Food

The Best New Mexican Restaurants Where You Can Eat for Under $25

Tacos and smashed avocado at Chop Shop Taco. Photograph by Scott Suchman
Eat Great Cheap 2019

About Eat Great Cheap 2019

This article is a part of Washingtonian’s Eat Great Cheap feature, our annual list of where to eat (and not break the bank) right now. Our food editors put together the best new restaurants around DC where you can find Detroit-style pizza, Japanese egg-salad sandwiches, chicken-nugget-filled tacos, and more—for $25 or less per person.

Bandit Taco

4629 41st St., NW

You’ll make out like the taqueria’s namesake at Mauricio Flores Turcios’s twin places. Street-style tacos, burritos, and melty quesadillas run $4 to $9. (There are also bowls, but we wouldn’t skip the griddled-to-order tortillas.) For fillings, we love beer-braised carnitas, pork al pastor, or crunchy togarashi-spiced shrimp—most showered with herbs, onions, and matchstick radishes. There’s no alcohol—splurge on elote instead.

Chaia Tacos

3207 Grace St., NW

What started as a farmers-market stand drawing lines for beautifully prepared vegetables in fresh-pressed corn tortillas has evolved into two popular DC taco shops. The sunny new Chinatown outpost offers more seating and an expanded menu worth exploring for crisped open-faced tlayudas and seasonal shrubs on tap (go for the strawberry-basil). Still, it’s the tacos stuffed with either creamy kale and potato or braised mushrooms and feta that make the place a destination. Meat? What meat? You won’t miss it at all.

Chop Shop Taco

1008 Madison St., Alexandria

This past year has seen a flood of upscale-Mex, modern-Mex, and regional-Mex restaurants and taquerias. What sets this former auto-body shop apart? Chef Ed McIntosh, a man of many talents who’s also behind the excellent pizza at nearby Pendleton Carryout. Here, he rolls elote in za’atar, tricks out “smashed avocado” with serrano-pepper ash and scallions, and spit-roasts or confits meats such as pork shoulder and brisket for tacos. It goes without saying that he pays just as close attention to the tortillas, made with imported masa and hand-pressed throughout the day.

Cielo Rojo

7056 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park

Co-owners Carolina McCandless (director of operations) and David Perez (chef) met while working at a vegan restaurant in San Francisco. And while cashew cream, farmers-market greens, and meatless posole make appearances on their cozy taqueria’s menu, they don’t shun animal products entirely. You can dig into heirloom-masa rounds (they’re a thing) filled with some of the area’s best carnitas, braised in oranges and Negra Modelo, or stewed chicken cloaked in a complex mole. Still, don’t miss the potato-and-poblano or grilled-cactus tacos or the lime-heavy guacamole.

Mezcalero

3714 14th St., NW

Mexico City natives and siblings Jessica and chef Alfredo Solis pack in hungry and mezcal-thirsty crowds at their Columbia Heights cantina. The main draws: bubbling queso fundido; beans-chorizo-and-chicharrón-stuffed tacos de canasta (tacos in a basket); huitlacoche quesadillas; and enchiladas with inky mole. At lunch, go for the Hawaiian torta, which tastes like the pizza in sandwich form. Dipping into the bar’s extensive agave-based spirit selection can hike up your tab—go for the tasty $8 house margaritas instead.

Mezcalero’s patio.

Señor Ramon Taqueria

11790 Baron Cameron Ave, Reston

The tacos that come from this fast-growing chainlet are maximalist in every way. They’re big and bountiful, served in two-ply tortillas, and embellished with things like chipotle aïoli and pepper jelly. Somehow, meats such as savory carnitas and juicy barbacoa still manage to stand out (and you can get them the street-stand way, with just cilantro and onion, if you want). While you’re at it, grab an order of corn nuggets—airy fried puffs served with creamy cilantro sauce.

Taco Bamba

777 I St., NW

Stoner savior or taco genius? Chef Victor Albisu—also behind upscale Poca Madre in Penn Quarter—is both, making us believers in improbable creations such as tacos with poutine, tacos with patty melts, and, at the newest Fairfax location, tacos with chicken nuggets and honey mustard. What’s impressive is that his more straightforward stuff—posole, guac—is pretty terrific, too.

Skirt steak and al pastor tacs at Taco Bamba.

Taqueria Habanero

3710 14th St., NW

Standout street tacos and sopes are a given at these taquerias—the Columbia Heights original and the eight-month-old College Park dining room/takeout counter. Freshly pressed tortillas swaddle savory carnitas, lengua, and barbacoa. But it’s only at the newer spinoff that you’ll find regional delicacies such as the meal-in-a-bowl known as the molcajete mixto, a sizzling crock layered with steak, shrimp, chicken, and jalapeños, among many other things.

Taqueria Los Compadres*

*The restaurant is now closed. 3213 Mount Pleasant St., NW

Mexico City native Juan Carlos and wife Nelly Romero, who hails from Puebla, specialize in overflowing tacos at this colorful spot in Mount Pleasant. Handmade tortillas wrap a bounty of meats, including lengua (tongue) and lamb barbacoa, but don’t ignore the many vegetarian options, especially squash blossoms and huitlacoche (a corn fungus also known as “Mexican truffle”). Not feeling tacos? Zero in on chicken with mole poblano, creamy poblano-and-cheese tamales, and pulpy cucumber-mint aguas frescas.

This article appears in the August 2019 issue of Washingtonian.

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Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.