A little secret: Most of the Mexican restaurants in the Washington area aren’t really Mexican. Oh, sure, their menus feature tacos and tamales and burritos, but many places are owned and staffed largely by Salvadorans, the area’s dominant population of Latin American immigrants. The cooking ranges from halfhearted to passable, and no one acquainted with the real thing would mistake this wan hybrid cuisine for Mexican. It’s the reason transplants from California and Texas are given to cantankerous speechifying every time they go out for an enchilada in these parts.
That’s why Mama Chuy is cause for excitement, even though its menu is abbreviated and its quarters—a walkup rowhouse across from Howard University—are so tight you’d be hard put to gather a party larger than six. The mom-and-pop shop—in this case, bro-and-sis (Joe and Dinora Orozco are the proprietors)—is dishing up the kind of precise, explosive cooking you’d expect at pricey, fashionable spots such as José Andrés’s Oyamel, but at about a third the price.
The guacamole ($3 to $6) isn’t mashed tableside in a molcajete—standard practice at Oyamel and Rosa Mexicano—but its freshness is evident the moment you scoop it with one of the exuberantly salted house-made chips and take a bite. I’d supplement my order of guac and chips with a plate of papas fritas ($4.50), crunchy, hot fries drizzled with crema and dusted with crumbled, salty cotija cheese—a quintessential bar snack.
You can order a full meal—there are a few platters, including good chiles rellenos ($13) with rice—but it’s more fun and rewarding to snack and drink: There’s no happy hour but rather a “happy day” menu, from 11 to 6, of discounted drinks, including strong, fresh-tasting margaritas for $6.
A former line cook at Potenza, Joe Orozco has cleverly miniaturized his roster of sopes ($4.50 to $4.75)—made with disks of flash-fried masa—and tacos ($3.50 to $4.25). The presentation is pretty—imagine if a food truck had catered a cocktail party—but what makes them so good is their flavor, brimming with layered spice and salt and the mouth-coating richness of rendered lard. My favorite taco fillings and sopes toppings are the marinated pork, the zesty chorizo, and the carnitas, which are simmered over low heat for hours and then given a flash fry for a finishing crisp.
The Orozcos have worked to bring their aging, cramped rowhouse to life. The tables are inlaid with ceramic tile, and there’s original art on the freshly painted walls. Jumpy music blares from the open windows onto Georgia Avenue. Service is attentive, helpful, and engaging, and you know from the moment you order that this is a fun place to be. And soon after, to drink and eat.
This article appears in the July 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.