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.