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.

Espita Mezcaleria

I’m always down for mezcal cocktails. Throw promises of high-end Mexican food in the mix and I’ll basically sign away my first-born child. There is no better prescription for a hot Friday evening than these two things. Big ups to the weather for cooperating tonight!

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Fair warning: the mezcal list at Espita is pretty intimidating. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this many sub-varieties and distilleries exist, but how this place has managed to aggregate all these interesting liquors is beyond me. Until two weeks ago at Mezcalero, my fairly hip cousin hadn’t even heard of mezcal at all. Fortunately for me, the cocktail list is pretty straightforward. I ordered the Snap Pea Highball, which promised to be refreshing (spoiler alert: it was!), and my husband ordered Revenge of the Estocada–basically a mezcal negroni, although the liquor used in this one was more subtle and lighter on the smoke. It was a struggle for both of us to not down these drinks in one gulp.

As per usual, we decided to split a few small plates in lieu of ordering larger dishes. In my mezcal-addled mind, this was a good way to ease the financial burden. That was not entirely what happened. In order, our share-plates were:

    1. Salsa de Marañon: nutty, smoky, and slightly spicy. We thought, “Hm, this tastes familiar” for several minutes before my husband finally pinpointed the flavor as “franks and beans.” This is a major undersell because it was delicious. Maybe a very high-quality franks and beans? At least it was not just your run-of-the-mill salsa. The chips were fantastic too; thicker than usual, crispy, and light on the salt.
    2. Ceviche: I don’t know about you, but I expect ceviche to have, like, a lot of fish in it. Perhaps it speaks more to the high standard set by the other dishes, but this was kind of a disappointment. My husband would tell you that there was too much rhubarb. I would tell you there just wasn’t enough fish. Potato/potahto. What fish was there was plush and delicious, but calling this ceviche was false advertising. Call it a rhubarb salad with raw fish on it. Boom! Done.

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3. Tacos al Pastor: Tender pork, tart-salty watermelon, and sweet warm pineapple. This was not your typical taco al pastor but damn if it wasn’t delicious. Definitely the best part of this dinner.

4. Cauliflower: The texture of the vegetable itself was the perfect combination of soft on the inside with crispy florets. The sauce claimed to be hazelnut salsa but I’m pretty sure it was just that same cashew salsa we had as our starter. I ain’t mad, though. In this incarnation, it was almost barbecue- or teriyaki-like, and the cauliflower acted as a good vehicle for eating more sauce.

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An honest question here: how have I been to two different Mexican restaurants in the last two weeks that don’t offer tres leches cake? Do you want my money or not, Espita?

In the end, we opted for liquid dessert. Our server recommended the Durango mezcal flight. Despite a mezcal list about an inch thick, somehow Espita can’t be bothered to write an actual descriptive blurb about any of them so we had no idea what we were getting. One great thing about this flight was that all three of the mezcals were very different from one another. On the other hand, only one of them was particularly good (related: I highly recommend the Mezcales de Leyenda). It was smoky, sweet, and fruity.

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Despite Espita’s food prices–which I would estimate were about 20% higher than necessary–we somehow still managed to spend more money on drinks than on food.

Price: Even at $50 per person, you may be hungry an hour later.

Bottom line: Espita has a unique schtick and food that was interesting and good, but borders on not being worth the price. Come for the cocktails, maybe pick up a small plate or two.

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.

Sol Mexican Grill

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Anybody in my immediate family will tell you how relentlessly I used to make fun of H Street. How anytime it was mentioned, I would squawk, Regina George style, “Stop trying to make H Street happen!” More and more restaurants are proving me wrong, from Le Grenier to Queen Vic (but not Big Board. Never Big Board).

Unfortunately, Sol Mexican Grill (not to be confused with El Sol in Logan Circle), is basically the Gretchen Wieners of H Street. For what it’s worth, this restaurant has a fast-casual joint downstairs and a sit-down section upstairs. It’s possible that the fast-casual part is alright, perhaps even good for what it is. But almost from the get-go, the sit-down section was an abomination.

