At his corner restaurant in a Lee Highway strip mall, Osiris Hoil still pays deference to the Yucatan cooking of his childhood: There are refreshing salsas adapted from his mother’s recipes, dried chili peppers deployed like a secret ingredient to add depth, and a seven-hour technique that transforms tough pork shoulder into tender shavings of carnitas.
But if you scratch the surface of District Taco, the new brick-and-mortar incarnation of the popular Arlington food truck, you’ll find an eatery that owes more to Chipotle than to anyone’s south-of-the-border memories. Hoil may hail from a distant state on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, but these days, his menu is a mix of comfortable American Mexicana: flour tortilla quesadillas, loaded nachos, and burritos both with and without a tortilla wrap. Hoil, in fact, says he’d never eaten a burrito before coming to the United States.
Hoil and co-owner Marc Wallace readily admit that the quasi-Mexican fare is more or less a riff on the fast-growing chain as they look to streamline their operation and expand their model to a series of District Taco carts and restaurants across the D.C. area. “We are building a model that we can reproduce,” says Wallace, an aerospace engineer who founded a software engineering company he sold to Symantec, makers of Norton Antivirus, three years ago. As he once did at the cart, Hoil “can’t just go back and whip something up. We have to make sure that we can reproduce it.”
At the restaurant, the food has taken a back seat as the two, instead, focus on creating a more festive atmosphere and pay attention to aesthetic details. Some Yanquí roots also show up in the ambiance: Sure, there’s a colorful soda fountain. But it serves upscale, American Boylan’s sodas. There are throwback chalkboard menus, which in recent years have become hip in restaurant design, and buckets of crayons complete with pages from Spanish-language coloring books to keep children entertained. The cheery staff lives by ¡Orale!—Mexican slang loosely translated into “hell yeah” or “right on.” It is stamped all over the bright yellow, green and red restaurant, and it’s an accurate summation of the place’s youthful spirit.
Not long ago, District Taco worked nothing like a Chipotle. For one thing, it had wheels. People fell in love with the cart for Hoil’s cochinita pibil, stuffed into tacos and sandwiches. Every Yucatec grandmother has her own twist on the dish, which involves slow-cooked pork marinated in red chili paste, garlic, and orange and lime juices. The dish, alas, is sadly absent from the restaurant menu for now. And therein lies a story.
Hoil’s history is a familiar one to anyone who watches the restaurant industry. He grew up on a farm in Tekax, a four-hour drive inland from Cancún, the region’s most recognizable city. As a kid, he learned to slaughter chicken and pigs. He watched his mother pound each ingredient for salsas with a mortar and pestle, and grill his favorite poc-chuc, charred pork slices offset by the tang of a mostly orange and onion marinade.
At 16, Hoil followed his brother to Denver, finding work as a dishwasher at a bar and grill. He worked his way up to cook, but there was no poc-chuc on his menu: He was grilling burgers, searing steaks, and deep-frying French fries. Four years ago, he relocated to Arlington to be closer to in-laws who could help with the kids. He worked construction, making decent money, and settling down in North Arlington. But just before Christmas 2008, as the economy was sputtering, he was laid off from his commercial construction job.
By that point, Hoil had made some friends in the area, including his next-door neighbor Wallace. Wallace saw a market for the Mexican food he would find traveling to places like San Francisco, Austin, and Los Angeles. He encouraged Hoil to recreate what he’d been cooking at home for stateside buddies. He partnered with Hoil, investing the $50,000 needed to open the food cart. The following summer, District Taco was in business, selling breakfast tacos and traditional Mexican sandwiches at stops across Northern Virginia. District Taco sought a D.C. foothold, hoping to launch their cart near Metro Center, but Wallace says they were naïve about the administrative hurdles involved. They grew tired of trying to navigate the city’s regulations restricting mobile vending carts in the District. At home in Arlington, the permit process was easier.
And that might have been it, but for some significant changes in the way locals eat. “We started the cart because I needed a job, and didn’t have money to open a restaurant, and I didn’t know if people were going to like my food,” Hoil says. Wallace says District Taco made back the initial investment within a year, and barely 18 months later, they had investors and an actual, physical restaurant. The quick success was due in part to Hoil’s skill at cooking street food good enough to draw a crowd. But it also had to do with some cultural and technological changes that had brought the worlds of restaurants and food trucks much closer together.
