Wait Issue: The line at Lauriol regularly takes over the sidewalk.
Wait Issue: The line at Lauriol regularly takes over the sidewalk. Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

In a low-cut shirt that doesn’t quite hold her in, the young woman wobbles on skinny heels down three flights of stairs from the roof deck. What she wants, she tells one of two bartenders on the ground floor, is a couple of “surfers on acid.”

“They’re red. That’s all I know,” she says. The bartender shakes his head.

“How about a red-headed slut?” she says.

“How about a kamikaze?” the bartender offers.

Ashley is a law student at George Washington University who doesn’t want to give her last name. She’s kind of drunk, she explains. It’s her friend’s 21st birthday. Ashley’s was two months earlier. That event, too, was celebrated at Lauriol Plaza, the see-and-be-seen Tex-Mex architectural palace at 18th and T Streets NW.

Outside, behind the small fence and under the umbrellas, five giant, loud men are squeezed around plates of enchiladas and fajitas. They’re yelling to women on the sidewalk. “How about some dinner, baby?” is the typical line. “I already ate,” a woman in her 20s replies, speeding up to get by them. “Well, how about a drink, then?”

There’s been enough to go around: two pitchers of margaritas, one empty, one nearly gone. One of the men gets up to go to the john and improvises a striptease around an umbrella pole. When he comes back, a manager tells the group there’s been a change: Carlos will be your server now.

Their waitress has had enough. They’ve had enough of her, too, and start demanding a new bill. They never ordered that second pitcher of margaritas, even though they slurped most of it down, and add that “that bitch” (the waitress) also spilled some of it on them. Things get heated when the manager hands them a revised bill. “You don’t hand the bill over a man’s food when he’s eating,” one of the men snaps. They continue to argue. The patio, normally a boisterous spot during dinner hours, grows quiet. A few minutes later, the cops show up.

This is Lauriol Plaza. On a Monday. And it’s packed. The place—its capacity is 330—is almost always packed, despite the many D.C.ers who say it’s not worth the wait, not as good as it once was, not authentic Mexican or Cuban or whatever it purports to be. Not all that. Critics, generally, agree. Chief among them is Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post.

His anti-Lauriol rants have popped up in his popular-with-foodies online chat, “Ask Tom,” at least six times since March 2004, when his most scathing criticism appeared. He wrote that the restaurant was “DISGUSTING” and a “food factory” and said he “can’t fathom why people wait for hours to get a table there.”

More recently, in June 2007, he toned it down, telling a chatter who compared Lauriol to Chi-Chi’s: “I share your contempt.”

Sietsema frequently advises diners to head to nearby Straits of Malaya instead. I did that one night at a table with a great view of the chaos over at Lauriol. Across the street, masses of people armed with Red Lobster-style table beepers and sporting popped collars and flip-flops had taken over the sidewalk. During the course of a long dinner, the line at Lauriol never abated. More went in, and more arrived to wait outside. What’s the draw?

Well if you’re hankering for a margarita, chips, salsa, guacamole, etc., and if you want both a scene and some food that’s vaguely Mexican, then a sparsely populated restaurant with a Malaysian menu, however good and spicy the food is, just isn’t going to cut it.

“People come in here all the time complaining about that place,” says Straits’ bartender Wayne Bowie (who also logs time behind the bar at Larry’s Lounge next door, which has the same owners). “I tell them they are packed every night. They must be doing something right.”

His boss, Straits and Larry’s co-owner Ken Megill, says simply: “Raul has been a good neighbor.”

But Raul Sanchez and Luis Reyes, owners of both Lauriol Plaza and Cactus Cantina on Wisconsin Avenue NW, don’t need the endorsement of their neighbors. They don’t need the Post’s food critic to like them. They don’t need to advertise. And they don’t need to make themselves available for City Paper writers. After nine tries, six of them in person when a manager told me one of them would be there, I nearly gave up. On my last attempt, I finally caught up with Reyes, who says people have compared his restaurant to Wal-Mart, and it’s just not fair. “We work very hard,” he says. “We offer good food at good prices and we have very good service.” And he offers something else: the rare D.C. restaurant that is critic-proof, turning tables and making money hand over fist, no matter what the “experts” think. The take on some days, according to an unnamed source who would know, is in the neighborhood of $30,000. Reyes did not dispute the figure.

That’s a lot of chips and salsa. It’s just as well, then, that they’re so good—the chips, a mix of white and yellow corn tortillas, are perfectly fried; the salsa, heavy with a chipotle smokiness, is served warm, a nice touch.

Entrees, which range from $7.95 (two cheese enchiladas) to $19.95 (grilled fillet mignon), are easy enough on the wallet, but there’s nothing there to get excited about.

On recent visits, tacos with shredded chicken were the definition of bland; mine were filled with dry clumps of meat more like shredded carpet than poultry. They had to be doused with the salsa to make them edible. The dishes listed under “Oven and Sauteed”—among them prime tenderloin strips with fresh tomatoes and cilantro, and the paella—are better bets. But while the Masitas de Puerco, described as “Cuban style morsels of pork, marinated in criollo sauce, [and] roasted in Sevillas’ bitter oranges” and recommended on separate visits by two different servers, arrive tender and long-cooked, the dish is seriously oversalted. It’s nothing a good margarita, which Lauriol does well, won’t cure.

For lunch, entree salads ($9.50 to $11.50) are a sure thing, unless you’re not very hungry. Like most every dish, they’re huge. An hour after working on the Fiesta salad (romaine, tomatoes, red onions, olives, green peppers, avocados, pepperoncini, cheese, and topped with either fajita-style chicken or beef and house dressing), I made only a small dent.

The food at Lauriol in recent years is consistent, as in consistently OK. “It was fine,” says Mt. Pleasant resident Earl Eutsler, 28, about his dinner there. “It’s always fine.”

“It’s the restaurant we love to hate,” he says, standing on the sidewalk with his girlfriend and another companion, who are nodding their agreement. “For some reason, we keep going back there. Whoever brings it up as an option is sort of like the goat, but we go, ‘Eh,’ and then we end up there.”

A lot of the appeal of Lauriol, according to its fans, is its architecture. That’s been the case since the “new” Lauriol opened in 1999, barely a block from its old digs at 18th and S.

It’s both huge and intimate, a stylish, spacious, and urbane restaurant in the middle of a residential neighborhood. And although it’s noisy and crowded and, in typical fashion, unloved by Advisory Neighborhood Committee 2B (which has protested, without success, the renewal of its liquor license), the building is a huge improvement from the liquor store that once occupied the corner.

“It’s definitely the space,” says Shaun Abrams of U Street, who is outside on his iPhone, calling up friends to find out when they’ll arrive for his 23rd birthday dinner. There’s a wait, of course, but Abrams can’t get in line for his table beeper until his entire party is in attendance. This is what happened to him last year. “We waited for about two hours,” he says.

To Abrams and the people hovering around him, Lauriol is worth it. “I’m from New York,” Abrams says, “and they don’t have anything that looks like this there. It’s just very impressive.…But we don’t necessarily come for the food.”