Fri 6 Nov 2009
We had it all planned out. After Wednesday night’s Food Blogger Happy Hour at the Black Squirrel in Adams Morgan, we’d head up to Columbia Road. Our intention: to check out a Mexican joint that Coffee Shop Girl recommended as having the best horchata in all of Washington. She told us about it over dinner at her place, and we’ve been dying for an excuse to check it out ever since.
Thankfully, Elizabeth had a great idea for a fallback…another Mexican establishment that came highly recommended. So we kept driving until we hit 14th Street in Columbia Heights, and then we paid our first visit to Taqueria Distrito Federal.
This recommendation came from a trio of completely unrelated sources, each time in response to our complaints about the lack of really good Mexican food in the District. We figured that was as good a sign as any that we might find what we’d been looking for in this hole-in-the-wall taco joint.
More signs of good things to come (and those good things themselves) after the jump.
The nearly-empty dining room gave us pause at first, but the no-frills decor reassured us that we were in the right kind of place. Racks of pre-packaged pastries and snacks sit near a display case with flan and aguas fresca inside. Black and white glamour shots of celebrities we’d never heard of, a space for the local community to post their flyers and notices, and two TVs tuned to Spanish-language stations deliver the message that Taqueria Distrito Federal is a Mexican restaurant and a neighborhood restaurant all at once.
As it turns out, we needn’t have worried about the lack of diners. While we were eating a steady stream of neighbors flowed in, picking up carry-out and orders that they had called in ahead of time. Even so, our food was ready in near-record time…and we ate it almost as quickly.
On weekdays, the menu at Taqueria Distrito Federal is pretty straightforward. You can have tacos, burritos, quesadillas, tortas and tostadas. Each of these standards can be filled with a wide array of meats that run the gamut from those you’d find at Chipotle (barbacoa, carnitas, chicken) to those that are common in Mexican street food but far less popular here ( tongue, tripe, goat). A few dinner platters round out the menu. On Saturdays and Sundays they offer pozole (a soup made with pork and hominy), menudo (tripe and cow feet soup) and tamales of pork or chicken. They also offer a full breakfast menu every morning.
When Elizabeth saw the aguas fresca, her first question was, “Do you have horchata?” They did, and so her drink order was a foregone conclusion. I decided to join her in a fresca and selected a marañon, made from the fruit that gives us the cashew nut. At $2 each, the drinks were pricey but they really hit the spot. If you’ve never tasted marañon before, I can best compare it to a thicker pineapple juice. It has that same sweet-tart flavor with a slightly creamier consistency. Elizabeth’s horchata came with a cinnamon stick in it for added flavor and she immediately declared this to be one of the best horchatas she’s tried in DC (Coffee Shop Girl’s recommendation is still out there, though…)
We decided to get a variety of the tacos to see how the kitchen handled the different meats. Elizabeth went a la carte for $2 per taco, choosing the carne asada and the “special fish taco” whose announcement was permanently affixed to each menu (I’m guessing it’s no longer just a special). I got a combo that entitled me to three tacos, dessert and a drink for $9.50, so I tried the chorizo, the al pastor (chunks of beef and pork) and the pork carnitas.
Each taco offers itself up on a stacked pair of corn tortillas, topped with the meat of your choice, sliced onions, avocado and cilantro. Those who are more familiar with the cuisine than I am give them high marks for garnishing the plate with slices of radish and cucumber.
And the flavors are generally wonderful. Even before our meals arrived, we enjoyed the complimentary chips and salsa that they brought around. But this was no mere salsa: I can best describe it as an avocado sauce, a thin green dip that is nothing like guacamole but still delivers that unmistakable avocado flavor. When we asked our server, she informed us it’s a house recipe that uses avocado, salt, onions, cilantro, lime and jalapenos. It had a cool, mild heat to it and we couldn’t get enough.
The carnitas had a deep pork flavor and a nice saltiness. The carne asada was juicy and just a little spicy. And the chorizo brought vibrant spice without too much of the grease that the sausage often brings with it. The al pastor was decent, but its subtle flavors couldn’t hope to impress after the chorizo taco made its mark. Of all the meats we tried, only the fish taco was a disappointment. Elizabeth deemed it dried out and a bit fishy, and she only took a few bites before setting it aside. The flan had a nice texture and a rich sweetness that rounded out the meal.
We walked away from our introduction to Taqueria Distrito Federal impressed. We had eaten well and enjoyed our aguas fresca for less than $20 before tip. This is definitely the kind of Mexican-style food we’ve been looking for, and it may well be the best of what’s around (especially if you’re hungry after Taqueria Nacional has already closed down for the day). It’s probably a good thing we live outside their 2-mile delivery radius! Until we can get out West for some of the real deal, I can see us making regular visits.