The apparent mismatches at Restaurante Abi start in the parking lot, which the Salvadoran restaurant shares with a McDonald’s. Then inside, hanging high on the wall, are various types of headgear: an army helmet, a sombrero, a cowboy hat. On one Thursday nightwhen margaritas and domestic beers are half-price and on alternating weeks live music is stagedthe band (flute, acoustic guitar, electronic drums) puts a sort of techno-folk twist on Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could).” Posted behind the bar are signed publicity shots of musicians who aren’t known to dabble in the genres we hear the live band sample: Tsunami, L7, Poster Children, Fugazi.
“That guy, Ian, he really likes it here,” a waiter says. MacKaye and his friends “come in on Monday and Tuesday nights for half-price Mexican dinners. And most of them are vegetarian, I think, because that’s what they order.”
But despite what some of this evidence might indicate, Abi is neither a hipper-than-thou punk-scene enclave nor some newfangled fusion joint. Abi, which has been around for 11 years, is located in a part of Arlington near Falls Church that the Post’s foodies once dubbed “Little El Salvador.” The excellent rice-and-bean burrito covered in tomato sauce, the sprightly ensalada verde, and the stout tacos al carbon are all found in the section of Abi’s menu called the “Mexican Corner,” but Salvadoran cuisine is the restaurant’s forte; the cuajada cheese is homemade and available to go by the pound. “Abi’s pupusas are the best in town,” insists a friend who’s a regular.
The tortillas are worth bragging about as well. Dense, spongy, and very much like the pupusas, only sans filling, they’re hand-formed, plump, and a little crumbly, serving more as a stand-in for bread than a wrap.
A plate of two hot tortillas comes with every order of soupa popular item regardless of the temperature outside. The sopa de res is definitely a meal in itself, thick with ox tail and fresh vegetables, and it’s available every day. The sopa de mariscos is labor-intensive: Submerged in the fragrant broth is a bony hunk of croaker, countless shell-on shrimp, several mussels, a clam, and a whole crab. Strain it and put the contents with rice and you’d have a decent paella. The struggle to get to all the meat is worth it, however, because the seafood is delicious, and by the time your table is a junkyard of empty shells and bare bones, the remaining puddle of broth will be pulpy with all the small bits of flesh you couldn’t grab with your hands or fork. Like the sopa de mondongo (similar to de res only with beef tripe instead of ox tail), sopa de mariscos is made only on weekends. So plan accordingly.
Abi’s salsa has a focused pepper burn to it, which suits the chips fine but is hardly needed elsewhere. The carne adovada is heady as isthe meat is technically ham, but its texture is like a pork chop’s, and it tastes of citrus. Chimolbasically salsa minus the liquid part and the heatis served with most entrees, and it provides all the additional flavor that’s needed. Pork and vegetables emerge from the chile relleno like a piñata’s booty once you break through the stuffed pepper’s batter shell. The chicken in both the arroz con pollo and pollo encebollado is sautéed in white wine, rendering the meat light and tangy. The steaks tend to be overdone, although the flavor of the meat almost seems secondary next to the onions, tomatoes, green peppers, and jalapeños. Except for two-person items like the parrillada Abi (a variety plate I recommend mainly because it’s the only Salvadoran entree to include Abi’s killer chorizo), few of the entrees run more that nine bucks.
Value is, in fact, Abi’s great appeal. On Wednesdays, appetizers (try the taco doradoa small, deep-fried wrap with chicken, celery, and onions that tastes remarkably like an egg roll) are half price, meaning that nearly every weekday there’s some kind of price special. The strip-mall setting leaves something to be desired, but on Fridays, Saturdays, and every other Thursday, the live music and the crowds make the place feel like a family picnic. The tables get pushed into clusters to accommodate groups of 10 or more that appear to comprise great-grandparents right on down to screaming babies. One night, a woman makes a musician pose for a picture holding a stuffed panda.
The waiters are attentive, but not butt-kissy. One in particular cultivates a familiar rapport with lines like, “Thanks, man,” “Beats me,” and “See ya later.” It makes me think I could probably trust him with more than just my food. When I inquire about iced coffee during lunch one day, the guy steers me away, saying the drink is available, but “it’s not so great. It’s brewed hot. Get iced tea.” When I ask him when’s a good time to come spy on rock stars, he’s cagey: “What, the food’s not good enough?” I tell him it is.
Restaurante Abi, 3005 Columbia Pike, Arlington.
“You’ve showed you don’t know anything about German food,” one reader responds to a review of Cafe Berlin, “but you should still go to Cafe Mozart. They have this raspberry wheat beer that’s fabulous.” As a native of the Midwest with many Blatz-drinking acquaintances from Milwaukee, I’ve always been sensitive to accusations of beer snobbery. But in reality, I’m a sucker for microbrews and pricey foreign brands, German ones in particular. An aging blues musician turned me on to German wheat beer (as a chaser for an after-lunch brandy, natch), and I’ve since considered a pint of the stuff with a squeeze of lemon the perfect summer beverage. The raspberry syrup added to the glass I order at Cafe Mozart doesn’t necessarily improve the drink, but it certainly transforms it. Recommended for those moments when you want nothing more than a sweet, mind-altering spritzer.
Cafe Mozart, 1331 H St. NW. (202) 347-5732.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.