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Is there decent mexican in DC?

Just moved to the district a few months ago, and I have been to a couple of places like Cactus Cantina and Alero that serve OK but unmemorable food. I'm looking for a place with more atmosphere, better food and reasonable prices. Any suggestions?

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  1. To make the rounds of the DC classics for Mexican you'll want to hit Lauriol Plaza in Dupont, Austin Grill near Chinatown (or in Alex) and Cactus, which you've been to. There is also a neighborhood favorite in Capitol Hill (name escapes me - Tortilla Coast?) that as I recall is more a 'ritas and nachos kind of place. Rosa Mexicano, near the MCI Center, is hip but pricy, crowded, and not worth the overhead. The other major chain around is Rio Grande, which is very similar to Don Pablo's if you've ever been to one of those.

    I've recently come to appreciate Mexicali Blues, a Mexican place in Clarendon with Salvadoran influences. They are attentive to the details, make great salsa, have excellent specials and good prices in general. I recommend the fajita platter for lunch.

    Another VA favorite is about a mile and a half from Ballston Metro--it's called El Paso Cafe. They do yeoman's work on all of the classic tex mex dishes and serve it up in a neat neighborhood restaurant atmosphere. Pricing is good.

    5 Replies
    1. re: traveler

      I've heard that the best actual Mexican food is out in Riverdale, MD, but I like Guajilo on Wilson Blvd in Arlington for good food and a cute place. Always a good backup when Rays is mobbed too.

      I hate Lauriol Plaza. I'm just saying.

      1. re: caphill2320

        I am with you - not huge fan of LP. But it is kind of a Warshington institution.

        1. re: traveler

          yes but cactus and LP have the same problem, which is they have only flour tortillas. no corn tortillas. its insane. but the owner (who is cuban) is making money hand over first so don't expect anything to change. the old LP, which was down the block, was great for lunch, the ambiance was great. and he used to do a cuban food buffet at CC, on tuesdays, but i don't think for a long time (10 years). that was good. as was his 1980's adams morgan cuban restaurant, el caribe. but he figured out that mediocre tex mex is what sells, and that's the history of latin american food in d.c.

      2. re: traveler

        "Rosa Mexicano, near the MCI Center, is hip but pricy, crowded, and not worth the overhead."

        I used to think the same way until I actually went there and had the tacos asados. Now I believe it is very fairly priced given the quality and quantity. Highly reccommended.

        1. re: NoVaDog

          Have to agree. It's not cheap eats, but the quality is excellent. Duck tacos, lamb shank baked in parchment paper. I was actually blown away. And now Oyamel is going to open right down the street.

      3. im from corpus christi tx, and the only place i've found that i really enjoyed was Mi Rancho. i frequent the germantown location, but there's one in silver spring as well. Guapo's is good too as well as Rio Grande - both @ the Rio in gaithersburg. these are tex/mex places im mentioning

        1 Reply
        1. re: Antonio Montana

          I second Mi Rancho. I've been to the SS one many times.

        2. Lauriol is so overrated...

          1. Do you want Tex-Mex or real Mexican? If it's the latter, go to Taqueria Distrito Federal in Columbia Heights or Tacos Pepitos in Adams Morgan.

            If you want a cross between the two, the Taqueria Poblanos in Alexandria and Arlington are pretty good. Guajillo is also okay.

            I would agree that unless you like atrocious waits for average food Lauriol Plaza is to be avoided at all costs. So is La Loma, its Capitol Hill counterpart.

            3 Replies
            1. re: CMACDC

              Taqueria Poblano is, I think, Cal-Mex. I have had a couple of pretty good meals there a few years ago, but on my last visit the food seemed to have slipped several notches. It might have been an off night but I'm not inclined to return.

              Most of the Tex Mex in DC sucks. The best places are not in DC, but mainly out in the suburbs, in small taquerias or roadside trucks (and these are not Tex Mex, but what CMACDC calls "real Mexican", or Mex Mex if you prefer :). There are several in Bladensburg (e.g. La Sirenita and Taqueria Tres Reyes). Costa Alegre in College Park/Berwyn Heights is on par with anything in Bladensburg. I've found all of them to be very uneven, although on their good days they are really good.

              1. re: alopez

                I've has some major disappointments recently at the Taqueira Poblano in Arlington. Tacos al Pastor that must have been from previous day(s). Enchilada that was a huge mound of refried beans mixed with icebox cold shredded lettuce (beef was AWOL).

                I think the baja fish tacos are a safe order because they don't pre- cook them.

