In a low-cut shirt that doesnât quite hold her in, the young woman wobbles on skinny heels down three flights of stairs from the roof deck. What she wants, she tells one of two bartenders on the ground floor, is a couple of âsurfers on acid.â
âTheyâre red. Thatâs all I know,â she says. The bartender shakes his head.
âHow about a red-headed slut?â she says.
âHow about a kamikaze?â the bartender offers.
Ashley is a law student at George Washington University who doesnât want to give her last name. Sheâs kind of drunk, she explains. Itâs her friendâs 21st birthday. Ashleyâs was two months earlier. That event, too, was celebrated at Lauriol Plaza, the see-and-be-seen Tex-Mex architectural palace at 18th and T Streets NW.
Outside, behind the small fence and under the umbrellas, five giant, loud men are squeezed around plates of enchiladas and fajitas. Theyâre yelling to women on the sidewalk. âHow about some dinner, baby?â is the typical line. âI already ate,â a woman in her 20s replies, speeding up to get by them. âWell, how about a drink, then?â
Thereâs been enough to go around: two pitchers of margaritas, one empty, one nearly gone. One of the men gets up to go to the john and improvises a striptease around an umbrella pole. When he comes back, a manager tells the group thereâs been a change: Carlos will be your server now.
Their waitress has had enough. Theyâve had enough of her, too, and start demanding a new bill. They never ordered that second pitcher of margaritas, even though they slurped most of it down, and add that âthat bitchâ (the waitress) also spilled some of it on them. Things get heated when the manager hands them a revised bill. âYou donât hand the bill over a manâs food when heâs eating,â one of the men snaps. They continue to argue. The patio, normally a boisterous spot during dinner hours, grows quiet. A few minutes later, the cops show up.
This is Lauriol Plaza. On a Monday. And itâs packed. The placeâits capacity is 330âis almost always packed, despite the many D.C.ers who say itâs not worth the wait, not as good as it once was, not authentic Mexican or Cuban or whatever it purports to be. Not all that. Critics, generally, agree. Chief among them is Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post.
His anti-Lauriol rants have popped up in his popular-with-foodies online chat, âAsk Tom,â at least six times since March 2004, when his most scathing criticism appeared. He wrote that the restaurant was âDISGUSTINGâ and a âfood factoryâ and said he âcanât fathom why people wait for hours to get a table there.â
More recently, in June 2007, he toned it down, telling a chatter who compared Lauriol to Chi-Chiâs: âI share your contempt.â
Sietsema frequently advises diners to head to nearby Straits of Malaya instead. I did that one night at a table with a great view of the chaos over at Lauriol. Across the street, masses of people armed with Red Lobster-style table beepers and sporting popped collars and flip-flops had taken over the sidewalk. During the course of a long dinner, the line at Lauriol never abated. More went in, and more arrived to wait outside. Whatâs the draw?
Well if youâre hankering for a margarita, chips, salsa, guacamole, etc., and if you want both a scene and some food thatâs vaguely Mexican, then a sparsely populated restaurant with a Malaysian menu, however good and spicy the food is, just isnât going to cut it.
âPeople come in here all the time complaining about that place,â says Straitsâ bartender Wayne Bowie (who also logs time behind the bar at Larryâs Lounge next door, which has the same owners). âI tell them they are packed every night. They must be doing something right.â
His boss, Straits and Larryâs co-owner Ken Megill, says simply: âRaul has been a good neighbor.â
But Raul Sanchez and Luis Reyes, owners of both Lauriol Plaza and Cactus Cantina on Wisconsin Avenue NW, donât need the endorsement of their neighbors. They donât need the Postâs food critic to like them. They donât need to advertise. And they donât need to make themselves available for City Paper writers. After nine tries, six of them in person when a manager told me one of them would be there, I nearly gave up. On my last attempt, I finally caught up with Reyes, who says people have compared his restaurant to Wal-Mart, and itâs just not fair. âWe work very hard,â he says. âWe offer good food at good prices and we have very good service.â And he offers something else: the rare D.C. restaurant that is critic-proof, turning tables and making money hand over fist, no matter what the âexpertsâ think. The take on some days, according to an unnamed source who would know, is in the neighborhood of $30,000. Reyes did not dispute the figure.
Thatâs a lot of chips and salsa. Itâs just as well, then, that theyâre so goodâthe chips, a mix of white and yellow corn tortillas, are perfectly fried; the salsa, heavy with a chipotle smokiness, is served warm, a nice touch.
Entrees, which range from $7.95 (two cheese enchiladas) to $19.95 (grilled fillet mignon), are easy enough on the wallet, but thereâs nothing there to get excited about.
On recent visits, tacos with shredded chicken were the definition of bland; mine were filled with dry clumps of meat more like shredded carpet than poultry. They had to be doused with the salsa to make them edible. The dishes listed under âOven and Sauteedââamong them prime tenderloin strips with fresh tomatoes and cilantro, and the paellaâare better bets. But while the Masitas de Puerco, described as âCuban style morsels of pork, marinated in criollo sauce, [and] roasted in Sevillasâ bitter orangesâ and recommended on separate visits by two different servers, arrive tender and long-cooked, the dish is seriously oversalted. Itâs nothing a good margarita, which Lauriol does well, wonât cure.
For lunch, entree salads ($9.50 to $11.50) are a sure thing, unless youâre not very hungry. Like most every dish, theyâre huge. An hour after working on the Fiesta salad (romaine, tomatoes, red onions, olives, green peppers, avocados, pepperoncini, cheese, and topped with either fajita-style chicken or beef and house dressing), I made only a small dent.
The food at Lauriol in recent years is consistent, as in consistently OK. âIt was fine,â says Mt. Pleasant resident Earl Eutsler, 28, about his dinner there. âItâs always fine.â
âItâs the restaurant we love to hate,â he says, standing on the sidewalk with his girlfriend and another companion, who are nodding their agreement. âFor some reason, we keep going back there. Whoever brings it up as an option is sort of like the goat, but we go, âEh,â and then we end up there.â
A lot of the appeal of Lauriol, according to its fans, is its architecture. Thatâs been the case since the ânewâ Lauriol opened in 1999, barely a block from its old digs at 18th and S.
Itâs both huge and intimate, a stylish, spacious, and urbane restaurant in the middle of a residential neighborhood. And although itâs noisy and crowded and, in typical fashion, unloved by Advisory Neighborhood Committee 2B (which has protested, without success, the renewal of its liquor license), the building is a huge improvement from the liquor store that once occupied the corner.
âItâs definitely the space,â says Shaun Abrams of U Street, who is outside on his iPhone, calling up friends to find out when theyâll arrive for his 23rd birthday dinner. Thereâs a wait, of course, but Abrams canât get in line for his table beeper until his entire party is in attendance. This is what happened to him last year. âWe waited for about two hours,â he says.
To Abrams and the people hovering around him, Lauriol is worth it. âIâm from New York,â Abrams says, âand they donât have anything that looks like this there. Itâs just very impressive.âŚBut we donât necessarily come for the food.â