Washington has always had scattered pockets of good Mexican food, whether restorative bowls of morning menudo in Riverdale’s Little Mexico neighborhood or lengua-filled street tacos in Hyattsville. But those were the exceptions in a landscape blighted with sour-cream-soaked Tex Mex and chemical-green margaritas. “Hate to break it to you,” we’d shrug to new transplants from LA or Houston.
But in the last few years, even as political wars raged over just how welcoming our southern border should be, the Beltway’s culinary wall came down. With Mexico City having become the travel destination of the moment, restaurateurs seized on our love of all things swaddled in tortillas—and sided with a few bottom-line-boosting margs. Chefs began to see the masa rounds as the ultimate blank canvas. A new wave of Mexican dining in DC was born.
We now have traditional taquerias and almost comically outlandish ones. Upscale mezcalerias and a Latin-focused liquor store. Swank dining rooms and urban mom-and-pops. We even, kid you not, have a taco omakase experience.
Here, our 17 favorite newcomers.
Tons of restaurants sell tacos, but few make them as perfectly as these counter-order shops. You won’t find anything fussy, and drinks are limited to Mexican sodas and Topo Chico sparkling water. What shines is chef Mauricio Flores Turcios’s attention to detail. Corn or flour tortillas are warmed on a griddle and filled with succulent meats such as al pastor pork with charred pineapple, or braised carnitas. Each bundle is showered with minced cilantro, onion, or julienned radish. (Turcios honed his knife skills over 14 years with restaurateur Richard Sandoval). Not everything is traditional street-style—the superb crispy shrimp taco gets a hit of togarashi spice. Look for an Alexandria location next year. 1946 New Hampshire Ave., NW; 4629 41st St., NW.
Buena Vida/Tacos, Tortas & Tequila (Arlington)
This Clarendon dining room has the same airy, beachy look as its Silver Spring counterpart, but that’s where the similarities end. The new location—which also has an outpost of the taco-and-torta shop TTT—has an entirely different menu spearheaded by chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo, whose Mexico City restaurant is ranked among Latin America’s best. His elevated plates include “dry soup” made of vermicelli noodles that have soaked up a chili-rich broth as well as sea bass coated in an addictive sauce of ground pumpkin seeds, tomatillo, green chili, and white wine. Even guacamole tastes more elegant thanks to earthy-sweet olive oil in place of lime juice. 2900 Wilson Blvd., Arlington.
Buena Vida/Tacos, Tortas & Tequila (Silver Spring)
An all-you-can-eat Mexican menu could easily default to mass-produced tortillas with cheap proteins and fillers such as rice and beans. But Buena Vida doesn’t skimp when it comes to its unlimited small-plates-and-drinks deal ($49 a person at dinner). Queso fundido is upgraded with roasted mushrooms and apricot chutney, while tostadas are covered in spicy tomato sauce with shrimp and crab. Plus, all the tortillas for the tacos? Handmade daily from organic masa. For a more casual meal, downstairs sister restaurant TTT specializes in tacos and tortas morning through night. 8407 Ramsey Ave., Silver Spring.
Vegetarian—not to mention vegan—tacos can taste like afterthoughts. Not so at Chaia, the farmers-market stand turned Georgetown taqueria that added a branch in Chinatown early this year. Both meatless shops are known for house-made corn tortillas stuffed with zingy seasonal combinations such as Moroccan carrots, chipotle yogurt, and mint. The newer location is in a bigger, breezier space and has an expanded menu (tlayudas, quesadillas, ancient-grain bowls). To drink, go for a draft Paloma or house-made shrub. 615 I St., NW.
Blue, red, yellow—you never quite know what color tortilla you’re going to get when you walk into this tiny counter-service operation in a former Subway. Consider that a sign of quality: Chef/co-owner David Perez mills his own Oaxacan corn—the colors and varieties change and sometimes swirl together—and fills his thinly pressed disks with an array of alluring, carefully prepared toppings. Beer-and-orange-braised carnitas are wonderfully crispy, while chicken is stewed in a dusky mole. Best of all are the vegetable tacos: finely chopped cactus, tequila-stoked mushrooms, and potatoes threaded with poblanos. 7056 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park.
Head to the colorful rooftop—covered and heated in cold weather—to best channel this taco joint’s coastal Baja vibes. The al fresco bar serves up pitchers of margaritas and mezcal old fashioneds to a party soundtrack. The food menu is small enough that two people can easily order the entire thing, starting with a solid guac and a whole cob of elote. Tacos are stuffed so fat they’re almost unwieldy. Our favorites of the six options: citrus-braised pork shoulder and super-crisp fried fish with red cabbage and lime mayo. 1905 Ninth St., NW.
Gringos and Mariachis (Park Potomac)
As the name hints, this buzzy Montgomery County cantina isn’t aiming for authenticity. (The Pietrobono brothers’ other ventures, aside from another G&M in Bethesda, are Italian-focused.) Some of the best finds include chorizo-stuffed dates, duck nachos, and honey-glazed-shrimp tacos. (We’ve had better al pastor and chicken mole elsewhere.) The roomy space boasts a patio and indoor/outdoor bar—all the better for sampling the many tasty agave and whiskey cocktails. 12435 Park Potomac Ave., Potomac.
