With a dining culture showing impatience with tablecloths and tasting menus, just about every restaurateur who opens a place these days follows one of two paths. The first is the downscaled upscale restaurant, in which a chef taps his reserve of culinary techniques to produce a simple cuisine that can be sold at workaday prices. The alternative is to accent the grungy coveralls of fast-food nation with the pearls and silk scarves of fine dining. The evidence of upscaled downscale is everywhere—in gourmet food trucks, in boutique burger joints, and, of late, in taquerias fronted by high-profile chefs.
El Chucho is owned by Jackie Greenbaum, proprietor of Jackie’s, Sidebar, and Quarry House Tavern in Silver Spring. Greenbaum’s places are the kind you find on the margins of big cities, low-key and slyly knowing, so it’s no surprise she’s found her way to DC’s Columbia Heights. The restaurant is a present of sorts to Diana Davila-Boldin, her chef at Jackie’s. Davila-Boldin was weaned on tortillas and mole in her parents’ Chicago restaurants, where she assumed control of a kitchen at 21. She’s fluent in many idioms, but among the best things on her Jackie’s menu have been empanadas and tacos.
Davila-Boldin doesn’t command the kitchen—that job is Matthew Russell’s—but her touch is unmistakable. Many dishes look thrown together but taste like the product of the generations who refined them and handed them down. Grilled corn comes in the kind of plastic basket that usually holds hot dogs. Spritzed with lime and dusted with cheese, it’s a minor masterpiece of sweetness, smoke, and richness.
Queso fresco is crumbled atop fried, tongue-shaped masa—a variation on the Mexican street snack huaraches. Try to resist slathering it with mole negro, a sublime sauce of chocolate, almonds, sesame, and other ingredients. Posole, a red-chili-based soup of hominy and pork, retains its intensity even as the broth is lightened for a mass audience.
There are four sandwiches, or tortas, including one that eats like a cross between a Manwich and a Chicago beef sandwich: Chopped adobo pork is spooned atop a roll, garnished with black beans, avocado, and Chihuahua cheese, and dredged through árbol-chili sauce. It comes with plastic gloves, but just give in to the messiness.
Tacos remain works in progress. The corn tortillas are excellent, but they can mute the flavors they contain. A taco of chitterlings and foie gras had no such problem, but on a couple of occasions, as with a version filled with fried squash blossoms, I found myself ditching the outer layer.
Consistency is the kitchen’s biggest problem. One night’s egg-and-greens torta so little resembled the marvel I’d had before, it seemed like a different sandwich.
Greenbaum makes no pretense that she’s serving anything other than snack food. The seats are high stools—you’re not meant to linger. You are, however, meant to drink. There are sipping tequilas and mezcals—the latter’s gut-punching smoke works well with the mole-based dishes. You’re even encouraged to spike the half dozen sodas—grapefruit and blueberry-poblano among them.
The restaurant opens at 4—important to know if you want to beat the crowds. Once, I arrived shortly before 5 to find every seat at the bar taken. Within the hour, the space was jammed: All the porkpie-hatted denizens of the neighborhood seemed to have descended en masse. A happy-hour spot, a nightly party, a food lover’s find—El Chucho already ticks off lots of boxes. With more consistency, it might tick off another: a destination.
This article appears in the September 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.