A Tale of Two Taco Spots: Taqueria Nacional and Chupacabra

Both 14th Street and the Atlas District get new fast-casual spots.
Chupacabra (left) and Taqueria Nacional (right) both bring tacos and other Latin eats to their neighborhoods. Photographs by Jeff Elkins.
Chupacabra (left) and Taqueria Nacional (right) both bring tacos and other Latin eats to their neighborhoods. Photographs by Jeff Elkins.

Two unaffiliated new taco spots have opened to expand our fast-casual horizons—Chupacabra
in the Atlas District, and Taqueria Nacional along the 14th Street corridor. Both
are counter-order spots where you can pop in for takeout or grab a seat and linger
over lunch and dinner. Even better: $10 will feed you well at both.


Arepas

and “ghost scorpion sauce” on H Street

The first thing to know about food truck gone brick-and-mortar Chupacabra: It’s not
strictly Mexican. Sure, you’ll find seven varieties of tacos, but chef
Matt DiGangi—who also helms the kitchen at neighboring sister restaurant Sticky Rice—draws
from a number of other Latin American influences when creating dishes such as crispy
Venezuelan
arepas or a pressed Cuban sandwich with herb-roasted pork. You might find specials like
Puerto Rican
tostones—smashed, fried plantains served with various toppings—or
mofongo, in which the banana-like fruit is mashed with pork rinds. Vegetarians and vegans
could order the dish sans swine; the entire menu is friendly toward dietary restrictions,
with a variety of veggie, gluten-free, and dairy-free options clearly marked and vegetable
oil used instead of traditional lard for cooking.

Six stools line a ledge inside the shop, while four picnic tables sit just outside.
Eventually they’ll be covered by an awning for inclement weather, and the patio is
set to expand at least twofold along the sidewalk. Service is counter-order only,
but you can still go for a multi-course meal with appetizers including chips and fresh
guacamole or chilled shrimp cocktail with gazpacho sauce. Much of the rest is customizable:
seven meats, fish, and veggies can be stuffed into tortillas for tacos or lightly
fried corn
arepas, served atop salad, or scooped onto a bowl of cilantro-corn rice and black beans.
Pick between items such as
sofrito-stewed chicken, roasted squash and eggplant, or pork that’s been marinated in Guajillo
chilies and pineapple juice and then slow-roasted on a spit behind the counter. Heartier
eaters can opt for bowls with two toppings. Priced at $3 and $4, tacos run true to
Mexican street size—don’t expect Chipotle portions—so plan to order a few if you’re
hungry.

The liquor license is still in the works, with plans for an array of tequilas, frozen
margaritas, and beers like Negro Modelo. The last will come in handy
after sampling DiGangi’s “ghost scorpion sauce,” a mouth-searing salsa made from dried
ghost peppers and Trinidadian scorpion chilies. A good alternative for soothing the
scorch in the meantime: vanilla ice cream, which DiGangi likes to pair with the fiery
condiment.

Chupacabra. 822 H St., NE; 202-505-4628. Open Monday through Thursday 11 to 11, Friday
11 AM to 2 AM, Saturday 9 AM to 2 AM, and Sunday 9 to 9.

Traditional tacos come down the Hill

You might recognize Taqueria Nacional,

John Fulchino and
Ann Cashion’s fast-casual taco spot that once sat on Capitol Hill next to Johnny’s Half Shell.
Then again, you may not. The new home in a former post office at the corner of 14th
and T streets is considerably larger, and boasts an outdoor patio as well as a 35-seat
dining room. Another welcome addition: draft beers, frozen margaritas, and spiked
agua fresca in seasonal flavors such as hibiscus and passionfruit.

Fans of the old Taqueria won’t be thrown for a loop at lunch or dinner (here’s the menu). Guests still
queue to order corn tortillas filled with chorizo, grille steak, fried fish, slow-cooked
lamb, or scrambled eggs and green chilies (previously only a morning item that made
it to the full-time roster). The proteins can also be added to salad, quesadillas,
and a plate of two crispy tostadas with beans and cheese. Once you’ve selected toppings
like freshly made salsas, pico de gallo, and guacamole, you can take it all to go
or grab a drink and settle in at one of the colorful picnic tables or funky two-tops
under a mural of the Virgin Mary. (Don’t worry, she won’t judge if you go back for
seconds.)

The best new addition to the concept: weekend breakfast. Though the 10-to-noon time
frame may be a tad early for anyone who hit the 14th Street bars the night before,
several dishes sound worth waking for (and you can always grab a cappuccino at BakeHouse
next door). In addition to breakfast tacos you’ll find egg-stuffed quesadillas, huevos
rancheros, and cornmeal pancakes with cinnamon-scented piloncillo syrup. Come noon
the menu switches back to the regular lunch/dinner offerings.

Taqueria Nacional. 1409 T St., NW; 202-299-1122. Open Monday to Wednesday 11 to 10,
Thursday 11 to 11, Friday and Saturday 10 to midnight, and Sunday 11 to 10.

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