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If a restaurant can be adequately judged by what it gives away for free, then Taqueria Poblano could be the best new restaurant to open in the past 10 months. Granted, the free goods are parceled out sparingly; it’s hard to fit many tortilla chips into vessels barely large enough to accommodate your morning cereal, especially when they have to share the space. But what adorable earthenware! And the contents are epic in spite of the portions: Chips are hot and shiny from their recent trip through oil, salty but not too, and as thin and handsome as the paper your graphic designer friend used to print his last resume. Beside them are a few lime wedges and a raft of sliced, chili-powder-dusted jicama—root vegetables bucking to be considered tropical fruit. And the thin, tangy salsa, brewed in-house with a healthy dose of lime juice, is eye-opening.
You’ll be sending your waiter for refills before you even look at the menu.
Poblano offers other charge-free pleasures, including a lot of chili-pepper iconography—which suggests a burgeoning cult. The place is also about as wholesome as a day spent watching reruns of This Old House. My experience with Del Ray has taught me that you could probably open a porn shop along its main strip and still not dent the neighborhood’s urban/small-town idyll, so Poblano has no trouble fitting in. There’s a barbershop across the street, a cozy patio out front. And inside, waiters say things such as “Oh, you’ll like that!” without coming off like bad actors in a TV ad.
Aside from the chips and salsa, the food is served on disposable dinnerware with little ceremony, and thank God for that. Poblano’s husband-wife co-owners, Glen Adams and Karen Kowalczyk, have created a clean, low-nonsense restaurant based on the premise that you don’t need fanfare to sell a seriously good taco.
Adams’ “L.A. style” tacos are enough of a rarity in this area that his wife says he’s had people fly archetypes over from the other coast just to refresh his memory as to what they look like. (Adams was raised in Santa Monica.) The shells are as important as the stuff that goes in them: Fryer-fresh, no two are the same—some curl awkwardly, like seashells that could double as spearheads, and others are pocked with bubbles—but they’re all crunch, as if they’d been plugged into amps. The shells come overloaded with fresh lettuce, leaving you with a small salad when all’s said and done, but the fillings underneath are the real draw: The beef’s chili-braised and satisfyingly stringy. The hot-seasoned pork is rotisserie-carved. The chicken’s juicy and cumin-scented. And the vegetarian mix is surprisingly not boring. Its base of yuca is just-so firm; you don’t end up with half the taco spilling down your sleeve.
The soft-shell department is a little more controversial. My girlfriend finds the whole idea of a fish taco “obscene.” Myself, I’m tickled to find a good one within driving distance. Poblano uses chunks of fresh mahi mahi and fries them in beer batter; even topped with Mexican slaw and a spurt of spicy cream, the fish’s coating still crackles, and the flesh is moist and flaky. I’m less enamored of the tacos al pastor, if only because the soft corn tortilla is too small to hold its mound of pork, pineapple, onions, and red chili sauce.
Given the low prices and the fact that most of the items on Poblano’s limited menu are served a la carte, there’s little reason not to load up. Besides, making a meal out of two under-$3 tacos and a plate of grilled baby onions or crunchy, pork-stuffed taquitos is a better route than ordering one bulky thing. Of the few platters offered, only the Oaxacan-style pork turns out to be worth it; the lime-marinated steak is tough, and the chicken breast “sinoloan” is just plain dull. And if you’ll allow me to be so bold as to criticize bean and cheese burritos for being too beany and cheesey, Poblano’s burritos are too beany and cheesey. Would it kill someone to throw in some lettuce to cut through the goo?
Poblano runs smoothly—which suggests that there’s a crack assembly line somewhere in back—but don’t be surprised if you show up for Saturday dinner and find you have to wait; the restaurant’s creamy, warm rice pudding and its rich, batter-y chocolate fritters make it one of the few taco joints around where you might actually be inclined to stay for a third course. Indeed, the whole enterprise seems so ripe for duplication that when I catch a server during a rare down moment, I have to ask: Is Poblano a chain? Without missing a beat, she says, “Not yet.”
Taqueria Poblano, 2400 B Mount Vernon Ave, Alexandria, (703) 548-8226.
One reader “swears to God” she found the “most ridiculous thing” in her fajitas at Alero: “French fries.” It sounded pretty ridiculous, so I decide to investigate. I find no trace of spuds, although I do discover something even stranger: celery. The restaurant recently cloned itself—there’s now a location in Dupont Circle as well as in Cleveland Park—and at its southern branch, the one where I eat my fajitas, the waiter can’t adequately explain either phenomenon. When I try to ask about the celery, he simply brings out some more.
Alero, 1724 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 234-8100. —Brett Anderson
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