Fuego Cocina y Tequileria: Mad for Mexican

A fiesta vibe, 110 tequilas, and sometimes vibrant cooking all keep the crowds coming to Fuego Cocina y Tequileria.
Queso Dip with chorizo and tortillas. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Queso Dip with chorizo and tortillas. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Slideshow: Inside Fuego Cocina y Tequileria

Chef Alfredo Solis says he learned to cook as a kid in Mexico
City because he was always running late and missing his mother’s lunches
and dinners. “This isn’t a restaurant,” she’d tell him, shooing him off to
make his own meal.

Solis—and his bosses at Passion Food Hospitality—was also a bit
late to the game with Fuego Cocina y Tequileria, a
splashy new Mexican dining room at one of Clarendon’s busiest
intersections. In the last year or so, Washington’s Mexican-food scene has
exploded—with taco trucks, regionally focused joints, and glossy
small-plates restaurants that hawk $14 guac debuting almost by the
month.

All the margarita-fueled competition hasn’t stopped Clarendon’s
twentysomethings and young families from flooding the 250 seats there,
which are spread across two levels of dining rooms decked out with Día de
los Muertos skeletons and saffron-yellow upholstery. Enticements such as a
rollicking happy hour and a good brunch help (go for the green-chili-laden
chilaquiles). So do the appealing cocktails, which range from
frozen hibiscus margaritas geared to sweet tooths to killer
micheladas made with Dos Equis, hot sauce, and tequila (they go
down easier than they sound).

The menu is just as sprawling as the space, and at times the
cooking can be a draw, too. The kitchen is led by Solis and overseen by
Jeff Tunks, the chef and Passion Food cofounder behind such downtown DC
restaurants as Acadiana, DC Coast, and
Ceiba. They sometimes stay faithful to traditional
recipes, as with a green-chili version of posole—the robust soup
bobbing with hunks of pork and hominy—or a skillet of queso
fundido,
a mixture of melty Oaxaca and Chihuahua cheeses studded with
chorizo and served with house-made corn tortillas. The freshly made,
ultrathin tortilla chips—served with red and green tomatillo salsas—are
one of the most memorable parts of a meal.

Many of the strongest dishes, though, simply use those
straightforward recipes as starting points. Take the beautifully crisp
flautas, filled not with beef or chicken but with
seven-hour-braised duck and Oaxaca cheese. Or the empanadas, stuffed with
goat cheese, mushrooms, and butternut squash and encased in thin,
deep-fried skins that shatter when you take a bite. Thick, greaseless
spears of yuca paired with delicious chili-garlic mayo also show the
kitchen’s deftness with the fryer.

Surprisingly, tacos are the least reliable way to go. Some
fillings—such as steamed, spice-rubbed goat, thickly battered and fried
tilapia, and beef brisket—are weak on flavor. They need a good dousing of
salsa to come alive. The best of the bunch is the aggressively seasoned
al pastor-style pork, which is marinated overnight in a mixture
of vinegar, orange juice, and spices, then roasted in a gyro machine and
topped with grilled-pineapple salsa.

A lovely plate of grilled shrimp, marinated in chipotle-adobo
vinaigrette and perched atop grilled pineapple, is the standout among the
main courses. Others have been disappointing: Seafood enchiladas devolved
into a soupy mess, and an over-grilled pork tenderloin had a marinade that
was too salty to overcome.

Ultimately, the best place to sit at Fuego might be the bar,
where you can sample the cocktails and 110 tequilas (and if that gets to
be too much, sip a delicious booze-free cucumber-lime refresher), fill up
on chips and salsa, and treat a few appetizers as if they’re sharable
small plates. With that strategy, you might find that Fuego lives up to
its suddenly vast competition.

This article appears in the March 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

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