear on the tentacles was perfect (mmmm! Those crispy suckers!) and I liked the accompanying hominy. I wish this dish had had a green vegetable. Potatoes just don’t do it for me.

Finally, the part of the meal we had been waiting for: the alfajores. This is literally the only dessert Nazca Mochica has so we assumed it would be heinously good. Unfortunately, we were mistaken.

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What is this nonsense? The cookie-to-dulce de leche ratio was all wrong. I think the generally accepted rule on this is 1:1 and these cookies were just way too thick. I’m not sure I even tasted the caramel center. It was like expecting a Double Stuff Oreo and instead getting an Oreo that someone had licked the frosting out of and stuck the two halves back together.

Price: $45 per person during Restaurant Week; something closer to $50 or $55 per person at all other times.

Bottom line: I was satisfied after this dinner and not upset that I came here, but I’m not sure I’d come back. The Octopus Master(TM) is kind of above this. PS It has recently come to my attention that I also happen to be the Alfajores Master. My Peruvian coworker was impressed with my cookies, so it has been decided. And if I want to be depressed that I’m not in Peru, I can just watch videos at home.

Pan American Bakery

I’m really glad that the suburbs of DC, while occasionally bland and full of Red Lobster franchises, are generally diverse and small business-oriented. And when in Alexandria, prepare yourself for some top-notch food of many ethnic origins. We found ourselves today with my aunt and uncle, eating lunch at Pan American Bakery.

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The menu is, if I’m being honest, large to a slightly intimidating degree. I was overwhelmed with grilled meat options when all I really wanted was a solid sandwich. We sprung for an appetizer of saltenas because you can’t leave this place without some kind of delicious pastry. Sweet, flaky crust? Check! Tender chicken and vegetable filling? Check! Hot Pocket-style ability to burn the roof of your mouth with liquid lava filling? Check! My recommendation: order this but let it cool off while you eat the rest of your food first.

Then I had the choripan and my husband ordered the sandwich de lechon. My aunt and uncle, through a mixture of oncoming illness and naivete, each ordered the sopa de mani. We were in for a treat. The choripan was great–slightly spicy chorizo on a soft-inside, crunchy-outside french roll. It was tasty but could have used more toppings or a delicious sauce. My husband’s sandwich de lechon was good, with soft, flavorful pork on a huge seeded loaf. The fresh breads really do make a nice touch here.

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The soup arrived in a bowl that was approximately the size of an NFL player’s helmet. It was slightly peanutty and earthy with scattered pieces of beef, penne pasta, and shoestring potatoes throughout. Neither my aunt nor uncle finished their bowl.

Table service at Pan American leaves something to be desired, but that’s par for the course at a place that has plastic lawn chairs for seating. It may also be that they want their sit-down patrons to have as much time as possible to consider the costs and benefits of ordering dessert pastries out of their case.  It was not in the cards for me today, but I highly encourage all people to go for it and follow your dreams.

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Price: $10-15 per person.

Bottom line: Great lunch spot, good bang for your buck, and Peruvian/Bolivian specialties you can’t get everywhere.

Fresca Taqueria

We were winging it on Saturday night, looking around H Street for anything that sounded good and hoping we could find something before we froze to death in the first snow of the season and we happened upon Fresca Taqueria. We were tired, frozen, hungry, and in the mood for tacos, so we went in without much more than a glance at the menu.

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“Will you be dining in or taking out?” asked the cashier in the front. We glanced around at the basic digs, then at each other, shrugged, and said, “Dining in.”

“Well, in that case…would you like to sit in our new sit-down restaurant around back? You can have a table and a waiter, and all the food and prices are the same.” Obviously, we acquiesced.

He led us around the side of the building and into their very inconspicuous new restaurant. From the minute we crossed the threshold, we felt like Jack Torrance in The Shining, like we were walking into a place where everyone knew us because we’d been regulars there for time immemorial. Appropriately, although maybe unwisely, we sat at the bar.

