Chef Alfredo Solis says he learned to cook as a kid in Mexico City because he was always running late and missing his mother’s lunches and dinners. “This isn’t a restaurant,” she’d tell him, shooing him off to make his own meal.
Solis—and his bosses at Passion Food Hospitality—was also a bit late to the game with Fuego Cocina y Tequileria, a splashy new Mexican dining room at one of Clarendon’s busiest intersections. In the last year or so, Washington’s Mexican-food scene has exploded—with taco trucks, regionally focused joints, and glossy small-plates restaurants that hawk $14 guac debuting almost by the month.
All the margarita-fueled competition hasn’t stopped Clarendon’s twentysomethings and young families from flooding the 250 seats there, which are spread across two levels of dining rooms decked out with Día de los Muertos skeletons and saffron-yellow upholstery. Enticements such as a rollicking happy hour and a good brunch help (go for the green-chili-laden chilaquiles). So do the appealing cocktails, which range from frozen hibiscus margaritas geared to sweet tooths to killer micheladas made with Dos Equis, hot sauce, and tequila (they go down easier than they sound).
The menu is just as sprawling as the space, and at times the cooking can be a draw, too. The kitchen is led by Solis and overseen by Jeff Tunks, the chef and Passion Food cofounder behind such downtown DC restaurants as Acadiana, DC Coast, and Ceiba. They sometimes stay faithful to traditional recipes, as with a green-chili version of posole—the robust soup bobbing with hunks of pork and hominy—or a skillet of queso fundido, a mixture of melty Oaxaca and Chihuahua cheeses studded with chorizo and served with house-made corn tortillas. The freshly made, ultra-thin tortilla chips—served with red and green tomatillo salsas—are one of the most memorable parts of a meal.
Many of the strongest dishes, though, simply use those straightforward recipes as starting points. Take the beautifully crisp flautas, filled not with beef or chicken but with seven-hour-braised duck and Oaxaca cheese. Or the empanadas, stuffed with goat cheese, mushrooms, and butternut squash and encased in thin, deep-fried skins that shatter when you take a bite. Thick, greaseless spears of yuca paired with delicious chili-garlic mayo also show the kitchen’s deftness with the fryer.
Surprisingly, tacos are the least reliable way to go. Some fillings—such as steamed, spice-rubbed goat, thickly battered and fried tilapia, and beef brisket—are weak on flavor. They need a good dousing of salsa to come alive. The best of the bunch is the aggressively seasoned al pastor-style pork, which is marinated overnight in a mixture of vinegar, orange juice, and spices, then roasted in a gyro machine and topped with grilled-pineapple salsa.
A lovely plate of grilled shrimp, marinated in chipotle-adobo vinaigrette and perched atop grilled pineapple, is the standout among the main courses. Others have been disappointing: Seafood enchiladas devolved into a soupy mess, and an over-grilled pork tenderloin had a marinade that was too salty to overcome.
Ultimately, the best place to sit at Fuego might be the bar, where you can sample the cocktails and 110 tequilas (and if that gets to be too much, sip a delicious booze-free cucumber-lime refresher), fill up on chips and salsa, and treat a few appetizers as if they’re sharable small plates. With that strategy, you might find that Fuego lives up to its suddenly vast competition.
This article appears in the March 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.