The Washington region has seen a boom in Mexican restaurants over the last couple years. But for all the tacos and tortas, the area is woefully underrepresented when it comes to quality Tex-Mex. That’s the niche that the new Republic Cantina in Truxton Circle is hoping to fill while straddling the line between nostalgic and modern.
“I think people do have this unfortunate stereotype of Tex-Mex as a watered-down version of Mexican food,” says owner Chris Svetlik, a Texas native who’s also behind DC’s Republic Kolache. “In fact, Tex-Mex food is initially a cuisine made by Mexican immigrants in what is now Texas and one that evolved and became fully Texan. It brings kitsch and spectacle into food in a way that’s been dismissed in many decades of food moving more formal.”
The restaurant is currently only open during the day (7 AM to 1 PM on weekdays and 8 AM to 2 PM on weekends) with a limited menu of coffee, kolaches, and breakfast tacos. Svetlik previously experimented with selling breakfast tacos through a delivery-only service called Republic Taco. Similarly, made-from-scratch flour tortillas (or corn upon request) will wrap stuffings such as brisket, bacon, or potatoes and eggs for $3 to $4 each.
Dinner will begin to roll out on July 18 with “preview” reservations available Thursdays through Saturdays for the first few weeks. Chef Antonio Burrell, whose resume includes Agua 301, El Centro DF, and most recently, Driftwood Kitchen, is “Texifying” his experience with Mexican cuisine for Republic Cantina’s menu.
Expect classics like sizzling fajitas and enchiladas as well as various combination platters. Burrell will also incorporate other Texan flavors, namely in the form of barbecue (think smoked brisket enchiladas). Of course, there will also be a “proper” queso, “which has all the traditional ingredients of mostly processed cheese,” Svetlik says. Diners can get it plain or topped with pico de gallo, guacamole, and smoked sausage.
To answer a very important question: yes, you will find free chips and salsa on every table. But Svetlik doesn’t want to carryover every tradition just for the sake of it. Take, for example, the complimentary rice and beans that typically come with every platter. “If you think holistically about the meal, adding starch is generally not what any Tex-Mex dish is calling for.” So, while there will be some reasonably priced rice and beans available as sides, they will not automatically come with your meal at Republic Cantina. Svetlik calls entree portion sizes “reasonable.”
The drink menu will go heavy on tequila and mezcal and include a number of different margaritas. Rather than syrupy and sweet, though, Republic Cantina is aiming for more balanced cocktails. A frozen margarita machine will pour a classic lime blend as well as a creamy avocado variation. Svetlik says the idea is not some “millennial, Instagram-bait trend,” but rather comes from a “not cool at all” family spot called Curra’s Grill in Austin.
Another fun drink available all day: espresso mixed with Mexican Coke (or Dr. Pepper). The beverage comes on a tray with the full bottle of cola and an extra shot of coffee on the side. For something a little stronger, the bar will offer a “pico-back shot”—a play off a pickleback with a shot of pico de gallo juice to chase your tequila.
Republic Cantina’s space nods to some of the festive Tex-Mex kitsch (yep, those are chili pepper string lights and deer antlers) but with a decidedly hipper, sleeker look (candles in Topo Chico bottles, lots of plants). The cacti, including some seven-foot-tall plants near the entrance, were driven by friends and customers from Texas.
“We put up calls on Facebook, and strangers would respond,” Svetlik says. “This very much feels like a ‘it takes a village’ type situation.”
Republic Cantina. 43 N St., NW.