Photo of Joahna Hernandez by Darrow Montgomery
Photo of Joahna Hernandez by Darrow Montgomery

Joahna Hernandez, former manager at Cafe Oaxaca in Adams Morgan, makes traditional Mexican tortillas from scratch. Almost no one in D.C. is doing this besides Hernandez—probably because it’s a shitload of work.

“You have to treat the corn with a lot of love to get it how you want it,” says Hernandez, who begins by boiling imported Mexican corn kernels in an alkaline solution before letting them sit overnight. Come morning the real slog begins: making the masa, or corn dough, that will be made into tortillas and then lightly fried. 

The tortilla might be the quickest way to separate the real from the fake in “authentic” Mexican restaurants, which are relatively scant in the District despite all the so-called “hip-Mex” spots opening lately. Which raises a few questions: What qualifies as authentic Mexican food? Is there so little in D.C. because there are so few Mexicans here, compared to, say, Salvadorans? Do District eaters even care?

“I think there’s a lot of pretension now with who is doing it right,” says local cookbook author Pati Jinich, who hosts Pati’s Mexican Table, a nationally syndicated PBS show about to air its sixth season. She recommends assessing authenticity by examining the final product. “Was it over seasoned?” she asks. “Were the ingredients layered properly? There is a process that has to be respected.” 

So if authenticity is about taste, how do you know it when you find it? 

For Mexicans cooking in the District, authentic happens when it tastes like home—what their moms made on Sundays, the tacos from a favorite childhood stand, the meals they ate at the local mercado growing up.

“You have to be exposed to it [in Mexico], you have to be there,” says Rodrigo Albarran, who was born and raised in Mexico City and owns R&R Taqueria, which has locations in Elkridge and Perry Hall, Md. He was also the opening chef at Dupont’s Mission in 2014.

Alfredo Solis, who launched El Sol in Logan Circle in 2014 and Mezcalero in upper 14th Street NW earlier this year with his sister Jessica Solis, feels the same way. “We went with the food we grew up with,” says Alfredo, who like Albarran and Hernandez, is from Mexico City.

“We know the cuisine from the places where we live, the foods our family has been cooking,” says Hernandez, whose company, Manos de Maiz, operates food stands at farmers markets in Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and Eastern Market. “But there is so much more.”

That’s where the idea of “authentic,” even for Mexicans, gets fuzzy. Mexican food is not monolithic—there are many, many regions in Mexico with unique dishes, flavors, and techniques that are difficult to replicate in different Mexican cities, let alone different countries. 

Oaxaca might be known for its moles, for example, but moles are made all over the country and they can differ from town-to-town, even from farm-to-farm in the same region. A torta or sope made in Puebla is going to taste different from one made less than 100 miles away in Mexico City, just as a bagel in Manhattan will not taste like one made in Philadelphia. 

Translating authentic Mexican food for Americans might be less science than art.

For a long time in the District—and probably still—the lead dog for authentic Mexican has been José Andrés’ Oyamel. Two of Andres’ many proteges are Mirna and Dio Montero, the Mexican husband-and-wife team who both worked at Jaleo before opening Taqueria Habanero on 14th Street NW in 2014. 

“My mom thought we were just going to sell tacos,” says Yicela Montero, the couple’s 22-year-old daughter, who fields questions for her mostly Spanish-speaking parents. 

But the menu at Taqueria Habanero goes well beyond tacos to include traditional, lesser-known dishes like huaraches, chilaquiles, nopales, and aguas frescas. Solis’ menus also sport dishes unfamiliar to American diners, a challenge he overcame by adding pictures. “With no pictures, they always wanted to order tacos,” he says. “I love tacos, I want to sell tacos, but I want to sell something else, too.”

And that might be the Everest of authentic Mexican food—getting gringos interested in dishes beyond the ones they know and can pronounce. That, and explaining how complex and labor-intensive the food is to make, so customers stop demanding that it be cheap. 

“We get complaints,” says Solis, about the price of his tacos, which range from $2.50 to $3. “And we’re like, yeah, compared to downtown prices, some people charge $6 a taco.” 

Jinich thinks the problem goes beyond food. “We have to break the stereotypes that because we’re Mexican that everything has to be cheap,” she says. “Because we agree to get paid less, to work more hours.”

The cost of labor is likely why the Monteros don’t make their own masa. They use Maseca, a popular instant masa that nevertheless requires some skill to use well. Solis also uses Maseca for his tortillas at El Sol and Mezcalero.

So is the dearth of authentic Mexican cuisine in D.C. also because only Mexicans can cook it correctly, even when making tortillas from a mix?

“We have people from other countries who are making our food,” says Albarran. “And they can’t do it even though they might be really, really good cooks.” Solis concurs. “It’s like me cooking Chinese food,” he says. “I don’t think people are going to trust it.”

If there’s one non-Mexican in the District, aside from Andrés, who can make an argument that his restaurant is producing authentic Mexican cuisine, it’s Josh Phillips, who, with his wife, Kelly Phillips, owns Espita Mezcaleria in Shaw. A master mezcalier, or expert in mezcal, Josh approaches Espita’s Oaxacan-focused menu with monk-like seriousness.

For starters, Phillips and his team at Espita make their own masa with imported Mexican heirloom corn and use a Mexican-made molino, or corn grinder. Three or four times a year, Phillips and select members of Espita’s 60-person staff go to Oaxaca to learn about mezcal and take the pulse of the regional food scene.

“What’s happening in Oaxacan restaurants, that’s authentic,” Phillips says. “We try to capture what’s going on down there right now.”

Espita, which opened in March 2016, recently swapped chefs. Chef Alexis Samayoa, who is Puerto Rican, left over what Phillips calls “creative differences” and was replaced by Robert Aikens, Phillips’ brother-in-law—a Brit with nearly 30 years experience in professional kitchens, though none cooking Mexican food. “He likes to do fancy, flavorful dishes, which is what’s happening in Oaxaca now,” explains Phillips.

Lost in the discussion of Mexican culinary purity is the end user: District non-Mexicans whose palates help decide which restaurants will be around this time next year. And while newcomers like La Puerta Verde in Ivy City and Santa Rosa Taqueria on Capitol Hill have garnered mostly positive reviews, neither appear to be gunning for authentic status.

Maybe that’s not what Washingtonians want anyway. Maybe big Tex-Mex cafeterias like Lauriol Plaza are good enough to scratch the local itch for Mexican-like food.

Mission is a case in point. Albarran’s first menu included a squash rellena filled with tuna, a queso fundido, or burnt cheese with tortillas, and three different sopas, or soups. The current menu at Mission now contains nachos, taco salad, and a dish called “loco salmon.”

“I don’t think Americanizing Mexican food is bad,” Phillips says. “I don’t think it’s disingenuous to put your own spin on Mexican food. I think it’s culturally appropriate.”