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It’s a little after 7:30 at Tortilla Coast. The drinks are no longer affordable, so happy hour must be over, but the place is still packed. I’m engaged but not mingling. My attention is instead focused on a basket of perfectly salted chips and a bowl of chili con queso. I must’ve said “last dip” 10 or 20 times over the spicy processed-cheese goo. The crowd is a mixture of—well, nothing really. Imagine walking into a brokerage firm an hour after a keg’s been tapped. The proximity of both Congress and the headquarters of the Republican National Committee is reflected in the herd of ties and power suits. Looking around, a political-operative friend comes to the same conclusion about their wearers. “You can just tell,” he says.
Not that long ago, but in another era, Tortilla Coast was located on the Senate side, where it catered to a Democratic majority and lobbyists who didn’t (and still don’t) have many options for close, quick bites during or after the workday. Judging from what I’ve seen of Tortilla Coast and from what I’ve heard about Head’s, the building’s former tenant and a known Republican hangout, the corner’s a magnet for politicos. As long as there’s a bar and a menu of some kind, the place is packed.
What Tortilla Coast offers someone who has to go out of his way to get to the South Capitol Metro stop is clarified on the menu. Where “expense account” and “ethics” were once mentioned together only in jokes, they now harmonize in a crude equation that equals inexpensive food. And with decent sit-down Mexican or Tex-Mex in no great abundance locally, Tortilla Coast even manages to help fill a culinary void.
Even awesome entrees can be rendered unsatisfactory if the standard chips and salsa don’t live up to certain expectations of quantity and taste. It’s not a problem here. TC serves a mild picante salsa, almost like a gravy, that’s similar to the exemplary dips at El Tamarindo and Lauriol Plaza: thinly pureed so that every bite contains the same complicated flavors. Both the black bean and chicken fajita nachos are high-quality but can be skipped; the bowls of chips and salsa are bottomless, and the entrees are big. If you order an appetizer, tortilla soup is the call. A brothy mixture of chicken, grated cheese, crispy tortilla strips, corn, raw onion, and tomato, it’s the most interesting item on the menu.
Tortilla Coast’s burritos are plump, heavy objects that, due to a slathering of green chile sauce and uncooperative tortilla wraps, are best eaten with a fork. Like the fajitas, which can feed two, the meat filling in the burritos is grilled, and the charred bits on the chicken and beef are actually kind of nice. “I like that smoky, crunchy aspect,” my friend says of his chicken taco, which is similarly prepared.
Since Tortilla Coast caters to more than a few people with stress-ravaged stomachs, the restaurant wisely makes whether or not you’re into hot food a nonissue. None of the food arrives very spicy, but there’s always the option. Many dishes come with a side of veggies topped with sliced jalapenos, and you can provide a quick fix from the bottled hot sauces.
None of the salads warrants finishing: The chicken fajita salad is mostly lettuce, the Caesar’s like all the rest, and the citrus salad, meant to be a meal, is more like a dessert that’s been invaded by avocado. But other greens are dealt with more gracefully. Both the spinach-and-corn tamales and the spinach-and-mushroom quesadillas are fresher tasting and even thicker than their shrimp- or chicken-filled counterparts. The grilled veggie wrapper—a slightly tweaked veggie fajita—comes with a unique chipotle eggplant spread I’d bet would taste great on a deli sandwich.
It’s no coincidence that Tortilla Coast’s service is best on early visits. August recess means thin crowds, leaving the wait staff with less reason to get irritated and plenty of time to kiss butt. But on our final visit, when our indifferent waitress brings out a spinach and mushroom enchilada instead of chicken, an unsalted margarita (perfectly tart, by the way) when we ask for it with salt, and dressing on the rock shrimp salad instead of on the side, we quit trying to make her come correct. Her section is hardly full. It’s clear that when we talk, she’s not terribly interested in listening. Typical Republican.
Tortilla Coast, 400 1st St. SE. (202) 546-6768.
“They’re everywhere,” says Chad cryptically of outposts of Pines of Florence, the local Italian restaurant chain that somehow manages ubiquity with only five locations. Chad adds that “mostly the food sucks,” stating what most folks already know about restaurants that are in the familiarity/convenience racket. But PoF, thanks to cheap prices and a delivery service, has a rep for coming through when you don’t want to get off the couch. Chad recommends the manicotti; we think it’s boring. Try instead the steamed mussels in white sauce (fresh tasting and delivered to your door for $6) or the sausage sub with white wine sauce.
Pines of Florence, 2100 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 332-8233. Other locations are in Falls Church, Arlington (2 restaurants), and Alexandria.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.