It’s Saturday night at El Tapatio, and a pair of vaqueros in cowboy hats, tight jeans, and belt buckles the size of cookie sheets are belting out karaoke love songs to what is, essentially, a roomful of hombres knocking back one cold Corona after another. The accordion-rich music is so numbingly loud I can barely concentrate on my food, let alone my friends sitting across the table, and yet I couldn’t be happier.
In a town longing for full immersion into Mexican culture and cuisine—not a rarified salt-foam dalliance at Oyamel or an unhappy mixed marriage at a Salvadoran-Mexican joint—El Tapatio is the place to be. The no-frills eatery is located in a strip mall in Bladensburg, on a stretch of land that writerly types love to call Little Mexico, as if such a term can still conjure up the misplaced romance of educated Anglo-Saxons wandering into ethnic enclaves in New York or San Francisco.
Nothing about El Tapatio feels adapted for easy American acceptance, even the basket of chips and salsa that’s placed on the serape-covered table as soon as you sit down. People with a better understanding of Mexican cuisine than me argue that the concept of complimentary chips and salsa is distinctly American (even if you can now find the combo south of the border). But the snacks here smack of good, greasy Mexican street food. The hard, two-ply chips glisten with oil and crack between your teeth like peanut brittle. The basket’s thimble of accompanying salsa balances a stiff pepper kick with a cool sprinkling of cilantro, and yet these bold flavors never drown out the deep, satisfying corniness of those addictive chips.
“Tapatio” translates to “resident of Guadalajara.” You’ll never guess where owners Ruben and Martha Navarro hail from. The sprawling capital of the Jalisco state is known for, among other things, its terrific street food and a dish called birria de chivo, which is essentially goat stew. According to that ethnic-eats bible Wikipedia—what don’t they know?—you’re supposed to pluck goat meat from the stew, fold it into a corn tortilla with diced onions and a hit of lime, then dip the entire thing back in the stew. Well, no one damn well told me this at Tapatio when I first tried its birria de chivo estilo Jalisco (likely because the waitress speaks English as well as I speak Spanish). So I sat there like a dork, spooning the stew to my lips while ignoring the side of tortillas and the plastic bowl of raw onions. I might as well have worn a T-shirt with stupid gringo stamped across the front.
Naturally, I had to go back and try the birria again. As a means of fact-checking the free-for-all encyclopedia, I performed a brief tabletop puppet show with my goat meat and tortillas, demonstrating to my server what I just read. The slightly alarmed waitress nodded her head in agreement. I proceeded to eat my stew the correct way and came away solely disappointed. I wasn’t disgruntled by the eating method, but by the dry, chewy meat and tart broth, neither of which compared to the tender, gamey, cumin-scented dish I ate just the evening before.
This consistency problem made me think of something Ricardo Navarro, the 18-year-old son of Ruben and Martha, told me over the phone: The birria de chivo in the States is not the same as in Guadalajara, “even if you want the dishes to taste like back home.” In Jalisco, he says, you can pick out a goat, have it slaughtered and butchered, and be cooking the meat soon thereafter. Back in Bladensburg, the Navarros have to rely on frozen meat, since they can’t afford the fresh stuff. “We get [fresh meat] when we have like a family reunion,” Ricardo says.
Of course, goat meat, with its low fat content and propensity to lose water like a drunk Irishman, is always a bitch to cook. Stewing is supposed to protect against the dangers of dry meat, but we’ve all eaten enough leathery goat stews to know better, right? In other words, you take your chances whenever you order goat. The same cannot be said for Tapatio’s tacos, which are consistently tender and flavorful. I love the salty and crispy slices of marinated beef tucked into the carne asada taco as well as the scraggly strips of pork, each coated in a fiery spice blend, that comprise the al pastor taco. Come to think of it, I’m also pretty fond of the savory lengua tacos, too. Each comes wrapped in a toothsome double layer of corn tortillas.
Chef Martha Navarro’s typo-heavy menu (sample: one dish comes with your “choice of tongue or trip.”) spans three full pages—and offers a concise cross-section of Mexican and Tex-Mex plates. The menu includes a pair of moles, but you can forget about ordering the “Tapatio” version, whatever that is. It’s never available. I have, however, managed to swing a plate of mole poblano on two occasions, and its sauce is a work of art. As thick and shiny as crude oil, this mole delivers its pleasures in a concentrated wallop of cocoa sweetness, toasted nuttiness, and firmly controlled heat. The chunks of white chicken meat (often dry) are mere protein carriers for this dark, decadent glaze.
There are many other delights here, too, and yet I fear I’ve ignored Navarro’s better work, including her pozole and menudo soups, which customers slurp down at lunch as if these steaming bowls were mid-day energy drinks. But among the dishes I sampled before deadline, I dig Navarro’s pork torta on bolillo bread, which boasts colorful strata of refried beans, guac, lettuce, tomato, onion, and shredded loin meat. The chef also orders an unruly brigade of ingredients into a neatly arranged plate of cheese enchiladas; her crepe-thin tortillas come stuffed with queso blanco and are topped with more cheesy stuff as well as shredded iceberg lettuce, crema, and crumbly queso fresco. Only Navarro’s dry whole red snapper proves to be a yawner.
Really, my main concern about Tapatio is the Navarros’ gung-ho expansion into the space occupied by its former Jamaican neighbor, the Heaven Inspired Cafe. Perhaps I’m being a retro-cultural snob with an annoying anti-capitalist bent, but this recent addition features a full bar so the family can soon start slinging margaritas. Ricardo Navarro also raised the possibility of cutting back on the weekend karaoke sessions. Can a designer line of extra añejo tequilas be far behind? And worse, will families displace the reticent hombres who give El Tapatio its character—and voice—with each quarter they throw in the jukebox and every karaoke love song they sing to nobody in particular? I shudder to think.
El Tapatio, 4309 Kenilworth, Bladensburg, 301-403-8882.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.
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