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I could have sworn that I’d happened across the fifth, or 15th, or even 50th outlet of a national franchise when I first walked into Tacuba Cantina Mexicana, in the Bradlee Center strip mall in Alexandria. The generically jaunty lettering on the sign out front, the menu’s earnest, quasi-historic explanation of the concept, the molcajete holding crayons by the hostess stand—Tacuba struck me as slickly contrived and cheerily appealing, much like Baja Fresh or Rio Grande.
As a silver-haired man seated my party one Friday night, I wondered aloud if Tacuba was a spinoff of someplace else. Big, beaming smile. “Not yet,” he said, with the barely repressed pride of someone who’s just been told he’s about to be promoted.
This turned out to be Todd Stallings, director of operations, who, when I reached him later, hinted even more broadly about a possible expansion: “That’s the dream of every person who opens a restaurant.”
Ha. Most people who open a restaurant hope and pray they aren’t going to go bankrupt. Given that the failure rate, nationally, for new places is better than 9 out of 10, they’re right to hope and pray. Stallings and his crew—only a part of the three different companies involved in financing, operating, and marketing the concept—then, are either more naive than most or bolder than most. Or maybe just smarter than most: They’re already conceptualizing offshoots in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. After that, anything’s possible, says Stallings. “Certainly we wouldn’t have gone to the extraordinary lengths we have to develop the menu we have, if we didn’t think it had a chance to be something big,” he adds.
By “extraordinary lengths,” Stallings is referring, in part, to the coup of bringing aboard cook, author, and culinary anthropologist Mark Miller, creator of Red Sage and early popularizer of upscale Southwestern cuisine. Daniel Alverez, one of Miller’s cooks at the Coyote Cafe in New Mexico, is in charge of overseeing the kitchen—he’s spent the past three months at Tacuba, preaching consistency and fine-tuning the menu. Miller’s influence is evident from the moment you sit down, from the shakers of green-chile salt and chipotle black pepper to the fire-roasted salsa, partnered not with the usual chips but with what look to be mass-produced tostada rounds dusted with chili powder.
The salsa, intensely smoky and slightly mysterious, was promising; I thought that perhaps a regional-intensive take on Mexican cooking from the earnest, meticulous Miller was in the offing. As it turns out, the scope of the menu is remarkably limited, with the familiar trinity of burritos, enchiladas, and tacos making up the bulk of the choices. Adventurous it’s not—and even Miller fans like me are bound to be perplexed about what, aside from cash, he stands to gain from all this—but it does suit the needs of ownership just fine. The more streamlined the menu, the more endlessly replicable.
The sauces, at least, keep things interesting. I love the chipotle barbecue sauce, which elevates everything it touches, from the shrimp to the beef barbacoa to the chicken tinga. The citrus adobo marinade turns some decent, if not particularly long-cooked, hunks of pork into something approaching slow-simmered lusciousness in the tacos al pastor. And the red chile and green chile sauces almost rescue the dull tamales.
The two soups are exercises in minding the main chance, gutsy peasant dishes shrewdly lightened for urban consumption. The tortilla soup doesn’t stint on heat, and it’s pretty to look at, with its slices of avocado and nest of thin, fried tortilla strips, but its chicken broth lacks depth; the posole is, likewise, constructed from a thin-tasting broth, and there’s almost as much pork in the bowl (thick, intact hunks) as there is white hominy.
It’s the dishes that diverge from standard taquería fare that make it less certain whether Tacuba will have legs to carry it beyond the immediate area. The flat-iron steak fajitas are brought to the table mercifully sans the customary steam show—but they’re missing most of their savor, too. Worse is the Baja Shrimp Cocktail, a dish that is meant to dazzle the customer but succeeds only in embarrassing him. “Shaken, not stirred,” the menu reads. A deadpan server brings out a cocktail shaker and a tray of raw ingredients. Into a glass tumbler they go, each one called off with rueful solemnity: shrimp, green pepper, cilantro, onion, lime juice, ketchup. Whoa, I interrupted him, ketchup? By which point I had thrown off his spiel and he was glaring at me. All night I kept thinking: Does Miller know about this?
To judge from the crowds, and the smiles throughout the dining room, nobody else was doing much carping, about ketchup or anything else. I suspect the terrific margaritas have a little something to do with that. All are made with fresh lime juice and good tequila, and they pack a punch. The best of them, such as the Oaxacapolitan, cost more than some of the entrees.
Maybe it was the influence of my second margarita that night, but Tacuba’s slick competence had me thinking like the hero of The World According to Garp, who decides to buy a house that has sustained a plane crash because it’s been “pre-disastered.” Well, Tacuba has been pre-chained—there aren’t likely to be many surprises along the course of the owners’ planned expansion. If that translates, at times, into a play-in-Peoria genericism, it also means that there’s a fun, cheap, and sometimes tasty place coming soon to a strip mall near you.
Tacuba Cantina Mexicana, 3648 King St., Alexandria, Va. (703) 379-5377.
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