City Paper is not for tourists
Muchas Graciasstarted as an experiment in Chevy Chase back in March. Chef Christian Irabién opened a market located at 5029 Connecticut Ave. NW with provisions and a few prepared items for neighbors who were having trouble finding items at traditional grocery stores. Once he had lines of customers out the door, Irabién and his team of cooks developed a meatier Mexican menu for take-out and delivery. Dishes include short rib birria tacos topped with dragon fruit, comforting pozole, and half a roasted chicken in mole negro.
Earlier this month, Muchas Gracias evolved again. It now offers two dinner seatings Wednesdays through Sundays at a single outdoor table on the deck of Buck’s Fishing & Camping that can seat up to six people. “It’s a tiny private dining room al fresco,” Irabién says. The table can be pulled apart to create tables for two or four to allow for proper social distancing on the deck.
Irabién serves a multi-course tasting menu for $65 per person before drinks, tax, and tip. The meal features Muchas Gracias’ greatest hits, starting with blue corn chips and two house-made salsas served with “baby Margarita” welcome drinks before moving on to two courses of refreshing salads like gazpacho chamoy featuring mango, pineapple, golden watermelon, dragonfruit, lime, house-made tamarind chamoy (a fruit-based condiment), and tajin (a chili lime seasoning blend).
Diners can then choose a couple entrees to share, including some that aren’t on the take-out menu, like grilled cactus in charred tomato salsa with toasted cashews. Desserts are a tres leches cake and a Oaxacan chocolate mousse with mango. The restaurant is currently testing out a carrot flan. “We’re working on developing a vegetarian experience as well as a seafood-focused experience,” Irabién says.
Washingtonians have been waiting a long time to sit down to a meal from Irabién. He held local pop-ups for his original restaurant concept, Amparo Fondita, dating back to 2018. When searching for a home for his upscale Mexican restaurant he landed on Latin marketplace La Cosecha, from the same team as Union Market. But in January he pulled out of the project, which has had trouble fully getting off the ground.
Fortunately Irabién had an in with the people behind Buck’s and Comet Ping Pong, who had been helping Amparo Fondita get off the ground by hosting pop-ups and investor dinners. “The group already had a space right next door where they were trying to figure out what to do,” Irabién explains. “They approached me originally, but I was neck deep in La Cosecha. Opening two restaurants at once seemed crazy.”
Eventually the chef was lured to the address. “We gutted the whole thing and put in beautiful skylights,” Irabién says. “It reminds me of mezcalerias in Oaxaca.” Just as the chef was gearing up to launch “the world shut down” because of COVID-19. “We planned to open a 30-seat Mexican restaurant, but within 72 hours we needed a new model. We were building a new plane as we were flying it.”
Irabién, like many restaurateurs, had to let the staff he hired go until he figured out his next move. It was a gut punch for the chef whose passion lies in supporting D.C.’s immigrant community. Many immigrants who lost their jobs during the pandemic haven’t been eligible for unemployment benefits or other forms of government aid because of their status.
As soon as he could, Irabién gradually began hiring again. He now has a team of 10 people. Employees came from Reverie, Le Diplomate, and Ellē. “We have a platform,” Irabién says. “It feels irresistible to not use it to really help out the people that make all of these places happen.” A portion of Muchas Gracias proceeds go to Tables Without Borders and Friends & Family Meal.
Irabién’s plans for the space remain up in the air. “Originally it was just a pop-up, but the neighborhood seems to really like us and the team is super into it,” he says. “We might leave it and make it our own.”
In the meantime those looking to reserve the outdoor table for the tasting menu can book a 5 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. seating on Tock or calling (202) 244-5000.
Muchas Gracias, 5029 Connecticut Ave. NW; (202) 244-5000; muchasgraciasdc.com