              2. For a well-rounded menu, then Guajillo in Arlington outshines the local options. If you are looking for a taqueria, then there is no better quality then the cabrito or chorizo tacos at Taqueria El Charrito Caminante, also in Arlington. Only a few stools.

                1. sadly, no. lauriol plaza makes me cry, and not in a good way.

                  1. I'm from L.A. and so far, the best Mexican places I've found are El Charrito Caminante, El Tapatio, and Tacos Pepitos, and Taqueria Tres Reyes II, followed by Taqueria Poblano (which is good but has a distinct Anglo-Californian twist).

                    1. Right there with you, ChewFun. I grew up in Manhattan Beach. Since moving to this coast in 1993, I've searched for Southern Californian Mexican. Charrito and Taqueria Poblano are the closest I've found. I like Taqueria Poblano for the crispy "L.A. Style" taco. It's the only place this side of the Rockies that I hve found will fry up a taco shell similar to how they do it in L.A. Of course, it is such a far cry from what you get out West, that I have given up finding a true replacement.

                      1. We lived 5 years in San Antonio & I agree with the negative assessments above. One thing I can add to this is that Mi Rancho in Silver Spring is pretty good, though (again) far from exceptional when compared to Texas, L.A. etc. Best thing about it: Fresh flour tortillas from a rotating oven. Fajitas are always a good bet. Enchiladas are acceptable (but I make my own so I'm picky.) Best time to go is in warm weather when you can sit out on the covered patio. Those of you from West, Southwest might actually start to think you're ``back home'' (well, maybe after a frozen marg or 2).

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: dan f.

                          ohh yes, the flour tortillas are great at mi rancho. i went to the germantown location yesterday for a to-go order of nachos mi rancho (fajita nachos.) on my way out, the host was making the flour tortillas in the machine. we talked for a minute, and as i was leaving he gave a tin foil packet containing 5 fresh tortillas. nice guy, great place.

                        2. Taqueria Poblano isn't authentic, but it's very tasty. It can be overrun with kids, so sit at the bar. Service is best there, too, and you can pinch some treats like their habanero sauce. It's also a perfect brunch spot, with a ponytailed guitar guy.

                          Guajilo on Wilso is more expensive, but they do some good things there. Their mole is hit-or-miss; a tasty mole but dried out chicken underneat it. Enchiladas are good, and their sangria used to be tasty, but less consistent recently.

                          I second the vote for Taqueria El Charrito Caminante, though they recently removed most of the stools. Their chorizo tacos are good, the tongue is so-so.

                          Most taco trucks are usually really pupusa trucks that might also do tacos. Too few Mexicans in the area to sustain a truck industry.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: tmentzer

                            There are several taco trucks in the Bladensburg area and also one in Greenbelt (T. Esmeralda) that are *not* pupuserias. They are Mexican. Can be hit or miss, though.

                          2. La Lomita Dos on Capitol Hill SE is AMAZING. Reminds me of the yummy Mexican food I grew up eating in California. And it helps that it has such a low price-point too :)

                            1. The answer is that if you ever have spent a significant amount of time in Southern California, unfortunately your answer is no. The mexican food here pales in comparison. La Lomita Dos is ok, Mixtec is ok but very pricey for what you get, and some of the others mentioned are ok, but I have yet to have anything that comes close to even the worst Southern California style of mexican food. Why oh why can't Rubio's open a location here?

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: jpschust

                                I was right there with you until the mention of Rubio's...they churn out pretty boring food on par with Baja Fresh. Living in San Diego, I never saw a point to eating at Rubio's, with so many legit mexican restaurants and taco stands around. I put Rubio's behind Santana's and even La Salsa for chain mexican places, which can be easily avoided out there unless saddled with insistent co-workers. But anyway, I digress...

                                Yes, the mexican food options in the parts of NoVA I have become familiar with at least are fairly lacking. I can't really speak to the authenticity factor because I have lived in San Diego and Austin but have not spent very much time in Mexico. For the most part I don't eat much mexican food around here. Poblano's is most reminiscent of the southern-californiaized mexian food I remember from the more americanized places in San Diego. El Charrito Caminante is probably my favorite, despite not being reminiscent of much in my past experience.

                                I do here there are some good offerings in MD as well as the Alexandria area.

                                1. re: Lowbar

                                  It's all about the fish taco there. It's the only thing worthwhile but man I love those. I'd kill for fish tacos on par with theirs.

                                2. re: jpschust

                                  I too think La Lomita Dos or even the original one down Penn. Ave. are just okay. El Tapatio in Bladensburg is my favorite option for a sit down restaurant. I haven't tried the liver tacos, and probably never will. My rule is that if a Mexican place has goat, tongue, liver, rabbit or goat on the menu it's probably going to be good. They are aiming for an immigrant clientele.

