With a dining culture showing impatience with tablecloths and
tasting menus, just about every restaurateur who opens a place these days
follows one of two paths. The first is the downscaled upscale restaurant,
in which a chef taps his reserve of culinary techniques to produce a
simple cuisine that can be sold at workaday prices. The alternative is to
accent the grungy coveralls of fast-food nation with the pearls and silk
scarves of fine dining. The evidence of upscaled downscale is
everywhere—in gourmet food trucks, in boutique burger joints, and, of
late, in taquerias fronted by high-profile chefs.
El Chucho is owned by Jackie Greenbaum, proprietor of Jackie’s,
Sidebar, and Quarry House Tavern in Silver Spring. Greenbaum’s places are
the kind you find on the margins of big cities, low-key and slyly knowing,
so it’s no surprise she’s found her way to DC’s Columbia Heights. The
restaurant is a present of sorts to Diana Davila-Boldin, her chef at
Jackie’s. Davila-Boldin was weaned on tortillas and mole in her
parents’ Chicago restaurants, where she assumed control of a kitchen at
21. She’s fluent in many idioms, but among the best things on her Jackie’s
menu have been empanadas and tacos.
Davila-Boldin doesn’t command the kitchen—that job is Matthew
Russell’s—but her touch is unmistakable. Many dishes look thrown together
but taste like the product of the generations who refined them and handed
them down. Grilled corn comes in the kind of plastic basket that usually
holds hot dogs. Spritzed with lime and dusted with cheese, it’s a minor
masterpiece of sweetness, smoke, and richness.
Queso fresco is crumbled atop fried, tongue-shaped
masa—a variation on the Mexican street snack huaraches. Try to
resist slathering it with mole negro, a sublime sauce of
chocolate, almonds, sesame, and other ingredients. Posole, a
red-chili-based soup of hominy and pork, retains its intensity even as the
broth is lightened for a mass audience.
There are four sandwiches, or tortas, including one
that eats like a cross between a Manwich and a Chicago beef sandwich:
Chopped adobo pork is spooned atop a roll, garnished with black
beans, avocado, and Chihuahua cheese, and dredged through
árbol-chili sauce. It comes with plastic gloves, but just give in
to the messiness.
Tacos remain works in progress. The corn tortillas are
excellent, but they can mute the flavors they contain. A taco of
chitterlings and foie gras had no such problem, but on a couple of
occasions, as with a version filled with fried squash blossoms, I found
myself ditching the outer layer.
Consistency is the kitchen’s biggest problem. One night’s
egg-and-greens torta so little resembled the marvel I’d had
before, it seemed like a different sandwich.
Greenbaum makes no pretense that she’s serving anything other
than snack food. The seats are high stools—you’re not meant to linger. You
are, however, meant to drink. There are sipping tequilas and mezcals—the
latter’s gut-punching smoke works well with the mole-based
dishes. You’re even encouraged to spike the half dozen sodas—grapefruit
and blueberry-poblano among them.
The restaurant opens at 4—important to know if you want to beat
the crowds. Once, I arrived shortly before 5 to find every seat at the bar
taken. Within the hour, the space was jammed: All the porkpie-hatted
denizens of the neighborhood seemed to have descended en masse. A
happy-hour spot, a nightly party, a food lover’s find—El Chucho already
ticks off lots of boxes. With more consistency, it might tick off another:
This article appears in the September 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.