Occasionally I’m asked what’s missing from this town’s generally wide-ranging options for eating. A real deli? Great proletarian pizza? Reliable Chinese?
My answer: Mexican food.
Oh, we like to think we have Mexican restaurants in this area. But—a few notable exceptions aside—we don’t. What we have are Salvadoran restaurants in Mexican clothing, with Salvadoran cooks turning out secondhand versions of already dumbed-down Mexican dishes. Such restaurants can be found in abundance—the area is home to one of the largest Salvadoran populations in the country—and they’re fine places for Salvadoran food. A lot of good they do you, though, when you’re looking for a real Mexican meal, something more substantial, more lively, than the middling bar food that is usually served up in the name of one of the world’s most inventive and complex cuisines.
But as a Mexican community has taken root in the last few years, so has Mexican cooking.
In Southern California, La Sirenita and El Tapatío would be generally regarded as nice places, but no different, really, from the many other worthies that blend unobtrusively into the vast ethno-culinary landscape. Here, though, they are standouts.
The two restaurants are located less than a mile apart from one another, in an area in Prince George’s that has come to be known as Little Mexico. The neighborhood lies roughly along a stretch of Kenilworth Avenue south of Maryland 410 and north of Maryland 450. The last couple of years have seen an explosion of cultural activity in the area: groceries full of herbs and spices from Oaxaca (the culinary center of Mexico); bakeries stocked with wonderfully soft, lightly sweet breads, cheesecakes, and fresh, cream-filled doughnuts; and even, in the plaza that houses El Tapatío, a Western-wear shop lined with handcrafted boots and belts. In the course of a dozen or so visits to Little Mexico over the past few months, I’ve counted a half-dozen full-service restaurants, in addition to a number of taquerías and chicken rotisseries.
Inevitably, no matter what my professional responsibilities might have me eating, I find myself drawn back to Little Mexico, craving the terrific tacos, the juicy, liberally spiced chickens, the pastries, and the shaved ice, whittled from a thick, rectangular block and doused with tropical flavorings. And when I want a full meal, it’s La Sirenita or El Tapatío I turn to.
La Sirenita is almost as notable for what it doesn’t have as what it does. The dining room, with its red-white-and-green flags flapping above plastic-covered tables, is virtually gringoless. Women, unless they’re doing the serving or the cooking, are scarce. This is a decidedly male preserve, with a heavy representation of construction workers and laborers who come by when they’re done with their day, to be served heaping plates full of attentive country cooking.
A third notable absence is cheese, or, more precisely, the thick and gooey blanket of Colby and Jack that is thrown, willy-nilly, over so many of the dishes that dare call themselves Mexican. At La Sirenita, you’ll find instead a light dusting of the crumbly, white queso fresco, followed by a zigzag of Mexican crema, which adds a finishing touch to the terrific quesadilla. It’s not the clotted, pressed tortilla package that we’ve become accustomed to but a soft, deep-fried turnover; it ranks only slightly below the monstrous, dosa-like creation that can be found at the nearby Taquería Tres Reyes, with its modest, and pronouncedly sour, queso filling.
The menu at La Sirenita can be thought of as offering two distinct possibilities for eating: a chance to bone up on the sort of traditional delicacies we’ve traditionally had to go without, and an opportunity to see the commonplace made remarkable. Among the former: fried quail in a bright, tangy verde sauce laced with slices of onion; huarache, a masa cake topped with beans and either beef or chicken; and a gutsy, porky posole. The chilaquiles are a hungry man’s casserole: an interlocking layer of torn, homemade corn tortillas topped with a green or red sauce, a fried egg, and a Milanese-style chicken cutlet that would make for a tasty entree all by itself.
It’s the familiar classics, though, that offer the strongest rebuke to Washington’s generic happy-hour fare, as well as to the callow if appealing Mexican cooking typified by Chipotle and Baja Fresh. The chile relleno—a smoky, wonderfully firm poblano encased within a light batter and bedded atop a red sauce that intensifies the spiciness of the pepper without bringing any additional heat—has more depth of flavor, more lasting soul, than an entire punch card’s worth of visits to the McDonald’s-owned Chipotle could ever hope to deliver. The mole, which enrobes a less-than-juicy chicken and nearly compensates for it, is dark, complex, and lightly chocolatey, and tastes of a long, slow day on the stove. Order guacamole and the waitress asks, “How hot would you like it?” One of the few disappointments is the tamales, tasty but a little dry.
The tacos are about as good as it gets. Two bucks fetches a gloriously messy meal that the two-ply corn wrappers alone cannot hope to hold. No tomatoes, no lettuce, no cheese—just a sprinkling of diced onion and several slices of radish, as well as a wedge of lime (as if the well-seasoned varieties of meat—there are eight kinds in all, including chorizo, stewed goat, tongue, and, my favorite, salty beef—needed the acidic wake-up).
Two other dishes on the menu—champong and kang pungi—were a mystery to me until the intercession of a translator provided the answer. They’re not Mexican; they’re Korean. Turns out the space once housed a Korean restaurant, and one of the cooks, who stayed on when the place changed over, kept two of the more popular dishes. The champong, especially, is a big hit, reminiscent as it is of the traditional Mexican sopa de mariscos. I saw bowl after bowl of shrimp-and-shellfish noodle soup being slurped down on every one of my visits.
El Tapatío, past some streetside vendors and two right turns away, makes a neat companion to La Sirenita, offering the chance for comparison among relative equals. The restaurant offers a different kind of Cali vibe, reminiscent of those glorified dives that are as much a fixture of the L.A. landscape as traffic and smog: a neonified pink-and-purple color scheme, a jukebox blaring propulsive Mexican pop, and terrific food that feels both lovingly and effortlessly prepared.
The version of chilaquiles here is lighter than La Sirenita’s, topped not by a fried egg but by a one-two of queso and crema. I prefer, by the slightest of margins, the tacos at La Sirenita, though the superb taco al birria, with its chopped, beer-flavored brisket (a recycling of the larger, heavier entree), is not available there. And El Tapatío’s tortillas are clearly superior: The grainy, faintly nubby wrappers, with their slight variations in shape—an authenticating stamp of the handmade—taste of corn and lime. This factor accounts, in part, for the strength of the enchiladas, which manage to be simultaneously light and substantive, a worthy vehicle for the chili sauces (a tart, piquant green, a robust red, and a soupy, sweet mole) that anoint them.
The entree plates are comforting—smothered steaks, shrimp in a tomato sauce, fajitas—but I find myself yearning for simpler stuff, such as the terrific tortas. The yeasty, house-baked rolls are toasted, smeared with mayo, topped with shredded lettuce, and then loaded up with soft, succulent cuts of breaded and fried pork or chicken. Wash one down with a cold can of Negro Modela, served with a wedge of lemon, or Styrofoam cup of cantaloupe juice, and prepare to order up another round. This is family-style dining, and the Navarro family wants you to feel at home. (That their daughter, the waitress, has a tendency to drift, or occasionally disappear, only adds to the casual, unhurried air about the place. No big deal.) Sit back and let the music wash over you, the smell of fried corn wafting from the kitchen fill your nostrils. If you close your eyes and concentrate hard enough, the city, with its long, unfortunate history of quasi-Mexican food, seems a whole coast away.
La Sirenita, 4911 Edmonston Road, Hyattsville, (301) 864-0188.
El Tapatío, 4309 Kenilworth Ave., Bladensburg, (301) 403-8882. —Todd Kliman
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