Denver-based chef Richard Sandoval is ready to open his next DC project: dLeña, a modern Mexican restaurant and mezcaleria that’s opening in Mount Vernon Triangle very soon.
The restaurateur, who operates over 45 concepts worldwide, became a presence in Washington with the opening of Zengo in 2005 and Masa 14 in 2009 (both have closed). He also runs two DC locations of El Centro D.F., which serves tacos and Mexican small plates; Latin grill Toro Toro in downtown DC; and La Sandia in Tysons. The name dLeña is a Spanish play on the phrase “of the wood,” and Sandoval means for you to take it literally.
“I built a house in Cabo off the grid and became interesting in wood-burning cooking. I felt, how could I bring that into a restaurant?” says Sandoval.
A central hearth and wood-fired Josper oven will be fueled by different combinations of oak, hickory, maple, mesquite, and more. “We’re experimenting,” Sandoval says. “With each kind of wood you have a different sense of taste.” Chilies for the homemade salsas and chimichurri will get a turn on the grill.The restaurant will serve lots of seafood—think guacamole topped with tuna tartare; grilled oysters with chipotle mignonette and bacon relish; shrimp-and-crab enchiladas; chile-crusted tuna tacos; and whole grilled fish. Sandoval also plans to nod to the growing vegan trend in Mexico, with mushroom ceviche or salted- caramel/coconut sorbet.
Head chef Carlos Camacho—a native of Guerrero, which sits on Mexico’s Pacific coast—has been with Sandoval for a decade, and once led the kitchen at El Centro D.F. One of his dishes, spicy camarones a la diablo (smoky, chili-marinated shrimp), is a favorite from his childhood. Camacho plans on making blue-corn tortillas in house—taco fillings include short rib and suckling pig. He’ll also carry on the Sandoval tradition of dramatic tableside presentations. A huge 32-ounce Tomahawk steak is finished with a tableside tequila flambee and served on a Himalayan salt rock. For dessert, there’s a layered crepe cake with homemade pecan ice cream, which servers drizzle with warm cajeta caramel sauce.
The large selection of smoky mezcals and tequilas are a natural fit for the fire-obsessed restaurant’s bar. Smoked herbs and grilled chilies work their way into cocktails. A separate bar area will open when DC regulations allow, but in the meantime, guests can find a spot in the 80-seat restaurant or on the 70-seat patio.
Sandoval, who temporarily closed nearly all of his restaurants worldwide at some point during the pandemic, is starting slow with dLeña. It will be open for dinner to start, followed by brunch later down the line. The restaurant has partnered with Dreams For Kids DC for its opening week—it will donate $1 for each guest who dines there. Stay tuned for the opening date.
dLeña. 476 K St., NW
*This post has been updated with new information from the restaurant regarding the opening status.