Definition: Generic Mexican. Remember that Jim Gaffigan joke about every Mexican dish being essentially the same thing, just with a different name? Right here.
Defining restaurant: Cactus Cantina in DC’s Cleveland Park
Iconic dish: Nachos blanketed with orange cheddar
You’ll always find: Laughing hordes of happy-hour drinkers
Definition: The classification for a great many Washington-area Mexican restaurants: Mexican food cooked by Salvadorans. Heavier and less bright than regional Mexican.
Defining restaurant: El Tamarindo in DC’s Adams Morgan
Iconic dish: Carne asada, slathered in butter before coming to the table in a sizzling cast-iron dish
You’ll always find: Plantains and pupusas in addition to fajitas and burritos
Definition: Mexican food by and for Californians. Looks like the real thing, but you won’t find lard in anything, and no dish or sauce has too much body—ideal for a culture that worships thin.
Defining restaurant: Surfside in DC’s Glover Park
Iconic dish: Grilled-fish tacos
You’ll always find: Surfboards on the wall
Definition: Foodies like to sneer at it, but this is an honorable cuisine, a melding of two cultures to produce a third. If you dislike Tex-Mex, it’s probably because you’ve only had bad Tex-Mex. There’s just not a hell of a lot of the good stuff around here.
Defining restaurant: Austin Grill in Silver Spring, Alexandria, Springfield, and DC’s Penn Quarter
Iconic dish: Texas chili
You’ll always find: Frozen margaritas
Definition: Just as regional Italian bumped aside red-sauce Italian a decade ago, regional Mexican has, in the food community, replaced Tex-Mex as the genre that defines the cuisine. Think salty cheeses, toasting of spices for moles,and lots of herbs.
Defining restaurant: R&R Taqueria in Elkridge, Maryland
Iconic dish: Chilaquiles
You’ll always find: Mexican women doing the cooking
Definition: See Regional Mexican, only presented as if it were a night out at an avant-garde black-box theater.
Defining restaurants: El Chucho in DC’s Columbia Heights, Bandolero in Georgetown
Iconic dish: Cross-cultural tacos filled with foie gras or lobster
You’ll always find: Tattooed cooks and servers