This cozy restaurant, tucked on a Woodley Park side street, aims higher than everyday enchiladas. Chef Miguel Pizarroso, a local by way of Bolivia, opened the place last year with his partners from adjoining District Kitchen. Graze on antojitos such as bubbling queso fundido with local chorizo and avocado-tomatillo salsa, or bright shellfish ceviche. Standout entrées include grilled skirt steak marinated in achiote, citrus, and garlic, or butterflied branzino—crunchy skin on one side, bright swaths of cilantro and red-chili adobo on the other—served with avocado and warm tortillas. 2609 24th St., NW.
It’s all about the tortillas at this lively Columbia Heights restaurant from Mexico City natives and siblings Alfredo and Jessica Solis. Handkerchief-thin rounds of masa, pressed to order, enfold sizzling, stretchy queso fundido, or lengua and carnitas for tacos. For something different, try the steamed “basket” tacos slicked in a guajillo sauce and stuffed with potatoes, beans, chicharrón, and chorizo. Alfredo—a dishwasher turned chef/restaurateur—excels at unfussy classics: lime-dressed tilapia ceviche, chicken in a mole rojo gravy, and generous $8 margaritas. 3714 14th St., NW.
Think of this 12,000-square-foot hot spot abutting Nationals Park as a sports cantina. (The smaller original location is in Dupont.) Two floors and a 150-foot bar mean there’s plenty of room to let the draft margaritas fly—they’re bottomless at brunch—and fill up on drink-friendly fare such as ancho wings, elote-style cauliflower, crispy Buffalo-shrimp tacos, and churro bites. With dishes such as cornflake-crusted-chicken mole, you can tell that chef Roberto Hernandez isn’t angling for authenticity—but like everyone else here, he’s having fun. 1221 Van St., SE.
A giant tree sculpture with Technicolor blooms and multi-level patios with waterfront views greet diners at this stylish mod-Mex destination at the Wharf. But the restaurant is more than just a pretty perch to drink (although mango margaritas and mezcal cocktails served in skull-shaped mugs make that a tempting option). Braised-brisket enchiladas smothered in spicy mole negro are a must-try dish, and seafood is another big attraction, thanks to crab-and-shrimp empanadas and a tuna ceviche in chipotle-orange marinade. 98 District Sq., SW.
For a long time, Mexican fine dining in DC meant doing it up at Oyamel. Now chef Victor Albisu is serving a fresh spin on mod-Mex in his sultry 68-seat dining room. As is the current trend, Mexico City is a source of inspiration. Mezcal old fashioneds are kissed with foie gras honey, masa is turned into chorizo-and-shrimp dumplings, and tacos are served omakase-style in a 12-course tasting of the chef’s whims. That said, we often gravitate toward the menu’s simpler pleasures: frozen-to-order cocktails, bright snapper aguachile, and family-style duck al pastor with fresh herbs, pineapple salsa, and house-made tortillas. 777 I St., NW.
This popular Leesburg-based taco stop has spawned two offshoots in the last two years—one in Chantilly and another in Sterling’s Crooked Run Brewery. “Señor Ramon” is actually Damian Dajcz, an Argentinean chef who specializes in big, bold flavors on overstuffed tortillas. We say embrace the eccentricity and go for his namesake taco, overflowing with steak, chorizo, pickled onions, sour cream, and pepper jelly, or the Lola, piled with carnitas, corn salsa, and chipotle aïoli. You don’t need anything else, but you have to start with the corn nuggets—airy, hushpuppy-like puffs paired with cilantro-cream dip. 22455 Davis Dr., Sterling; 4500 Daly Dr., Chantilly.
Taco Bamba (Fairfax)
Each of Victor Albisu’s taquerias has a personality—and menu—of its own, but all five are bound by a couple of things: blaring ’90s rock and a taco menu that’s split between street-food classics (oil-slicked chorizo, savory barbacoa) and late-night inventions (who’s up for a ramen taco?). This latest branch, a narrow carryout that stays jammed with George Mason students, revels especially in the latter category. One taco holds chicken nuggets, fries, and tangy-sweet sauce; another is crammed with barbecue bacon and nacho cheese. Not everyone will be into it, but we sure are. 10629 Braddock Rd., Fairfax.
Taqueria Habanero (College Park)
The quick slap of freshly pressed tortillas hitting the griddle is the first thing you notice once you walk into the expansive suburban arm of this Columbia Heights favorite. The cook forming the rounds of masa by hand works with impressive speed—a good thing, because the taco orders fly. We like them best stuffed with barbacoa goat, carnitas, or a mix of chopped cactus and onion. Don’t miss the bright, fresh aguas frescas, with fruits that change by the day. 8145 Baltimore Ave., College Park.
Couple Juan Carlos and Nelly Romero bring flavors from their native Mexico City and Puebla, respectively, to this tiny Mount Pleasant joint. Everything is made caringly from scratch—from popular cucumber-mint agua fresca to near-creamy tamales and a mole poblano with four types of chilies. Although the menu is extensive, this is a taqueria first and foremost. House-made tortillas overflow with lamb barbacoa or bits of pig’s head. Don’t miss the many vegetarian offerings, either. Tacos stuffed with squash blossom, huitlacoche, or an entire chile relleno are among our favorites. 3213 Mount Pleasant St., NW.
Chef Alam Méndez Florián already has a hit restaurant in Mexico City. Now, at this stark, exposed-brick dining room, he’s introducing Old Towners to the pleasures of real-deal mole (particularly good on a tender Cornish hen) and Oaxacan specialties such as plantain molotes filled with goat cheese. Fried-chicken tacos and lager-dashed queso might seem as if Méndez Florián is just playing to the crowd, but we couldn’t help but order seconds of each. 116 King St., Alexandria.
This article appears in the May 2019 issue of Washingtonian.