Naomi Gallego has long been one of DC’s top pastry chefs. In the last two decades, she’s created desserts at Blue Duck Tavern, Le Diplomate, the late PS7’s and Vidalia, and the entire Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Now, she is turning her attention from Valrhona chocolate and panna cotta to queso and tacos. Tomorrow, May 5th, she’s opening Mijita’s Tex Mex inside Glover Park’s Social Beast*, the mini-food-hall formerly known as Ghostline.
It’s not as left-field as it sounds. Gallego grew up in San Antonio, and once led the pastry team at the Four Seasons in Austin. Besides, she says, “this isn’t a far stretch from any educated cook’s background. I’m not doing French fine dining.” She’s spent the last year roaming Tex Mex spots around the country, seeking out brisket at Valentina’s in Austin, or sampling the award-winning flour tortillas at HomeState in LA.
Gallego has a larger mission: she’s hoping to change people’s minds about Tex Mex in general—a cuisine that she believes is looked down upon, especially around here. “DC and Northeastern cities put more value on interior Mexican, or ‘authentic’ Mexican cuisine,” she says. “They’re doing their own tortillas with nixtamalization. They’re bringing in their own corn. And that’s great. But there’s just as much skill involved when you’re making a homemade flour tortilla or mesquite smoked brisket, and fresh made salsas and beans.”
The core of Gallego’s small menu is tacos. They include fried shrimp with cilantro/lime slaw and Calabrian chili aioli; carnitas with bacon, chicharrones, pickled red onion, and jack cheese; and braised chicken with Mexican street corn and crushed fritos. She’ll also serve enchiladas, Frito pie, and a brothy tortilla soup. In the future, she’ll mix in some dishes that lean more Tex than Mex: chicken-fried steak, or smoked chicken with cornbread. Danny Starnes, a chef who quickly rose from a dishwasher position at Chevy Chase’s Little Beast, is her number two in the kitchen.
On weekends, Gallego’s plan is to “blow it out” with dishes like huevos rancheros, mole breakfast tacos, and unicorn-sugared conchas at brunch, plus specials like fried gorditas. The discs of masa are split and piled with braised meats, cheese, beans, lettuce, and tomato. You’ll also occasionally see puffy tacos—a San Antonio specialty. Unlike much of the menu, neither of those dishes will be available to-go: “they really have to be eaten right then and there.”
“I love me a frozen paloma in the summer,” Gallego says, so look for that grapefruity drink, plus margaritas and housemade aguas frescas (any of which can be spiked with a spirit). There’s a patio at Social Beast, and the food hall, which previously was a carryout/delivery-only operation, now offers some inside seating.
As for dessert, she’s keeping it simple, and offering things like flan or bunuelos, sugary fritters. Keep an eye out for her doughnut pop-up, Department of Doughnuts.
DC’s Tex Mex scene could use a boost. The days when Ann Cashion cooked at the Austin Grill are long gone. Chuy’s, the Austin-based chain, recently closed in Rockville (a few Northern Virginia locations remain). The terrific Republic Cantina in Truxton Circle, plus Cactus Cantina and Lauriol Plaza, are the only real big players in town. “People talk smack about Tex Mex,” Gallego says, “But somebody makes a pot of queso, and they go to town. In my heart of hearts, I truly don’t believe you can deny something is delicious.”
Mijita’s Tex Mex, inside Social Beast, 2340 Wisconsin Ave., NW. It opens with a limited menu on Wednesday, May 5.
*Social Beast is owned by food editor Anna Spiegel’s brother in law Aaron Gordon. She was not involved in this piece.