They have a great tap list of mostly local beers, but what caught my eye was the $6.95 margaritas. We ordered two, along with some chips and salsa. The menu is enormous. They have every Mexican specialty you could possibly imagine, along with pupusas and empanadas. I came into this situation knowing I wanted tacos and I still had a hard time choosing. I finally settled on three tacos–one of the recommended shrimp, one pork, and one chorizo. My husband was thrilled to see that they offered Mexican tortas, which he has been dreaming of since our jaunt to Tacos y Tortas in Arlington. Like the margaritas, prices here were extremely reasonable.

Margaritas and chips arrived first. Oooooh this margarita could be dangerous. We sucked those down like nothing. I resolved not to order another one since we were on our way to a get-together with friends. The chips were good, with two salsas which were clearly homemade but fairly standard.

And then….then the entrees arrived. Here are some tacos:

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I started with the shrimp–not a bit chewy, very flavorful, paired well with salsa verde. The pork was second. It was the porkiest pork I’ve ever had–I at first thought that it could have used a marinade, but that would have covered up the sheer meaty flavor. I saved the chorizo for last. You can’t go wrong with this. I paired it with the smoky chipotle sauce and it was all spicy, smoky goodness. I could eat these forever and ever…and ever.

Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere’s torta!

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Like the pork taco, the flavor of the beef really shone through in this torta. It was a little plainer than the ones at Tortas y Tacos, but it was packed with toppings and dripping with mayo. It was definitely a winner.

It was at this point in the meal that the bartender who’d been serving us decided, completely unprompted, to whip up a jamaica margarita for funzies and give us a second round on the house. The jamaica margarita was even better than the house one, if that’s even possible. Like I said, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a photo of myself from 20 years ago hanging on their wall.

Price: $15 per person.

Bottom line: Fresca will meet all of your taco craving needs and then some. I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself snowed in here for the winter.

El Catrachito

El Catrachito is nestled between the Dominican hair salons, Central America bakeries, pho shops, and, yes, even a very shady looking adult bookstore in Wheaton, a place whose diversity is matched only by its depressive vibe. There aren’t many reasons to go to Wheaton unless you are interested in visiting its metro station, which features the longest escalators in the Western Hemisphere (This is actually true. They are 230 feet long in case you were wondering. You weren’t? Oh.) You would never notice El Catrachito from the street because it blends in so well with its sad surroundings, but it looks like what I imagine the coffee shop from Seinfeld would be if it existed in Tegucigalpa instead of Manhattan.

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This is DC and we have about a thousand Salvadoran restaurants but this is the only place I’ve seen Honduran food. And, as I was made painfully aware a few weeks ago, there’s a reason why you don’t find many Guatemalan restaurants either. For the uninitiated, “El Catrachito” means “The Little Honduran,” and it’s surprisingly not even the only Honduran restaurant in Wheaton.

The inside has classic diner decor complete with the full-service counter and round stools fixed to the floor. It even has one of those old-fashioned candy machines where you have to carefully cup your hands over the exit to avoid dropping your five year-old M&Ms. If nothing else, this place was guaranteed to be a great dive.

Their menu is very extensive and I was pleased that it was almost entirely Honduran specialties. I ordered the Baleadas Catrachas (with beans, cheese, and sour cream), and my husband got Tajadas con Carne Asada, which I’d never had before. Sadly, El Catrachito doesn’t serve alcohol of any kind.

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My baleadas were huge, freshly grilled, and stuffed with smoky, dripping refried beans. The tortillas were warm and soft, and they tasted even better with the hot sauce that the restaurant kindly provides. They were simple but delicious.

We didn’t know what to expect with the tajadas. Our only clue was the faded picture inside the menu. We ordered the carne asada thinking that the steak would be a good litmus test for the restaurant–chewy meat is a no-go. But upon its arrival, we knew it was the right move. Tajadas is basically Honduras’s answer to the garbage plate. It contains fried bananas topped with meat, cabbage slaw, and a mayo-based dressing. I don’t know who first had the idea to combine fruit, meat, and mayonnaise, but may god bless that person every day of his life. Nobody knows why, but everything about it works. And even better–El Catrachito passed the meat test because that carne asada was soft and scrumptious. My only complaint is that I couldn’t wash it all down with a margarita.

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Price: $10 per person.

Bottom line: Honduran food gets no respect and it should. El Catrachito gets it right, and the price tag ain’t bad either. You may even learn some Honduran geography from their giant wall map!