                                3. As a native Texan (Austinite) my opinion is that there are scant options here for truly good Mexican or Tex-Mex. Rosa Mexicano is expensive but is the only place that has met my expectations for good Mexican since being in DC for slightly over a year. If you want a Mexican meal that you don't have to make excuses for, that is the ticket. (My Los Angeles, C.A. friend agrees.)

                                  1. Are the two Mexican places in Riverdale still open? La Sirenita (4911 Edmonston Rd), and Taqueria Tres Reyes (5403 Kenilworth). Have not tried but have been meaning to. This may give me the excuse.


                                    There's also Alamo, but I'm pretty sure that's Tex-Mex.


                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: monkeyrotica

                                      There are more than two places in Riverdale. There's El Tapatio, and there are several taco trucks, bakeries, and markets.

                                      I've tried the Alamo several times, but always leave disappointed. Quite possibly I've ordered the wrong things though.

                                    2. The "can't get good Mexican in the DC area" responses are so predictably swift in these threads that, as a non-native Mexican, Southwesterner, or Southern Californian, I have to assume the sentiment is legit. What do we need to be demanding of local purveyors of Mexican food to get a taste of what we're missing? Beans is beans, cheese is cheese, meat is meat, tortillas is cornmeal or flour, eh, or no? Or is it something in "the sauce" that's missing? Methods of preparation? Some level of authenticity as indicated by exotic menu items and ingredients?

                                      5 Replies
                                      1. re: Jay

                                        It's not a matter of the core ingredients themselves-- I think it's having trained good fast cooks, restaurants who will sell at a decent price (mexican food in the southwest and in mexico is cheap), the sauces need to be hotter and more authentic for lack of a better term, and overall they all are missing the atmosphere.

                                        1. re: Jay

                                          The reason those areas have a heck of a lot more good Mexican food than we do? They have an abundance of Mexican people...the increased demand for good, authentic stuff and talent pool of people qualified to provide it without much additional training than what they learned through family or through prior employment creates a natural increase in the amount of good stuff available.

                                          In this area, we just don't have many Mexican people. I think that's the primary reason. No widespread demand for the real stuff.

                                          That being said, most of the mexican food typically associated with southern CA and Texas is of its own style...so while not always being authentic to their Mexican roots, they have developed into their own cuisines and have their own standard of authenticity to them. So, to get good tex-mex, maybe we need a good influx of Texans (elsewhere than the white house)

                                          1. re: Lowbar

                                            Additionally, Mexico is a large country with distinct regions, not unlike China. I'm not overly versed on what region produces what style, but I do know that Baja is different from Yucatan.

                                            The family that owns and runs El Charro is Mexican (when he had the trailer, he took one week every year to go home - as he told me - to Mexico). I haven't asked, but I'm betting he's from further south in the country.

                                            Tex Mex and CA folks who know Mexican probably know Sonoran, Chihuanan (?), Baja Mexican, etc.

                                            To dis on southern Mexico styles would be like saying Hunan isn't Chinese but rather Vietnamese.

                                            1. re: Dennis S

                                              I don't see where I dissed on southern Mexico styles, but maybe that comment wasn't directed toward me. You are certainly correct though. What most LA/SD southern Californians know as real standard Mexican food is very similar to standard fare across Baja, often with a bit of a California twist, which would make sense given the geography. In Texas, where I lived for a shorter period of time (and really didn't have time to leave Austin much), it seemed like Tex-Mex and "Mexican" were two distinctly different cuisines, with both being readily available. In Mexico, I have only travelled extensively in the Baja peninsula and to Mexico City, so I can't really speak to the "authenticity" of food originating in those areas...but the Mexican food I enjoyed at reportedly authentic places in Arizona and Texas was quite different indeed from what I knew from Baja, and I always assumed this reflected influence from a different region.

                                              1. re: Lowbar

                                                My comment certainly wasn't directed toward you. I was trying to add another point to your comment. I get tired of hearing that something isn't true Mexican b/c it isn't done like what shows up in So Ca. That happens not just on the DC board as well.

                                        2. I agree with Lauriol Plaza in Dupont but Guapo's on Wisconsin Avenue is also a great place. There are also locations in Bethesda and Shirlington.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: tsrob

                                            Not that it matters to me, but I believe that place is owned by a primarily Peruvian group, so it may get the same sort of complaint that ChewFun posted below. Also, I didn't think their food was anything special when I went, on par with Rio Grande at best.

