Young and Hungry

Taco the Town: Is D.C.’s Taco Self-Loathing Coming to an End?

The Tacos El Chilango food truck makes no attempts to parkin neighborhoods with lots of foot traffic. You can’t follow it on Twitter, and you won’t find it at Truckeroo. Six days a week, the large white vehicle sits on a hill just off Route 50 in Rosslyn, between the roar of highway traffic and some three-story brick apartment buildings. There are no offices immediately in sight, just a motel with a faded sign for The Inn of Rosslyn. Most people don’t happen upon the truck; they seek it out.

The $2 tacos are the reason. There are just six: carne asada, lengua (tongue), chorizo, al pastor, chicken, and mixto (beef and chorizo). And they’re prepared as simply as it gets, topped with onions and cilantro and wrapped in two warm corn tortillas alongside some lime wedges and coarsely sliced radish and cucumbers. My dining companion and I sit on the concrete steps of an apartment building looking toward the highway with Styrofoam plates balancing on our knees and mango and tamarind Mexican sodas beside us. Biting into the juicy bits of meat and lightly grilled tortillas, you begin to understand how the truck gets away with operating off the beaten track.

Tacos El Chilango has five stars on Yelp with more than  160 reviews—a nearly unheard of accomplishment. Not even Komi is rated so highly on the site. Inside the truck is Mexico City native Jesus Santacruz, the smiling operator who lives just around the corner from his truck’s parking spot. He and his brother Juan Antonio have been slinging tacos here for nearly three years. Two weeks ago, they opened their first storefront at 1119 V St. NW. Like the truck, it’s a no-frills spot serving authentic Mexican tacos. The word “chilango” is Spanish slang for someone from Mexico City.

This is particularly significant because the lackluster Mexican food in D.C. has long been a running joke. People love to pick apart new restaurants, but Mexican spots have been especially easy targets. The tacos are so much better in Texas or California, people complain. Washingtonians have serious taco scene self-loathing. And not without reason: the District’s Mexican restaurants, for the most part, are better known for their $12 margaritas, rooftop patios, and designer decor. Tacos El Chilango seems to more closely resemble the stripped-down taquerias that people fetishize out west.

But there’s been an honest effort to change that lately. Since last year’s arrival of El Centro D.F. and Logan Circle’s Tortilla Coast, there’s been an onslaught of new Mexican joints, including Bandolero, El Chucho, Pacifico Cantina, Crios Modern Mexican, and District Taco. Still to come: Fuego Cocina and Tequileria from the Passion Food Group.

Tacos El Chilango may be the most Mexican of this new group of Mexican spots. Jesus and Juan Antonio were literally born in a taqueria. Their parents came from a small town called Arandas in the Mexican state of Jalisco. When they married, they moved to Mexico City, where they opened their first taqueria in the 1950s. Their living quarters were attached to the shop, and that’s where seven of their eight children were born. The entire family grew up selling tacos, and today, six of the eight children continue in the family trade.

Juan Antonio, the youngest, moved to the U.S. in 1987 and initially worked as a dishwasher at J. Paul’s in Georgetown. Over the years, he’s also worked as a social worker for Alexandria non-profit Hopkins House and ran a Mexican folk art store on 14th St. NW called 100% Mexico (which supplied some of the decor at Oyamel). Jesus, the second-youngest, followed his brother here 10 years later and worked as a barback at The Front Page for nearly a decade. Aside from the two of them, only their oldest brother, Manuel, lives in the U.S. He’s now looking to open another Tacos El Chilango truck somewhere on Columbia Pike in Arlington. Another brother, Heraldo, owns a taco place in Arandas; his son, Heraldo Jr., lives here and also helps out at Tacos El Chilango.

The Santacruz brothers initially looked to open their first taqueria in Arlington, but got fed up working with brokers. They found their current space, previously home to Italiano Cafe, on Craigslist. Today, Jesus continues to operate the food truck, and Juan Antonio is in charge of the brick-and-mortar spot.

“I want people to feel like they’re in Mexico,” Juan Antonio says of the 16-seat space, which also has an outdoor terrace in the back. The walls are a creamsicle orange with seven bold portrait paintings of Mexican icons like masked wrestler El Santo, revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, and painter Frida Kahlo. In the far corner is a black and white photo of the Santacruz brothers’ personal icon: their mom.

