A little secret: Most of the Mexican restaurants in the
Washington area aren’t really Mexican. Oh, sure, their menus feature tacos
and tamales and burritos, but many places are owned and staffed largely by
Salvadorans, the area’s dominant population of Latin American immigrants.
The cooking ranges from halfhearted to passable, and no one acquainted
with the real thing would mistake this wan hybrid cuisine for Mexican.
It’s the reason transplants from California and Texas are given to
cantankerous speechifying every time they go out for an enchilada in these
That’s why Mama Chuy is cause for excitement, even though its
menu is abbreviated and its quarters—a walkup rowhouse across from Howard
University—are so tight you’d be hard put to gather a party larger than
six. The mom-and-pop shop—in this case, bro-and-sis (Joe and Dinora Orozco
are the proprietors)—is dishing up the kind of precise, explosive cooking
you’d expect at pricey, fashionable spots such as José Andrés’s Oyamel,
but at about a third the price.
The guacamole ($3 to $6) isn’t mashed tableside in a
molcajete—standard practice at Oyamel and Rosa Mexicano—but its
freshness is evident the moment you scoop it with one of the exuberantly
salted house-made chips and take a bite. I’d supplement my order of guac
and chips with a plate of papas fritas ($4.50), crunchy, hot
fries drizzled with crema and dusted with crumbled, salty
cotija cheese—a quintessential bar snack.
You can order a full meal—there are a few platters, including
good chiles rellenos ($13) with rice—but it’s more fun and rewarding to
snack and drink: There’s no happy hour but rather a “happy day” menu, from
11 to 6, of discounted drinks, including strong, fresh-tasting margaritas
A former line cook at Potenza, Joe Orozco has cleverly
miniaturized his roster of sopes ($4.50 to $4.75)—made with disks
of flash-fried masa—and tacos ($3.50 to $4.25). The presentation is
pretty—imagine if a food truck had catered a cocktail party—but what makes
them so good is their flavor, brimming with layered spice and salt and the
mouth-coating richness of rendered lard. My favorite taco fillings and
sopes toppings are the marinated pork, the zesty chorizo, and the
carnitas, which are simmered over low heat for hours and then
given a flash fry for a finishing crisp.
The Orozcos have worked to bring their aging, cramped rowhouse
to life. The tables are inlaid with ceramic tile, and there’s original art
on the freshly painted walls. Jumpy music blares from the open windows
onto Georgia Avenue. Service is attentive, helpful, and engaging, and you
know from the moment you order that this is a fun place to be. And soon
after, to drink and eat.
This article appears in the July 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.