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Drinks: I had the spicy mango margarita (left), my husband had the Patron margarita. This was the first–and last–thing that wasn’t a complete disappointment. For a “spicy” margarita, this was bad. But for a weekend-starting sugar drink, I guess it was okay. The Patron margarita was solid, though, although these are the smallest glasses of rail liquor to ever cost $11. I’ve adjusted the size of this photo to reflect the actual size of the glasses.

After pigging out on Peruvian chicken for lunch, I wanted something small and was leaning towards tacos but they didn’t look particularly interesting, so I went instead with the trio of enchiladas.

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From left to right, these are beef with mole sauce, pork with red sauce, and chicken with salsa verde. Then there’s some yellow rice that I didn’t eat because it would have been a waste of my time, and some black beans that came straight out of a can. Of the three enchiladas, the beef was the only one worth eating. The mole was smoky and…that’s about it. I like beef, I guess? All three meats were dry, an amazing feat since I’ve never seen someone fuck up pulled pork, and there was no sauce or anything else to speak of inside the enchiladas. I didn’t finish any of these. I was hoping to have a lighter dinner, so I guess Sol helped me accomplish that by giving me food so shitty that even I didn’t want to eat it.

This brings me to my poor husband. He ordered the parillada sol. He’s working out a lot and trying to do a lean bulk, hence the desire to pay $26 for a metric fuck-ton of protein. Unfortunately for him, this meant that he now had to finish this enormous plate of second-rate food:

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On the left: rubber chicken, meh shrimp, ground pork that Sol would like to pass off as “chorizo,” and some overcooked skirt steak. On the right: more shitty accompaniments. Not pictured: tortillas that also clearly came out of a bag. I would like to dwell for a moment on the so-called chorizo. Because it’s actually making me angry that someone thinks they can sully the good name of spicy sausage with some over-salted, greasy pork crumbles. Like, for real.

This place was so bad that we actually passed up an advertised tres leches cake, something I have never done in my entire life.

Looking around, the majority of Sol’s patrons were Gallaudet students, which I can understand. It’s close, and this restaurant took me back to my days as an impoverished college student when my whitebread boyfriend and I would hit up Chili’s for a night of splurging. All likeness to Chili’s abated when we got the bill, though. $77 for this crap?! Regina George was an asshole, but she was right; Gretchen needed to shut up already about “fetch.”

Price: $40 per person, an hour of your life, and your dignity.

Bottom line: Listen, just don’t come here. There’s no excuse. If you want Chili’s, just go to Chili’s. Here’s a map to show you how to get there instead:

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.

Tortas y Tacos La Chiquita

Ah yes, Arlington. That place you go to for the sole purpose of buying stuff on Craigslist. Which is exactly what I was doing this Sunday afternoon. I wasn’t planning on a lunch out. Frankly, in my mind, Arlington is the bastion of Panera. And yes, yes, I know that Arlington has plenty of good independent restaurants but we were out in the heavy suburbs and I didn’t want a big sit-down meal.

After retrieving the Craigslist loot, I was headed home, thinking there wasn’t anything on the way, when I ended up in the middle of this adorable Main Street at the corner of Walter Reed Drive and Columbia Pike, and dining options abounded. What even is this place? It’s sort of in this No Man’s Land between Ballston and Pentagon City. Crossed the street, and there, in all its glory, was La Chiquita.

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It’s next to the theater and looks like nothing much. But looks are often deceiving, as I was made painfully aware of last night at Shaw’s Tavern. Inside, their flashy electronic menu rotated between options, flashing a picture of each one. A little voice told me I needed the carnitas torta. It arrived crazy fast and looked like this:

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It was piled high with moist pulled pork, topped with avocado, tomato, and pickled vegetables, dripping with cheese, and absolutely smothered in mayonnaise. The bread was soft and warm. The meat was juicy. The vegetables were spicy pickled perfection. The salsa served on the side was a perfect addition. I’m ambivalent about mayonnaise and even I didn’t think this was too much (even though it really was too much…I had to eat this sandwich with a knife and fork). I was audibly moaning with pleasure by the time I finished this meal.

