Having endured decades of abuse at the hands of an American fast-food chain which shall not be named, the taco’s reputation is on the mend – and the humble dish is finally reclaiming its rightful place in the pantheon of comfort food.
Modern tacos bear some similarity to what Aztec farmers made long ago, but hundred variations have evolved in the centuries since the Spanish arrived in the new world. Allowing for all of those variations, it’s still easy to recognize what a true taco isn’t: mystery meat covered with wilted lettuce, mealy tomatoes and shredded “cheese” in a pre-formed, crunchy yellow corn shell redolent of salted cardboard, suitable perhaps for a Harold and Kumar sequel.
That part is simple enough, but on the other hand, how does one define a real taco?
For an expert opinion, On Tap spoke with Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), whose annual Taco Fest in DC is a legend among hill staffers.
“The taco is a lot like a good burger: so many variations, ingredients, and personal touches” explains Rep. Grijalva. “Keep in mind that the two main ingredients can change: flour or corn tortillas, heated or fried (to make folded tacos) – and then there’s the meat: shredded beef, carne asada, goat, lamb, fish, shrimp, chicken, etc. – even vegetarian tacos, just with beans.”
Here’s some good news for DC residents aspiring to make great tacos at home: the masters at Tucson’s Tacos Apson who cater the Taco Fest in DC each year, prepare most of the ingredients from produce purchased right here in DC. The two exceptions are fresh limes, and their secret-recipe tortillas – both of which they fly in from Arizona each year.
On Tacos Apson’s preparation of carne asada (flame broiled beef), Rep. Grijalva explains: “they use charcoal only, although some establishments prefer wood burning grills – either way, carne asada needs to be prepared over an open flame.”
Once the meat and tortillas are in order, things get even more interesting. Traditional taco presentation begins with a hunk of meat nestled atop soft, warm tortillas – two, lest one risk a blowout. Garnish this base with any number of traditional condiments: fresh tomatoes, chopped onions, pico de gallo, and sliced avocado, salsa roja (red) or tomatillo (green), a sprinkle of cheese, a squeeze of lime, and a sprig of cilantro, and you’re home! …Almost.
Steaks are often best prepared with a simple treatment of salt and pepper, but taco meat calls for a far more liberal seasoning of spices and herbs, including chili powder, cumin, dried oregano, paprika, cayenne, and garlic. Many meats are also marinated for hours in mouth-watering (and sweat-inducing) preparations of fresh chili peppers, citrus, vinegar and garlic.
For that matter, the initial choice of meat also matters a great deal. In addition to the meats listed above, options abound: sausages like chorizo or longaniza make amazing tacos, as do cuts like lengua (tongue), sesos (brain), and a favorite of Rep. Grijalva and his staff, tripitas (small intestine).
Are you brave enough to sample these less conventional cuts? Either way, while real tacos may not be as convenient as the familiar corporate imposters, they’re absolutely worth it – a fact each of us should remember next time we feel the late-night urge to lower our standards and, ahem, run for the border.
Rep. Grijalva’s Taco Fest fundraiser is held in DC each September; once scheduled, the date will be announced on
Tacqueria Distrito Federal
Taco, taco, hole-in-the-wall, who’s the fairest of them all? Tacqueria Distrito Federal, of course, with its super-affordable range of soft corn-tortilla tacos ($2.75-$3/each). Select from a dozen different fillings ranging from goat (devastatingly good) to beef tongue to baby pork ribs. Vegetarian – rice and beans – isn’t on the menu, but just ask. All are served with cucumber, lime, avocado, and nopal (cactus) on the side.
Tacqueria Distrito Federal: 3463 14th St. NW, Columbia Heights; 202-276-7331, www.taqueriadf.com.
Lime Fresh Mexican Grill
For a quick-service Mexican feast, head to Lime. Their wide-selection of tacos are great for mix-and-matching and sharing. Every meal comes with a pile of fresh chips; try the queso, it’s cheesy with a kick! Favorite taco selections include the Surfer, topped with a tangy sauce, and the I Wanna Tijuana Taco. Their Low-Carb Taco is surprisingly tasty in a warm wheat tortilla. Add one of the dozens of hot sauces Lime has to offer and your mouth is in for a fiesta! Don’t miss the Honey Habanero; it’s sweetly spicy!
Lime: 2900 Wilson Ave. Clarendon, VA; 703-294-6040; www.limfreshmexicangrill.com.
Los Tios Grill
Los Tios Grill, which specializes in Salvadorean and Tex-Mex food, offers two types of tacos: Tacos Los Tios (featuring corn tortillas and pulled meat) and Tacos Al Carbon (featuring flour tortillas and grilled meat). Both varieties can be ordered with pork or chicken and come with hefty servings of refried beans, tasty pico de gallo, and Mexican rice. We also love the green sauce you can sprinkle atop your tacos: it’s somehow spicy, tart, and creamy at all once.
Los Tios Grill: 2615 Mount Vernon Ave. VA; 703-9299-9290; www.lostiosgrill.com.
As you can tell by its name, this Del Ray eatery specializes in tacos. Here, the “Mexican sandwiches” are priced individually and served a la carte, although larger platters do come with sides. We love the spicy soft shrimp taco, as well as the taco al pastor, which feature tender and juicy pork with pineapple chunks. Taqueria Poblano’s veggie tacos are crunchy diced potatoes with a generous portion of lettuce and tomato on top: delicious! Taqueria Poblano offers eleven varieties of tacos, including the unusual offering of duck carnitas. We think you’re bound to find one that makes you say olé!
Taqueria Poblano: 2400 Mount Vernon Ave. Alexandria, VA; 703-548-8226; www.taqueriapoblano.com.
Ever wondered what Korean-Mexican fusion would taste like? Make a reservation at Annandale’s trendy DaMoim to find out. Among the other fusion menu items, diners will find Korean barbequed jaeyook (spicy pork), galbi (beef short rib), and dahk (chicken) tacos at $9 for three. Each is topped with nutty sesame salsa and a refreshing lettuce scallion slaw. You can’t go wrong with any, but the succulent pulled jaeyook is the stand-out.
DaMoim: 7106 Columbia Pike, Annandale, VA; www.damoimrestaurant.com.
When the craving for a basic, straight-forward taco hits, head to Los Toltecos to satisfy your taco tooth. Particularly notable are the tacos al carbon with juicy marinated shrimp (your choice of corn or flour tortilla), with refried beans, rice, and pico de gallo for $12.99. Lighter eaters can choose three hard-shell tacos a la carte for $6.75. The shredded, all-white-meat chicken tacos are always a crowd pleaser.
Los Toltecos: (six area locations), www.lostoltecosrestaurant.com/main.html
José Andrés’ swanky Mexican tapas bar puts a new spin on the classic taco, served in warm, house-made corn tortillas ($3.50 – $5 apiece). Vegetarians can sink their teeth into the earthy and satisfying garlic and wild mushroom. Foodies have a choice of tender confited baby pig, spicy Guadalajara-style goat and veal, or unctuous seared pork belly. And for the truly adventurous, Oyamel offers a taco de chapulines: crunchy Oaxacan grasshoppers marinated with tequila.
Oyamel: 401 7th St NW, DC; www.oyamel.com.
Attached to a gas station and liquor store in Gaithersburg, MD, tiny Taco Bar serves some of the tastiest tacos in the Metro region. For fewer than three bucks you can pick from chorizo or chicken to rib meat or tongue, then customize each at the extensive toppings bar. And generous, well-seasoned meat portions, plus double corn tortillas, mean you can create two tacos for the price of one.
Taco Bar: 10003 Fields Rd. Gaithersburg, MD; www.tacobarwashingtonian.com.
Wednesday at Bottom Line is Fiesta Hump Day! Enjoy a FREE taco bar starting at 4 p.m.!
Bottom Line: 1716 I St. NW, DC; 202-298-8488; www.thebottomlinedc.com
The 51st State Tavern
Monday is $.50 taco night! 4 to 11 p.m. Budweiser products only $3.
The 51st State Tavern: 2512 L St. NW, DC; 202-625-2444; www.51ststatetavern.com
Head to Lime for WTF! Enjoy $2 tacos Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 4 to 7 p.m.
Lime: 2900 Wilson Blvd. #104 Arlington, VA; 703-294-6040; www.limefreshmexicangrill.com
Don’t miss out on Taco Tuesday at Argonaut! $3 fish tacos, $2 chicken tacos, and $2 tempeh tacos. Dine-in only.
Argonaut: 1433 H St. NE, DC; 202-250-3660 www.argonautdc.com
H Street Country Club
H Street Country Club offers $1 tacos every Wednesday. Customers choose from chicken, pork or veggie tacos after a two drink purchase. Eat one or one hundred!
H Street Country Club: 1335 H St. NE, DC; 202-399-4722; www.thehstreetcountryclub.com.
Front Page – DC
Every Thursday Front Page DC hosts Taco Happy Hour from 4 to 7 p.m. with $2.75 Bud Light, Yuengling drafts, rail cocktails, house red and white wine, and $2 Coronas and Miller Lite. ThhFREE taco bar with whole roasted pig, pulled chicken, and all the necessary taco fixings is from 5 to 7 p.m.
Front Page – DC: 1333 New Hampshire Ave. NW, DC; 202-296-6500; www.frontpagerestaurant.com
Lucky Bar hosts $.50 taco nights every Monday! $14.75 Buckets of Sol & Tecate, $3 bottles. 5 p.m. until close.
Lucky Bar: 1221 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; 202-331-3733; www.luckybardc.com
Wednesday is Taco Night at Ventnor Sports! Modelo bottles for $3.50.
Ventnor Sports: 2411 18th St. NW, DC; 202-234-3070; www.ventnorsportscafe.com
Tonic Mount Pleasant
Enjoy $.50 tacos every Tuesday from 8 to 11 p.m., with purchase of beer, cocktail or appetizer.
Tonic Mount Pleasant: 3155 Mt. Pleasant St. NW, DC; 202-986-7661; www.tonicrestaurant.com
Taco Tuesdays: $3 lamb tacos, $4 Sol beers, and $6 taco/Sol combo. Every Tuesday – ALL NIGHT!
1905 Restaurant: 9th St. NW, DC (2nd Floor); 202-332-1905; www.1905dc.com
El Centro DF
Enjoy $2 tacos all night long on Tuesdays, exclusively in the Taqueria & Tequileria. Featuring Chef’s Choice of 3 special tacos.
El Centro DF: 1819 14th St. NW, DC; 202-328-3131; www.richardsandoval.com/elcentrodf