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I had dinner the other night at the Alamo in Riverdale.
This was, not so very long ago, the restaurant I loved best. Actually, that’s not quite right; to say “best” is to suggest that there were rivals for my affection. In fact, there were none. The Alamo was the place I asked to be taken to every year on my birthdayin effect, the restaurant by which I marked time. I loved the cellar-dark interior, the blood-red booths, the waitresses sweeping past in their bright white dresses with the dainty flowered embroidery, the dark, mustachioed mariachis strumming their guitars and chanting “Cielito Lindo.”
And nothing quickened my 10-year-old pulse quite like the prospect of a glass of sangria and an order of cheese-and-onion enchiladas. I had my first taste of mole at the Alamo, thinking myself a sophisticate for not turning up my nose at the thought of chocolate on my shredded turkey. My first tamale, toothough I had to be shown by a smiling waitress not to try to consume the thick corn husk.
Even for Washingtonians of a certain age, the name Alamo is unlikely to evoke much nostalgia, if any; nothing from the cheesy ’70s, as we have all been programmed by now to believe, is to be regarded unironically. The restaurant, now in its 56th year, is no longer the destination it once wasthose days are over. So it wasn’t the prospect of great food and drink that brought me to that desolate stretch of Kenilworth Avenue on a recent midweek night as much as the chance to reconcile the place that I remembered with the place that is.
In its heyday, the Alamo was inarguably the best Mexican restaurant in the area. I can hear the snickers from the Left Coasters and other cynics who see the city even now, in the midst of its celebrated food boom, as a vast wasteland entirely lacking in good, authentic Mexican cooking. But everything in its context: Thirty years ago, no one in this town had heard of cilantro. Fajitas? They wouldn’t arrive for another decade. Mexican meant Tex-Mex, which meant huge, heaping platters of tacos, chalupas, burritos, and enchiladas, with every available inch of plate accounted for and enrobed in layers of cheese. The Alamo did this kind of simple, heavy, hearty cooking better than any other place, paying heed to the details. It ground its own corn for its tortillas. It served taquitos years before anybody else, and didn’t stint on the meat, either: The little, crispy cigars were filled, if memory serves, with thinly sliced roast beef and strewn with lettuce, tomato, cheese, and heaps of guacamole. So good was the Alamo, so favorable its word of mouth, that even those snobs from Montgomery County and Virginia who could not otherwise be persuaded to venture into lowly Prince George’s County regularly made the trip east. On weekends, the place was packed.
And then, for nearly two decades, it endured a slow, precipitous decline that perplexed nearly everyone who loved the restaurant and claimed it as his own. To see the Alamo fall into a state of disrepair, both inside and out, was unnerving, not unlike watching a relative succumb to a debilitating illness.
I had, therefore, steeled myself for the worst. But as I pulled up alongside the Alamo’s elaborate, ranch-style façade for the first time in more than seven years, I got an encouraging glimpse of progress. There’s new ownership in place; Derek and Susan Crossley bought the restaurant from her parents this past summer. They’ve embarked on a number of physical improvements, adding new archways, a new roof, and breezeway lights for a brighter, more welcoming entrance. The work has paid offthe white stucco exterior gleams in the surrounding darkness.
The menu remains mostly unchanged, at least for now. Sitting in a familiar, comforting red booth, I scanned the list of apps and entrees, the past flooding over me: the
multiple-meat platters, the chili and Fritos, the turkey broth brought to the table in a small coffee cup. I ordered, crossing my fingers.
In junior high, when my Spanish class went to the Alamo for dinner one night, I relished the role of insider, guiding my classmates through the menu and pointing them toward my favorite dishesmaybe the only time I felt in control during those awkward years. Later, when I was 16, a couple of high-school friends and I cut class with the intention of finding somewhere to drink. In the midst of our deliberations, it occurred to me that the last place in the world we were likely to be carded was a dark, adult place like the Alamowhich was how, boasting a little too loudly of our difficult classes at college this semester, we ended up draining two pitchers of sangria on a weekday afternoon. And one of my fondest memories of college was sitting in the Alamo one spring day with my mentor, talking animatedly over enchiladas and martinis about The Enormous Room and The Periodic Table, about academia and stupidity.
By this time, of courselate ’80s, early ’90sthe Alamo was no longer what it had been. I eventually stopped goingas, evidently, so many others did, too. I did make one exception to my self-imposed boycott, however, dropping by one night in the mid-’90s with my then-
girlfriend, Ellen. We were still in that first flush of dating, the breathless sharing-of-one’s-past stuff, and having already introduced her to my parents, I thought it fitting, somehow, that I should take her to the Alamo. I had few illusionsand the quality of the food confirmed my suspicionsbut it was distressing, nonetheless, that this last remaining bit of the past should have been swept away with the plates by the smiling but clueless staff of Chinese waitresses. We didn’t plan on returning.
But there we were the other night: Ellen, now my wife, and I working our way through an order of very good taquitos and enchiladas and, disappointingly, the somewhat less-than-satisfying turkey mole and tamales. And the thought occurred to me, with all the quiet force of revelation: The Alamo is not what it was, but what if it was never what it was to begin with? Sure, childhood memories are always burnished with an impossibly rosy glow. But it’s not just a case of getting older. It’s also that we’ve become, as both a country and a city, far more sophisticated as eaters.
In the past two decades, D.C.’s taste for the exotic has evolved at a dizzying pace, the target moving from Mexican food to Nuevo Latino to the Latino-inflected dinner-as-theater of the minibar at Café Atlàntico. The pursuit of the authentic vies with the quest for the innovative for area diners. The high end has never been more interesting, or more varied, or more accessibleas places like Buck’s Fishing and Camping and Zaytinya are proving. Virginia might be considered a scene all its own, simply on the strength of the beef-noodle soups at the Eden Center, in Falls Church, or the balanced yet fiery Thai dishes at such places as Thai Square and Rincome along Columbia Pike. To say nothing of those wonderful tongue tacos at El Charrito Caminante, in Arlington, with their thin, almost membranous tortillas. Who’s to say that, were it possible to bring back the Alamo of old, I’d even find time to go?
I’m impressed by Derek Crossley’s energy, the many hours he’s spent poring over cookbooks and Web sites in search of the tiny authenticating detail. He talks enthusiastically of bringing the Alamo back to respectability, of turning it, once again, into a destination restaurantwith a host of menu changes slated for January and a commitment to regional ingredients and recipes (replacing the chips and salsa, say, with the more traditional pumpkin seeds and pickled vegetables). I’ll be keeping an eye on him.
But that’s his Alamo.
My Alamo is gone, forever. Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.