Amparo Fondita. 2002 P St., NW.
Chef Christian Irabién’s seafood-centric Mexican restaurant and tortilleria, Amparo Fondita, is more than seven years in the making. Following a series of pop-ups, a location shuffle, and oh yeah, a pandemic, the all-day destination is finally set to debut in Dupont Circle on Wednesday, November 1.
Irabién says he wants to make the restaurant a destination not just for Mexican food lovers, but for the Mexican community that lives in DC. “I feel like oftentimes I go to a Mexican restaurant, and it’s so chef-driven to the point where I identify the ingredients, but I don’t really quite get the dish. More often than not, when I wake up, all I want is scrambled eggs, beans, and tortillas. I can’t be the only one in the city,” says Irabién, an Oyamel alum who previously ran Muchas Gracias.
Amparo Fondita will open early with freshly baked Mexican pastries like conchas as well as cafe con leche, horchata cold brew, and other coffee drinks (plus Oaxacan hot chocolate for colder months). The cafe-style daytime menu will include chilaquiles, chorizo breakfast burritos, and simple slices of orange candy melon with chile de arbol and concord-grape-tamarind chamoy.
Tortillas in particular will be a top attraction. Amparo Fondita has a stone mill for nixtamalizing corn to make masa for hand-pressed tortillas, which will be sold by the pound. Irabién wanted to replicate the tortillerias he grew up with in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua: “Every neighborhood has a tortilleria where, right before dinner time, your mom hands you 20 pesos and you run down for for a kilo of tortillas and a bag of beans and then you come back and that’s part of dinner,” Irabién says.
The restaurant will also sell a handful of other items, including own mole paste, salt mixes, spices, and salsas. Although the DC area has plenty of Latin shops and bodegas, they’re mostly stocked with Goya goods, Irabién says. His goal is to offer more made-from-scratch products using quality dried chilies and local produce.
Dinner will highlight plenty of seafood; Irabién says his grandparents, who ran their own seafood restaurant, hail from the coastal areas of Veracruz and Yucatan. His own menu will include ceviches, both classic and with seasonal fruits, plus “Baja-style” oysters and shellfish platters. You’ll also find grilled dry-aged whole snapper with roasted honeynut squash and nutty salsa macha, and siete mares, a seafood soup Irabién likens to a Mexican bouillabaisse.
Individual tacos will be available during the day, but the dinner menu will focus on large platters of meat or fish served with a stack of tortillas, salsas, pickles, grilled vegetables, and other sides so you can build your own. Look for cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork) and slow-braised lamb barbacoa with an Oaxacan chocolate-chile mole rub. Accompanying beans are also a big deal. Irabién is sourcing his from Napa’s prestige bean source Rancho Gordo, which also supplies a super-fragrant heirloom oregano that goes into all of Amparo Fondita’s braised stews and stocks.
In addition to the minimalist, greenery-filled dining room seating 55, the restaurant also operates a Mexican street food ghost kitchen called Tacos El Gabacho for takeout orders only. From there, you’ll find taco platters, tortas, quesadillas, and an al pastor smash burger with grilled pineapple. (The burger is a limited-availability special for dine-in as well.)
Irabién says the bar will have “all the feel-good greatest hits” including margaritas and palomas alongside a passionfruit cocktail with tortilla syrup and a whiskey drink incorporating masa and mole. Yes, there will be plenty of tequila and mezcal, but Irabién also wants to highlight sotol, a desert plant spirit from his home state of Chihuahua. “It is always really green, really vegetal, very mineral because it grows on literal sand,” he says.
The name Amparo belongs to Irabién’s mother and grandmother, but it also means shelter. “That’s also what this restaurant is. It should feel like shelter,” he says. “It’s where you go to get fed and get taken care of, which is sort of what happens to me when I go see my mom.”