I don’t care what the bartender served you on the Love Boat cruise you took in high school: Those red Slurpees that leave your mouth looking like Ronald McDonald’s are not margaritas. The genuine article was never meant to mask the taste of tequila but, rather, to set it into a tropical context. The liquor is the heat and the salt is the sweat; the lime, liquor, and ice are the relief. A blender is sometimes involved in a margarita’s making, providing the drink with a thin layer of surface froth: That’s the bonus.
The people at Enriqueta’s have been making proper margaritas for 20 years nowlong enough for its owners to have seen their cuisine become something of a local anomaly. A great majority of “Mexican” food in D.C. comes from restaurants that specialize in hyphenated cuisineTex-Mex, Brazilian-Mex, Spanish-Mex, Salvadoran-Mex, chain-Mexwhereas Enriqueta’s menu is virtually purebred. And its blended margaritas are among the best in town.
Enriqueta’s is not the place to go for tacos; yet it’s the place to go for just about anything but. The shredded (not ground) taco beef has a jerky-like toughness that I appreciate, but it requires a knife. Which means I have to dump the fixings out of the shell in order to enjoy them, and if I wanted a taco salad, I would go somewhere else.
A lot of Enriqueta’s menu you already know by heartnachos, quesadillas, fajitas, beerbut many of the familiar items come with characteristics that have been lost as they’ve been subjected to fusion. Enriqueta’s enchiladas are dainty compared with the cheesy oil logs served most places; the sauces and folded tortillas hide the meat within, but you won’t need to check the menu to remind yourself what that meat actually is. Tortilla soup (sopa azteca on the menu) is thicker and more tomato-y than most, shot through with roasted red chiles and crowned with chunks of avocado. Tamales are as fluffy as corn dough will allow, stuffed with pork that emits a faint whiff of garlic.
Enriqueta’s has developed its share of idiosyncrasies over the years, starting with the service, which is surprisingly formal given the setting; the mostly male staff favors a corporate-casual dress that might come off as stuffy if the food weren’t served on platters shaped like fish. Prices vary between dinner, when entrees average around $10, and lunch, when everything’s a couple of bucks less. But the menu always includes eccentric signatures such as the broiled mussels (topped with dried chile sauce), crepes (stuffed with avocado and covered in cheese), and the humorously hearty, semi-famous Yul Brynner burrito (named for the actor, who apparently liked his burritos huge and doused with chili con carne).
No doubt Enriqueta’s has survived four presidencies because it fusses over the stuff that quickly gets lost in the mosh of eating. The rice isn’t riddled with those hard kernels that stick in your molars, and the black beans are worth finishing. And I have never eaten better tomatillo saucesomeone might think about printing up some labels and slapping them on jars. What’s often billed generically as “green sauce” and made harsh with hot peppers is more nuanced herepleasantly acidic, just a little sweetand the kitchen often uses it in tandem with the red stuff, as it does in the house enchiladas, the refreshingly mild chiles rellenos, and the platter of crisp-charred, country-style beef. The chunky, fresh-tasting “salsa” is basically pico de gallotomatoes, onions, and jalapenos served in a puddle of their own natural juicesand few people would shrink from eating it or the chunky, freshly made guacamole with a spoon.
And then there’s the mole. This sauce, which is a staple in Mexico, remains a mystery in the States. It’s so difficult to master that some restaurants just fake it, watering down the sauce and ignoring the chocolate component altogetherwhich is akin to leaving tequila out of a margarita. The sauce is still enough of an acquired taste that Enriqueta’s offers a free sample to anyone who may want to take the plunge. What the menu calls “Mexico’s national dish” is little more than chicken and mole, but there’s nothing simple about it. The sauce is a dark, smooth-running mindfuck that includes most of the kitchen’s spice rack and more. Its quality varies: Some nights it’s sticky and syrupy sweet, on others it tastes like a sexy voice soundshaunting, raspy, as if pumped from the center of the earth.
Enriqueta’s, 2811 M St. NW, (202) 338-7772.
I’ve come to enjoy looking on as diner cooks tend to corned beef hash, watching as the griddle transforms the pile of glop into something that looks close to edible. So I’m startled to find no glop involved when I order one of my fave post-party breakfast dishes at Ray’s Diner, and I have to blink when what’s delivered is, as one reader puts it, “a world’s difference from the ‘dog food’ my father was expecting.” Ray makes his hash by hand, meaning that the potatoes don’t touch the meat until they both reach the grill. Texturally, the resulting dish is indeed a far cry from its canned siblingthe corned beef actually requires chewingalthough the taste remains blissfully familiar. Don’t turn your nose up at the diner if its signature item isn’t your thing; the food’s good and cheap, and, according to the reader, “Ray could use the business.”
Ray’s Diner, 303 N. Glebe Road, Arlington, (703) 807-2991.Brett Anderson
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