“This taqueria is dedicated to her,” Juan Antonio says. He’s created a shrine of sorts around her photo with a Virgin Mary statuette and the words “Dedico esta taqueria a Mama Pina con todo mi amor.”

The tacos at Tacos El Chilango are made exactly the same way Mama Pina made them: The corn tortillas are grilled with a few drops of corn oil and used to scoop up bits of meat as soon as they’re cooked. No guacamole, no sour cream, no chopped tomatoes. Just cilantro and onions.

“We don’t sell tacos,” Juan Antonio says. “We sell authenticity.”

Up to a point, that is: He says the few other authentic Mexican restaurants in the District tend to target Mexican customers, while he wants to create a Mexican restaurant for everyone. As such, you won’t find tripe or liver on the menu. Tongue is as “weird” as it will get, he says.

The Sanatcruz brothers aren’t too impressed by their D.C. competition. Juan Antonio hasn’t tried many of the other hip new Mexican joints, but he says place like El Centro D.F. tend to be overpriced and lack any semblance of authenticity.

The menu at the Tacos El Chilango taqueria is identical to the truck’s, with three vegetarian additions: cheese with mushrooms, green peppers, or avocado, which are some  of the best dishes. The cheese is crisped from the grill, making it both crunchy and gooey. Of the meat options, I’m partial to the chorizo and tongue. (The chicken tends to be a little dried out.) The tacos are slightly more expensive than at the truck at $2.50 or $2.25. Both the shop and truck offer salsas roja and verde that customers help themselves to, but the store has the added bonus of spicy onions with habanero and lime. Beware: they’re hot.

Tacos el Chilango also makes three aguas frescas from scratch: Jamaica with hibiscus flower, Tamarindo with tamarind, and Horchata with rice flour, vanilla, cinnamon, and milk. (The Horchata is the best by far.)

The taqueria seems poised to follow its truck’s runaway  success on Yelp. On Monday night, a constant flow of customers quickly crowds the tiny space. The online chatter from bloggers and commenters is overwhelmingly positive. But as for whether people will stop hating on D.C. tacos in general? That has yet to be seen.

The Sanatacruz brothers have found that simplicity is key to their success. When they started the taco business, Jesus suggested also selling tamales and tortas, but Juan Antonio objected. “I said, ‘no, we’re going to sell just five tacos,’” Juan Antonio recounts. “If you have quality, five will be enough.”

Going forward, they have no intention of changing that. There will be no expanded menu. No weekly specials. No margaritas on tap. “I might be boring,” Juan Antonio says. “But, you know, it’s what people like.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Andy

    As a resident of Court House, I've become friends with Jesus over the past three years. He's quite a cut-up and his tacos are second to none. One of the best tacos I've ever had in my life.

  • Pingback: District Line Daily: Bizarro D.C. - City Desk

  • styglan1

    Not a single mention of Pica Taco, Jessica? They have a restaurant 4-5 blocks that is about as authentic as El Chilango gets yet you nary bother to mention them? Shame on you. And I say that truly and sincerely, that is an extremely shameful oversight on your part as a food writer.

  • sewsewsoso

    I thought we were past the point of taco saturation?

  • amanda

    Ditto re: Pica Taco. I loves me some tacos and am excited about this new boom--and look forward to trying El Chilango. But so far, none of the others has come close to Pica Taco in terms of the place's a) excellent ingredients; b) huge portions; c) amazingly low prices! As my husband says (who's declined to accompany me on taco-trying expeditions), "when you have perfection, why go elsewhere?"

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/youngandhungry/ Jessica Sidman

    @styglan1 @amanda Pica Taco is good, as is Distrito Federal in Columbia Heights, but neither of them have the nearly unheard of Yelp rankings of the Tacos El Chilango truck, which is one of the reasons I chose to focus on their new expansion for this column. The story also focuses primarily on new additions to the taco scene within the past year.

  • El Perro Del Distrito Federal

    Glad to hear about Chilangos coming to the District. But let's temper the "DC's got legit taco spots now" talk.

    As an "authentic" Latino with a flavor for all things Distrito Federal, I gotta say that DC's Mexican food scene was so bad that I'd found better, legit and authentic taco joints in Madison Wisconsin, Rockford Illinois, and a few solid spots in Ohio.

    The sad part about DC's Mexican food scene was that a city of 600,000 couldn't replicate the experience, but that the suburbs legitimately could. Nevermind that just like Mexico City is known as "El Distrito Federal," ("the Federal District"), which is pretty much what DC is.

