100 Best Restaurants 2008: Oyamel

No. 38: Oyamel

Cuisine: Regional Mexican cooking as interpreted by José Andrés, the driving force of the “small plates” movement. Overstuffed, cheesy platters are replaced by a parade of two- and three-bite dishes that hew closely to their regional sources and pulse with bold flavors. Even the salads are brought vividly to life.

Mood: This corner restaurant, across from the Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh stage in Penn Quarter, is a nightly party—a loud, colorful spot where the drinks flow, the dishes keep coming, and the tabs can get shockingly high.

Best for: Postgame or posttheater diners looking to extend the outing by a few hours—the menu is long enough to keep a lot of people happy, and the drinks will keep the festivities going—and anyone tired of the indistinct plates that too often pass for Mexican cooking.

Best dishes: Creamy avocado soup; light meatballs in a thick chipotle sauce; fruit-salad gazpacho; plump, sweet scallops atop a complex pumpkin-seed mole; tortilla soup of surprising clarity and depth; braised short ribs with mole verde; a tangy, creamy goat’s-milk cajeta.

Insider tips: It’s easy to overorder both drinks and eats, causing your bill to spike. If your focus is the food, forgo the amped-up margarita and other blender drinks and try any of the good—and cheaper—Mexican beers. The tacos, pretty in their special metal folders, lure many diners, but they’re one of the least rewarding regions on the menu.

Service: ••

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.