Nacionale Treasure A gourmet taqueria puts the "real thing" on notice.

Tamale Never Dies: Cashion has a license to fill.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

A taquería this good has no business being tucked into an office building whose aqua-green windows are the only possible details that could remind a gringo of Mexico. No, Taqueria Nacionale shouldn’t be located on the ground floor of the Hall of the States on Capitol Hill. It should be pressed between the check-cashing operations, the dollar stores, and the other carryouts along 14th Street NW, where sidewalk vendors blast Tejano music while hawking camo miniskirts.

The folks along 14th Street, of course, might not like the competition. Taqueria Nacionale would only underscore the flaws of places like El Amigo Carry-Out or Catti or even the beloved Taqueria Distrito Federal—joints prone to passing off tough, underseasoned chunks of meat as “authentic” or purposefully blurring the line between Mexican and Salvadoran cooking. I recently ordered a trio of tacos at El Amigo for $6.99—two to go, one to eat in—and was handed a plump, pupusalike tortilla topped with a mountain of chopped grilled chicken, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and shredded carrots. Hard to believe that such a pileup of ingredients could taste so dull.

Ann Cashion knows all about the District’s woes with Mexican food. She’s been a student of the taquería scene for years and says flat-out, “I don’t think there [are] any good ones here.” To try to solve that very problem, the chef behind Johnny’s Half Shell and her eponymous Adams Morgan eatery has been looking for years to open a taquería.

Johnny’s move last year from Dupont Circle to Capitol Hill provided Cashion with the opening she needed. La Colline, which occupied the sprawling Hall of the States restaurant space prior to Johnny’s, used to operate a carryout in the back. That little storefront space jump-started Cashion’s latent taquería jones. “I decided, ‘Why not just turn their carryout into a prototype of our taquería?’ ” says Cashion, who once served up cheesy platters of Tex-Mex as chef at Austin Grill.

Nacionale isn’t your typical taquería. Cashion says she modeled her place after the best taco trucks Los Angeles has to offer, which is just a hip way of saying that Taqueria Nacionale serves up stripped-down tacos, more Mexican than the Tex-Mex or Salvadoran versions so often on display around here. I’m not saying—and I don’t think she is, either—that Cashion’s tacos are unique to the area. Her small, double-ply corn tortillas come filled with your choice of grilled-and-seasoned meat, chopped onions, and cilantro—no sour cream, no shredded cheese, no chopped tomatoes. You can find similar versions at numerous places, whether Mexican Pepito’s Bakery in Adams Morgan or Distrito Federal on 14th Street.

But what separates Cashion’s tacos from the others is the chef herself. The James Beard Awardnwinning Cashion joins a rather growing list of celebrated cooks—including Mary Sue Milliken, Susan Feniger, and José Andrés—who have spent a fair amount of time pondering the finer points of Mexican cuisine. But Cashion’s education isn’t her response to a trend: The Mississippi native spent some of her younger years noshing at taquerías throughout southeast Texas. She clearly has the flavors committed to the deeper recesses of memory.

More to the point, though, Cashion has the resources necessary to transform memories into her own finicky reality. She buys Bell & Evans chicken and other high-end meats; she orders freshly picked local strawberries for her agua fresca, one of several fruit-forward beverages available; she renders her own pork fatback for her creamy refried beans and (forthcoming) Mississippi Delta tamales; she packages each taco in its own biodegradable box because she hates how food wrappers turn tortillas soggy; she even imports expensive, kilo-sized bags of chufa from Spain for her horchata, a sweet, nutty milk-based drink that’s by far the best version I’ve ever had.

I can see you naysayers forming a posse from here. There’s a temptation to dismiss Taqueria Nacionale as some white-collar Anglo interpretation of a cuisine romanticized as a blue-collar Latino effort that makes do with humble ingredients and lesser cuts of meat. I hear you. But my palate cares not a lick about cultural identity and socioeconomic disparities. It cares about flavors, and Cashion’s joint consistently serves up bold flavors at competitive prices. Case in point: Cashion’s beef tacos, succulent chunks of plate meat that provide just the right amount of resistance, run $2.50 each; Pepito’s chew-fest of a beef taco sells for $2.75.

The menu at Nacionale is so compact it can be typed up on a single piece of paper and tacked to the dark-timber beams built into the wall, which, incidentally, is just one of several design features that makes this tiny takeout joint feel like a barrio bakery. True, there are Mexican pastries for sale, but I think it’s best to keep your eye on the real prizes: the tacos, the sides, and the aguas frescas. You can safely skip the daily comfort-food special, dubbed “Plato Tipico Americano,” including a (literally) cheesy supersizing of the mini Elvis burgers that Cashion helped introduce at Jackie’s in Silver Spring; these dishes, while decent, are more concessions to office wonks who apparently prefer less spice in their diet.

Cashion’s L.A.-style meat tacos—the carnitas, beef, and chicken—don’t rely on many ingredients. But each one plays a jigsaw-puzzle-like role that, if missing, would make for an incomplete bite, starting with the warm-and-toothsome corn tortillas and ending with the tart, avocado-spiked green salsa (one of three relatively mild tomatillo-based sauces, including a superb cumin-laced one, that can be applied to your taco from condiment pumps). The fried fish taco, built from mild Alaskan pollock and mixed with dressed strands of cabbage, might make you think of San Diego, considered the birthplace of the dish. But I’d point your compass farther south to Ensenada, Mexico, where the best fish tacos are produced. Cashion’s version could pass for the real Baja thing.

No matter how many tacos you order here, don’t skimp on the sides, particularly the Spanish rice cooked with tomatoes and topped with cilantro, nor the yuca fries, whose crunchy exterior gives way to a kind of creamy, starchy paste. You might wish that the breakfast-and-lunch-only Nacionale sold to-go cups of margaritas to help wash down all these flavors, but the aqua frescas give you far fresher blasts of fruit without any of the icy brain freeze. Plus, you won’t fall asleep at your desk in the afternoon.

You know what’s most scary about Nacionale? That this is just Cashion’s prototype for a taquería. Nacionale, in other words, is just an opening act. I can hardly wait for the main event.

Taqueria Nacionale, 400 N. Capitol St. NW, 202-737-0400.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.

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This week: Taqueria Nacionale's Ann Cashion.

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