111 Church St., NW
Vienna, VA


Neighborhood: Vienna

Cuisines: Mexican

Nearby Metro Stops: Vienna/Fairfax-GMU

Price Range: Inexpensive

Dress: Upscale Casual (jeans okay)

Noise Level: Rowdy

Best Dishes:
Guacamole; queso fundido with rajas (roasted poblano chilies) and onions; mushroom-and-goat-cheese taquitos; fish, pork, chicken-breast, and mushroom tacos; skirt steak; short-rib enchiladas.

Alegria: Quick Study

Chef Patrick Bazin might be a novice when it comes to Mexican cooking, but you’d never guess it.

Slideshow: The Dishes at Alegria

Patrick Bazin, who turns out plates of crab rémoulade and sea bass with tamari-ginger sauce at his Modern American dining room, Bazin’s on Church, isn’t the first guy you’d expect to be behind one of the area’s best Mexican kitchens.

The chef worked the stoves at the late Red Sage for two years, but beyond that, his knowledge of Mexican cuisine comes from Diana Kennedy books, YouTube cooking demos, and lots of trips to Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill in Chicago (“probably 75 to 100,” he says).

But you wouldn’t know that from tasting the delicious duo of salsas—an earthy roasted tomato and a spritely tomatillo and lime—that come to the table at Bazin’s three-month-old Alegria, housed in a former wine cellar adjoining his namesake restaurant. Or the terrific mole poblano, a sauce made with 27 ingredients and finished with chocolate, that drapes tender chicken thighs. The cooking comes across as more grandmotherly than dilettantish.

Filling as the salsa and fresh chips are, you’ll want to start with a molcajete of guacamole, which blows away its more expensive competition at trendier restaurants in downtown DC. Supplement that with a skillet of queso fundido—melted Chihuahua cheese blanketing onions, chilies, and Mexican oregano (better than the bland chorizo version).

Bazin gets creative with tacos, often to excellent ends. The star is a corn tortilla filled with tempura-fried cod and accented with pickled jalapeño and lime-spritzed cabbage. The combination is fairly traditional Baja style, but the acid-heavy slaw makes it taste more like an homage to fish and chips than something you’d find in a SoCal taco truck. A portobello taco—the mushrooms are roasted with balsamic vinegar—gets crunch from pumpkin seeds. And shreds of pork shoulder cooked in pork and duck fats are livened up with pineapple and pickled jalapeños.

The rest of the menu is made up of erratically sized small plates. A trio of weak-flavored ceviches comes in tiny portions, while a plate of whole potatoes drowning in bitter mole could feed four—if it didn’t taste like punishment. The good news is that the larger portions also extend to some of the best dishes—skirt steak marinated in soy and ancho chili, and short-rib enchiladas.

Alegria’s chief drawbacks are outside the kitchen. Cocktails can be well balanced (pineapple margarita) or undrinkably sweet (sangría). The low-lit, brick-walled space is pretty but gratingly loud, especially when you’re surrounded by tequila-fueled thirtysomethings. Four inches of foam behind the brocade wall coverings aren’t enough to help.

But the biggest problem is the small-plates format. “Dishes will come out as the kitchen makes them,” the waitress says. “All at once” would have been more accurate. Each night I ate there, I encountered a logjam of food runners, who stood awkwardly with more plates as we scrambled to make room on the table, often giving up dishes we weren’t done with.

It’s not a system that lets you leave stress behind or enjoy leisurely catch-ups. Order ten small plates and you’ll likely be done in an hour. That’s a shame, because cooking this good deserves time to be savored.

This article appears in the July 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.