                                          2. Most of the so-called Mexican restaurants in the area are staffed or owned by Salvadorans. The Salvadoran approach to spices is not very Mexican. They also seem to be oriented towards people who want lots of cheese to go with their Margaritas.

                                            1. Lauriol Plaza is awful! They get by due to location and the great deck upstairs. I've never had good food there.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: foodslut

                                                There's acceptable food there, but it's not good. It's just factory mexican.

                                              2. My wife and I are now fans of the tacos (as well as pupusas) at Pupuseria Bertita in the 800 block of Kennedy street. Sure, it's owned by a Salvadoran (which generally dooms a place for me for Mexican food - but I love pupusas), but the tacos are pretty good. I haven't tried the burritos yet, but look forward to them. It's a take out place without any place to sit. They have tongue tacos (always a good sign in a Mexican place - along with liver, goat, rabbit or buche - (belly) tacos). I am amending my Salvadoran Mexican rule. A Salvadoran Mexican place can be good if they have neither any real seating nor make margaritas.

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: ChewFun

                                                  Just to clarify, buche = tripe, or stomach.

                                                2. I'm not a big fan of Tex-Mex, but love Mexican food. My favorites are in Maryland since I live there and see no reason to fight the traffic to go to Virginia for dinner unless it is somewhere very special.

                                                  That said, there are very good Mexican restaurants in the Riverdale area as discussed in this thread. However, places I enjoy (mainly because they are close enough to go to on a whim) include Mariachi in Rockville, El Napalito in Plaza del Mercado in Aspen Hill (but I always have the seafood and the chili relleno, the rest of the stuff is just ok and the place is expensive) Azucar on Layhill Rd in Silver Spring (really closer to Aspen Hill) and Sol Azteca in Olney (really more Latin American than Mexican)

                                                  1. Taqueria el Poblano. It's in Del Ray (Alexandria). It's small, cheap and awesome.

                                                      1. Fajita Coast, Samantha's, El Golfo, and Mi Rancho in Silver Spring are all excellent and worth the trip

                                                        1. except for a couple short stints, i haven't really lived in d.c. since i was 14, in the early 1990s. so i am actually encouraged by all the recommendations of new places in arlington and silver spring.
                                                          just wanted to add a funny historical note to the conversation: the founder of marriotte (who would go on to invent airplane food, btw), started out peddling a food cart on the Mall in the 1930s. He was a mormon from Utah. Do you know what he sold on that cart? tacos!
                                                          its hard to imagine that people were eating tacos in d.c. in the 1930s, and its still so hard to find a decent one.

                                                          1. I would not lump La Loma on Capitol Hill in with Lauriol Plaza, as one poster did. I've had some quite good fajitas at La Loma, and have gone back for them many times. Lauriol Plaza's fajitas--setting apart the wait, the noise and the higher prices--were lousy. La Loma also is more of a quiet neighborhood spot (except in summer, when the big terrace gets filled with loud parties of margarita drinkers), something you could never call L.P.

                                                            1. when we lived in No Va, we loved La Tolteca, which has restaurants in Sterling and Fairfax City. The food is good, the menu extensive, portions are HUGE and the prices are not bad. We never had bad service there. We took a variety of friends there, and I never remember anyone saying anything negative. In fact, we took friends who had just moved from CA, and they were impressed with the "authenticity." http://www.toltecos.com/
                                                              this restaurant is one of the few things I miss about living there! :)

                                                              1. Just went to Taqueria Distrito Federal on 14th St., which was mentioned in a post way above. It was pretty impressive, about as close to the real deal (interior Mexican division) as I've found in DC. Carnitas tostada piled high with strands of pork tenderloin (tho it seemed like shoulder to me) plus crumbled white cheese plus a bit of cream sauce. Tacos are made with corn tortilla & tender meat fillings (we sampled carne asada, chicken, and costilla de puerco -- pork rib sans bone) plus shaved onions and avocado slices. The irony, in view of the discussion on no Mexicans in DC and Salvadorans aren't adroit with Mexican food, is that the guy who runs the place is Salvadoran, but he spent years in Mexico City. So the food is authentic. Good selection of table sauces. My wife and I had four tacos, a tostada, a side of rice/beans and I had a tamarind drink. Total bill was $16.55. This is definitely worth a Chowhound's time & money.

                                                                1. I agree the Taqueria Distrito Federal is good. The owner is very nice and Salvadoran, but where are the cooks from? They clearly know what they are doing. They also have great agua frescas such as Tamarindo and Cashew.