Al Carbon

A cozy Central American pit-stop.

From Kliman Online’s “Word of Mouth”

The lipstick-red shack squats on an otherwise business-less corner across from the Rockville Metro. Unprepossessing? That's putting it charitably. It would be easy to walk right on by and look elsewhere for a bite — to presume that, like the dreary bus stop joints of yore, Al Carbon will be content to trade on being accessible, without bothering to strive for memorable.

Inside, though, the walls are awash in cheery yellows and oranges, the floors are stylized with ranch-hand brands, and the atmosphere banishes all thoughts of the subway terminus outside; you'd swear you were sitting in one of those airy, funky cafes that turn up throughout the Southwest.

More good news: The kitchen at this cozy Mexican/Salvadoran pit-stop yields up just as many surprises, with food that might occasionally lack polish but never lacks for integrity and soul. I could see making the beef soup a regular part of my eating-out rotation. It's a wonderful rendition, brimming with brisket-tender hunks of on-the-bone meat, leaves of cabbage, carrot, and onion, its rich (but not too rich) broth flavored with what to this palate tasted like dried sweet guajillo peppers. Chicken, slowly turned over a charcoal grill, is served on a fetching wooden board, where it's flanked by a small bowl of black beans and a huge mound of rice (made fresh, not scooped from a pot that's been sitting all day). As slow-cooked birds go, it's not as addictively good as those at El Pollo Rico, but it's juicy, meaty and satisfying. You can dress it up with a visit to the fixins' bar, which includes a tangy, green tomatillo, a red salsa the color of a Scotch bonnet pepper (without, thankfully, the unrelenting heat of that gnarled little pepper), and an excellent, freshly-made curtido punched up with cilantro and lots of lime. A whole fried croaker (the fish changes each day, depending on what the kitchen brings in) was slightly overcooked, but still tasty, with its spice-rubbed skin and still-flaky meat.

I'm eager to return to try the pupusas, which are cooked out in the open on the grill that flanks the cash register and look like what I can only describe as cheese-oozing flapjacks.

-September 25, 2007