    As to the restaurants, only a Non-Latina would say Tortilla coast is "Mexican" food. The restaurant has lots of kitschy Texmex decorations, but it's flavors are too gringo-fied to make any sorts of claims of authenticity.

    And I'm sorry, but calling Bandoleros "Mexican" is an insult to Mexico. I know it's a sin for food writers to criticize Mike Isabella. I get it. He's a nice guy. But it's time someone admitted that his restaurants just aren't very good. Bandoleros is about as Mexican as Tokyo, Japan. Bandoleros is about as expensive as the restaurants in Tokyo, without any of the service or flavor. Even the namesake margaritas are awful there!

    I haven't tried el Chucho, Cantina nor Crios Modern. But District Taco is gross. They serve nachos with velveeta smeared all over them and dare to call it authentic. They get the dis because it's actually run by Spanish speakers. For shame!

    The one the food writers never talk about (perhaps they're scared of the neighborhood?) is El D.F. in Columbia Heights. The spot's legit, and owned by a Mexico City native. The pictures of Zapata, the home made soft drinks and the 1917 revolutionary feel of the place let you know its authentic. The food's amazing and the owner's the sort of guy you'd want to have a Negro Modelo with while chatting about the PRI.

    I'm also a fan of el Centro DF on 14th near U Street. A bit more "yuppified" than I'd like, but it's the real deal and those carnitas tacos are succulent.

    So yes, Chilangos brings hope. But we're far from being a metro mecca of Mexican food like LA, San Antonio, San Fran or Chicago.

  • Ben

    I'm excited to try this. We do have a few good options already -- Super Tacos on Columbia Road and both Pica locations. (Many folks like D.F. too, though I didn't so much the one time I tried). Super Tacos in particular rarely gets the attention it deserves.

  • Rahul

    One thing that distinguishes El Chilango from some of the others mentioned here is that all the tacos are made to order so that the fillings come out piping hot and the soft tortillas are just a tad crispy. The fillings are not sitting around in warmers nor are the tortillas warmed up in a steamer that makes them soggy, which would be completely unacceptable in Mexico.

    You can taste the difference!

  • Guest

    Does the new brick and mortar spot have a liquor license?

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/youngandhungry/ Jessica Sidman

    @Guest No liquor license

  • Francisco

    I live one block from the Arlington truck and honestly El Chilango is the best thing I've found around. Before I tried them I wondered how a food truck could survive in such a location but after I tried them I understood. Do not expect flamboyant tex-mex dishes with sour cream or cheddar cheese. These are simple, real, tasty, just-cooked, tacos. Good price, better eat. I'm glad that El Chilango is expanding into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in DC.

  • ashley

    Another Arlington spot that has to be mentioned is El Charrito Caminante. Technically I think it's a mix of Mexican and El Salvadorean but either way it is SOLID.

  • Bryan

    Seems a shame to ignore D.F. in Columbia Heights. The owner is a great guy with authentic tacos, and he takes the risks El Chilango doesn't, which is why his rating is slightly lower. Their menu is huge, they take time to make what you order, and people are probably afraid to ask for corrections or extras because of their own flawed perception of a language barrier, so they go online and complain instead of in person to the nicest guy ever. You practically let the El Chilango guys talk crap on D.F.'s whole model. The owner at D.F. has, on multiple occasions, brought me extra stuff just to see if I like it and ask how my day and his food has been, and they've been what these guys claim to be for a lot longer.

  • Jay

    The best salsa, guacamole in town. And the tacos are perfect. And cheap. Just $2.50.

  • R Chandler

    Having known Juan Antonio since the early 90s and his dedication for passion, he has instilled and will be instilling authentic quality Tacos El Chilango... cant wait to visit.

  • Drez

    D.F in columbia heights is very good. Pollo, al pastor, lengua, chivo. Same garnishes of onions, cilantro, radishes, cucumbers. Excellent green sauce and pickled jalapeños. Amazing.

  • http://kennedyskarne.com/beef.html mexican beef marinade carne asada

    Truly impressive and nice information,it is good material to read this post increases my knowledge.That is really fantastic and exciting to read your dwI hope you never stop! This is one of the best blogs Ive ever read. Youve got some mad skill here, man. I just hope that you dont lose your style because youre definitely one of the coolest bloggers out there. Please keep it up because the internet needs someone like you spreading the word.....Thank you...

  • http://www.jacksons-hotel.net/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1_129&products_id=128 music note toms for sale
...