News & Politics

May 2004: El Tapatio

Don't waste time on burritos and fajitas, which, though deftly done, are eclipsed by other dishes.

The handmade white-corn tortillas alone are worth the trip. Rough textured and irregular, unlike their smooth, machine-made counterparts, they add authenticity to the red chili enchiladas, pork tacos, and huevos rancheros turned out by the Guadalajaran family that runs El Tapatio.

Ornate sombreros dress up this well-lit, lavender-walled storefront that's become a hangout for Mexican families and workers yearning for home cooking and the Mexican pop tunes blaring from the jukebox.

Don't waste time on burritos and fajitas, which, though deftly done, are eclipsed by other dishes. Enchiladas poblanas lead a stellar lineup of enchilada offerings. Here the traditional bundles get a blanket of sweet-spicy mole sauce topped with shredded lettuce and crisscrossed with wisps of sour cream. Though chicken is the obvious mole/enchilada mate, a cheese-filled variation brings real pizzazz to the party, so consider two of each–a platter includes four. Red-chili enchiladas are the spiciest of the lot, and the green chili more elegantly piquant. All are delicious, but if a choice has to be made, I'd go with the poblanas.

Chorizo tacos fashioned with ground spicy sausage, onion, and cilantro for crunch stand out, and crusty pork carnitas are up there, too. More esoteric are tacos with tongue, liver, and beef belly. If you're in an adventurous mode, there is goat Jalisco-style, a Guadalajaran specialty. Goat meat is boiled until tender, then cooled until the skin "crusts" a bit. It's served with tomato sauce and sautéed peppers. Another specialty, tortas, are easy to love. Airy, house-baked, torpedo-shaped rolls are toasted, then filled sub-style with fried, breaded "Milanese-style" cutlets of pork and chicken.

Steaming shrimp soup shot with tomato, red pepper, and carrots is a soothing Sunday bowl, as is a version with clams and fin fish. Fans of tripe soup will find a heady bowl of it here.

Other treasures include shrimp cocktail Mexican-style with avocado, tomato, onion, and cilantro (in Mexico it's usually warmed, but I prefer it chilled); fried quail with green-chili sauce; Mexican shrimp steeped in mildly spicy fresh tomato sauce; and crusty hunks of roast pork with red- or green-chili sauce. Beautifully fried chiles rellenos are among the best in the area. The real sleeper though, is a Mexican breakfast dish of tortillas and cheese smothered with green-chili sauce known as chilaquiles. Thin-pounded Mexican steak may be chewier than you bargained for, but it is a bargain, at $9.50. Sides like guacamole laced with cilantro and onion, and wonderfully soupy refried beans, which appear on most plates, are first-rate.

Mexican beers like Tecate and Negra Modelo go well with the heaping plates. There are also Mexican sodas and flavored drinks like the classic almond-flavored horchata, and tamarind and melon.

More good news: Those tortillas can be ordered to go. Wrapped in paper and foil, five to a bundle, they are the best $1.25 you will spend for a while.

4309 Kenilworth Ave., Bladensburg; 301-403-8882. Open daily from 10 to 10.

ATMOSPHERE: Brightly lit storefront with a loud jukebox and mostly Mexican and Central American clientele.

FOOD: Guadalajaran specialties like goat, fabulous house-made corn tortillas, plus authentic renditions of enchiladas, chiles rellenos, and soft tacos make for good ethnic eating.

SERVICE: Competent.

PRICES: Entrées $2 to $11.99. Dinner for two: around $35.

VALUE: Excellent.

BOTTOM LINE: A great neighborhood find and worth a trip for the tortillas.