This torta was so good that I considered buying another one just to keep the feeling going (it was plenty of food). If I could have this experience all over again, I would have bought two just for the variety. I’m sad that I only tried the one thing because La Chiquita has plenty of non-torta plates if that’s your thing: tacos, quesadillas, etc. I’m sure they’re all amazing. I’m glad I don’t live in this neighborhood because I would be SO. FAT.

Price: $10 per person.

Bottom line: You need this torta in your life. It’s worth a special trip.

La Puerta Verde

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In a long-awaited dinner reservation, my usual Friday night companions (aka my husband and in-laws) ventured to Ivy City to check out La Puerta Verde. Ivy City is trying, you guys. It’s trying really hard. And try as it might, La Puerta Verde was dead. I was actually embarrassed that I had made reservations for a place where we were the only people sitting at a table. But hey, that means good service, right?

The inside of this place is gorgeous. I was already feeling nostalgic for Mexico, and this just drove it home. How can I find their interior designer?

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As per usual, we started with drinks. I had the special pomegranate margarita, which was crisp, not-too-tart, not-too-sweet, and very refreshing. My husband ordered the LPV margarita, which claimed to be mezcal and cilantro puree. The only sign of cilantro puree was its distinct green-ness. Other than that, it was a smoke bomb. It would be perfect for your pretentious friend who always talks about how much he loves Scotch. It was also perfect for my father-in-law. Both of my parents-in-law ordered their special hurricane-relief mojito. The plus side was that the proceeds went to charity. The downside was that their bartender somehow forgot to add syrup and it just tasted like cold lime-water. I officially rule the cocktails a bust.

We ordered the elote loco for the table because when in Rome. If you’ve ever eaten street corn from the actual street, it sucks (at least in the States). El Chucho has managed to make theirs into the perfect melding of corn, cheese, and chili, with just the most perfect hint of chile. La Puerta Verde’s is alright. I mean, it’s corn and artisanal mayo so it couldn’t be bad. The corn was sweet and the chile was (in my opinion) understated.

Next up: entrees. I only got a taste of two of them because a certain dining companion (let’s just refer to her as “Monster”) gobbled up her shrimp dish without offering up even a taste. So first, I had the mole verde con pollo. The chicken was moist and cooked to the exact right temperature without going over. It was served with sauteed red onions and cactus, which I appreciated, but it didn’t have a solid texture. The mole verde was slightly nutty but overall kind of bland. On the other hand, my husband’s chamorro de cerdo was like taking a bite out of an angel’s wing, it was so tender, smoky, buttery, and well-seasoned. It also had a spicy green salsa, which was a great accompaniment.

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In general, the service was fast. However, our server was, shall we say, slightly over-salted. I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt because I, too, am prone to the occasional snark attack. I like to think I can dish it out, too, and she made me uncomfortable on a few occasions. She didn’t even offer us dessert! It was only through some keen internet sleuthing that I deduced that they offered tres leches cake. I wanted to not order it just to spite her, but then again… it’s tres leches, and I am a mere mortal, after all.

The tres leches was, sadly, fairly standard. Not the driest, not the moistest. It was topped with I assumed to be a dollop of whipped cream because I am a tres leches purist. But upon closer inspection, it was actually cream cheese. This shall not stand. Tres leches is the highest incarnation of cake, and it is a show of pure folly to believe that one can improve upon it.

Price: $30 per person.

Bottom line: La Puerta Verde was hit-or-miss. The main miss was their cocktails. The main hit was that tasty pork shank. Mad props to their decorator.