For one thing, truck operators now have wireless Internet access and tools like Twitter available to announce their locations. For another, the notion of food trucks as the home of innovative cuisine—and as the launching pads, not the offshoots, of actual restaurants—has been cemented over the past few years, thanks to predecessors including America’s most celebrated food cart, Los Angeles’ Kogi BBQ. The Korean taco truck famously found a fever pitch online. In March, it expanded into its own standing restaurant.
Like celebrity chefs, food carts have now received the stamp of pop-culture validation from television; in D.C. and elsewhere, there’s a full-blown truck boom. Over the summer, the Food Network sent seven food trucks crisscrossing the country in a head-to-head battle for a $50,000 cash prize on The Great Food Truck Race. (Wallace says District Taco was among 500 carts nationally that competed for a spot on the show, but did not make the cut). Now there are reports ABC is developing a “multiethnic, multigenerational family comedy” based on the food-truck craze in Los Angeles.
A yellow cargo van emblazoned with the District Taco logo still shuttles Hoil’s cart across Northern Virginia, bringing tacos to the loyal army who follow the food from tweet to tweet. But most of his time is spent in the new space, where a crowd of Northern Virginia’s young and mobile queue several deep. And this is where the rosy narrative of dishwasher to twittering food-trucker to full-blown restaurateur begins to seem evasive.
The 70-seat space is perfectly pleasant. A mix of classics in Spanish and English plays in the background. In an open kitchen, a three-man assembly team fills orders from tickets attached to metal clips that make their way down a creative pulley system as if they are fresh cleaned laundry. Another mans the flattop griddling meat and warming tortillas.
Hoil describes the menu as Yucatan cuisine, evoking a home state on the country’s very southern tip where dried chilies, citrus, slow cooking and garlic are key to food. In fact, though, very little of that nostalgia can be found here. For the most part, the result is solid neighborhood Mexican fare set apart by fresh ingredients, Hoil’s love for spices —especially habanero—as well as heavy doses of garlic and lime and creative names like “Burrito Desnudo” (naked burrito) and “Nachos Borrachos” (drunken nachos). The meat options are the standard choice of pork, beef, and chicken, but in Hoil’s hands they include the seven-hour-cooked carnitas (pulled pork), burned-in-spots carne asada (grilled steak) and fork-tender thighs of pollo asado (roasted chicken). The options for fillings include two kinds of beans, four kinds of salsas in varying degrees of spiciness, and more than 10 kinds of toppings including bacon and chorizo. It is conceivable you could have a different combination every visit for years.
The forearm-sized burritos are big enough for two and layered with enough care that they are not overwhelmed by any single component. Those fresh-chip nachos are a nice addition to a happy hour/Sunday football favorite, and the guacamole could be used as a tutorial on how to make the condiment refreshingly green instead of all-too-common unappetizing lightly oxidized brown: The key, as Hoil demonstrates, is seasoning the mash with a healthy dose of salt, citrus, and spices that an otherwise bland avocado requires.
Where Hoil departs from the stateside taqueria format, the results are mixed. On the positive side, there is the occasional Yucatec special and some memorable huevos rancheros, a fiery take on a hearty breakfast, layered with tortillas, fluffy rice, smoky black beans, runny-fried eggs, melted cheese, sour cream and chili-laced salsa. They’re worth the trip any time of day.
Other departures are less successful. The ceviche, at $9, offers a heaping mix of forgettable baby shrimp and an uneven vegetable-to-seafood ratio. It’s more shrimp salad, lacking the citrusy punch that makes a quality ceviche so transcendent. Tacos, likewise, are better ordered in optional corn tortillas instead of the standard flour. Yes, the flour wraps are faster to heat and hold up better under the weight of so many ingredients, but the rubbery chewiness is a sad reminder of late-night runs to Taco Bell.
The big new brick-and-mortar investment notwithstanding, Hoil and Wallace have plans for another cart when the weather warms or a restaurant if that fails. Regardless, they expect it will be in the city. Hopefully, it will be more cochinita pibil tacos than naked burritos.
District Taco, 5723 Lee Highway, Arlington, (703) 237-1204, twitter.com/districttaco
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery