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.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery