Cortez tacos. All photos Laura Hayes.
Cortez tacos. All photos Laura Hayes.

D.C. didn’t become Southern California overnight, but the city is seeing a boom in Mexican restaurants. Dedicated taquerias, as well as restaurants with broader menus of Mexican cuisine, are looking to satisfy. Some of their tacos have as much spirit as a mariachi band, while others fall quite flat. After a taste test of restaurants that opened in the past couple of months, we ranked them from first to worst.

1. Cortez

1905 9th St. NW

You won’t believe this rainbow colored dining room and rooftop used to be 1905. Cortez specializes in getting you tipsy with tequila, but their tacos ($5 each) are worth not only sampling, but celebrating. The beer-battered fish taco tastes straight out of San Diego. The fry on it is reminiscent of funnel cake and the fish comes topped with lime mayo, pickled red cabbage, and Fresno chili slices. The cochinita pibil tacos are just as flavorful and satisfying, and you shouldn’t skip the skirt steak taco either. It features medium-rare meat and a kick from two salsas. 

2. Bandit Taco

1946 New Hampshire Ave. NW

Bandit Taco’s tortillas are the size of silver dollars, so you’re going to need at least four to fill up. But that’s not a bad thing since the restaurant offers a plentiful selection priced at $3.50 to $4.25 per taco. They serve standards like carnitas and al pastor as well as some surprises like Korean beef and wild mushrooms. The corn tortillas by Masienda are rich in flavor. Don’t dare miss the crispy shrimp taco piled high with red cabbage and a cream sauce. 

3. Mi Vida

98 District Square SW

This monstrous Mexican restaurant at The Wharf serves food from Roberto Santibañez. For a celebrity chef, his tacos are a little lacking. The achiote-marinated chicken tacos look like they were filled by an artist obsessed with empty space, and they cost $12 for three. The fish tacos, if you order them crispy, are an improvement at $14 for three. They’re topped with pickled cabbage, spicy avocado mayo, pasilla de Oaxaca salsa, and cilantro. What’s most frustrating is that, unlike at other restaurants, you can’t mix and match your taco flavors.

4. Zen Taco

1747 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

Initial skepticism arises at this New York import when perusing the menu because the restaurant also takes on poke, and even piles said poke on noodles. There are Asian-inspired tacos like the “Sure Bet” with brisket, orange ginger chipotle slaw, Asian slaw, pickled onions, cilantro, and sesame seeds. Over on the “Latin” side of the menu, “The Basic,” combines pork, cilantro, onions, tomatillo, and avocado sauce. The tacos are slathered in too many slaws and sauces, rendering them wet. Juices fly everywhere, leaving you forking your way through a soggy pile. Ordering and pricing are confusing, but you get can three small tacos for about $10. 

5. Taqueria Local

1627 K St. NW

You might need a lunch mulligan after sitting down to three tacos ($3.75 to $4.75 each) at this new fast-casual taco joint from a nightclub owner. The corn tortillas crumble when you handle them, suggesting they haven’t seen heat for a while. The al pastor taco features hunks of dried out, mealy pork with no seasoning, while the shell containing “spicy shrimp” has no heat to mask the flavor of shrimp that doesn’t taste fresh. The two salsas that come with an order of three tacos add much-needed moisture, but zero flavor. Only a side of Mexican corn encourages one to keep eating.