One of the first bits of
professional dining advice I received was never to order seafood where tacos are served. With one horrid “whitefish” burrito and some yellow-’round-the-edges
scallops still fresh in my memory, I took the guidance, reluctantly dismissing my own pleasant memories of ceviche.
Two experiences helped unravel my bias. First, a friend told me how as a teenager in Southern California he and his friends would play hooky and head for the Mexican border. Once on foreign soil, they’d buy a fresh catch, fire up the grill, unload lemons, beers, and jalapeños, and call it a day worth risking their allowances for. “The seafood is wonderful; you can taste it in the air down there,” he claimed.
Then I ordered the paella at Las Placitas. The dish isn’t adorned only with seafood; sift through the mound of rice, and moist chunks of chicken emerge, some vegetable bits, a lemon. But it’s the delectable assortment of seafoodsquid in long strips and small rings, scallops that turn to pudding in your mouth, pink, medium-size shrimp, mussels open widethat inspires me to order a spicy shrimp, scallop, and veggie stew on my next visit, salmon the time after that, and seafood soup as a matter of routine.
My initial reluctance to shun the denizens of the deep at Las Placitas had a lot to do with what I generally expect an inexpensive Mexican/Tex-Mex/Salvadoran restaurant to provide; whatever reasons you might have to frequent Northwest mainstays like Las Cruces, El Tamarindo, or Cactus Cantina, I’d bet fresh flounder isn’t one of them.
In this regard, Las Placitas is something of a revelation. The flounder is flaky and delicately broiled, with thoughtful touches of lemon, butter, and paprika. Salmon is available the same way or topped with a medley of tomatoes, onions, and green peppers. The camarones azteca is a vivacious sauté; savoring the mixture of Spanish wine, garlic, scallions, and pimentos, it’s hard to imagine these shrimp in better company. A casserole of scallops, shrimp, clams, and the catch-of-the-moment is soaked in a rich sauce similar to the seafood soup’s broth, only thicker. It’s hard to get a read on the exact quality of Placitas’ fish. One waiter tells me it comes fresh almost daily; another says he’s not sure, only that it’s “all good,” which, since he’s right, is all that really matters.
Las Placitas has two locations, one on Capitol Hill, the other in Adams Morgan, with similar menus of Mexican and Salvadoran dishes. The food at each location is equally enjoyable, and there’s ample evidence that one interior decorator has struck twice. Both places are decorated with simulated wood, piñatas, and strings of plastic peppers. The tables are set in an ethnically neutral fashion, with vinyl cloths and fake flowers; for the first part of lunch in Adams Morgan, my girlfriend impersonates the Flying Nun, her folded napkin atop her head.
The Capitol Hill Placitas is the better of the two if only because it’s an infinitely more inviting environment for margarita consumption. The times we eat at the Adams Morgan location it’s dead, whereas its sister restaurant is obviously a neighborhood hot spot. Go with a group on a weekend and you might have to wait around for a table.
And there are plenty of reasons besides the seafood that standing in line is worth the bother. Foremost among them are the puerco and pollo al horno. The half-chicken is garnished with enough onion for a pot of chili, the pork with a touch less, and both are roasted in butter and orange juice. The meat oozes with the fruity concoction, and is more than tender enough to cleave with the side of a fork.
Other items prove that simple doesn’t have to mean dull. Boiled yuca, a dish roughly as thrilling as plain white rice, is roused to life with
some pickled veggies and a few morsels of fried pork. Fried plantains are
similarly spare and delightful, accompanied by beans and sour cream. What’s startling about the chicken soup isn’t some hidden pocket of abrasive jalapeños but the mellow, comforting broth and the long strips of crunchy carrots that float in it. In comparison, the dips are decadent. Chips full of guacamole provide heavy rushes of onion and cilantro. The salsa is chunky enough to be a salad.
Given how pleasurable some of Las Placitas’ dishes can be, the more standard items are pretty much doomed by design. An exception is a chicken burrito filled with moist white chunks that most places might reserve for meals where the meat would actually be visible. But the fajitas are listless; we question whether they’ve been seasoned at all. The enchiladas monterrey are everything the menu says they are, cheese rolled in tortillas and covered with ranchera sauce and more cheesebasically a plate of fat. But I order them out of habit, and I should know better. If you’re looking for something you’ve eaten a thousand times before to tell you what Las Placitas is all about, you’re headed in the wrong direction.
Las Placitas 1, 517 8th St. SE. (202) 543-3700.
Las Placitas 2, 1828 Columbia Rd. NW. (202) 745-3751.
Like the burrito or the submarine sandwich, the knish has always captivated me with its canny reduction of an entire meal into something handheld. The knish, of course, is often considered a snack; it maintains a low profile, evidence of potatoes’ and buckwheat groats’ low sex appeal. What’s more, a friend who grew up on the Jewish pastries insists that “nobody actually likes those fucking things.” I’m still thinking the knish can go mainstream, perhaps as a hip complement to coffee. Blue Mountain Coffee and Tea might agree. Its knish assortment includes one with spinach that’s the dense, hearty snack a croissant or muffin could never be.
Blue Mountain Coffee and Tea, 4224 Fessenden St. NW. (202) 686-5599.Brett Anderson
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