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A new Puerto Rican restaurant is coming to Shaw. Qui Qui DC, named after owner Ismael Mendez’s childhood nickname, opens for dine-in service above The Passenger on 7th Street NW on May 21. The brick-and-mortar restaurant got its start as a Maryland-based catering company specializing in Puerto Rican food, and Mendez eventually ran lively pop-ups in restaurants such as Valor Brewpub, Tiki on 18th, and Mercy Me. During the pandemic, the operation catered to individual customers, delivering Puerto Rican classics such as pan sobao (bread) and morcilla (blood sausage).
Mendez grew up in New Jersey. His mother is Mexican, and his father is Puerto Rican. “I was introduced to a variety of styles of cuisines early, with more being of Mexican tradition as my mother was the primary cook,” he says. “I was regularly in the kitchen with her, watching, learning, and helping her.”
As an adult, he became an IT market data specialist and worked in New York City until the market crash of 2008. Mendez then moved back to the D.C. region for an IT job, but kept gravitating toward the kitchen. “Cooking brought me peace, and food makes people happy,” Mendez says.
After studying at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Mendez worked at upscale D.C. restaurants including The Grill Room, Masseria, and A Rake’s Progress. He began cooking more Puerto Rican food when he realized he couldn’t find much of it in the area. While there have been a smattering of new options lately, Mendez wants more. “I want to bring Puerto Rican cuisine to the forefront of the DMV food scene,” he says.
After the success of his pop-ups and building a customer base, he decided to open his own restaurant. “I’m ready to share my food with D.C. and [have] been searching for a location for Qui Qui for about a year,” Mendez says. A friend introduced him to Passenger owner Tom Brown. They hit it off and Brown offered Mendez the second floor space above his bar. Mendez likes that he’s across the street from Grand Cata, a wine shop co-owned by fellow Puerto Rican and friend Pedro Rodríguez.
Qui Qui will highlight not only Puerto Rican cuisine but its traditions and people. Mendez plans to collaborate with other Puerto Rican chefs living on the island and the diaspora. The restaurant interior, painted in bright pastel colors, will virtually transport guests to the streets of Old San Juan.
“We are bringing in an informal spirit that evokes the feeling of being in Puerto Rico—lots of tropical colors and artwork,” Mendez says. The bar, made of zinc panels, is reminiscent of the lechoneras (restaurants specializing in whole, spit-roasted pig), common in the Puerto Rican countryside. Bottles of Puerto Rican rums like Don Q and Medalla beer take center stage.
Qui Qui will serve classic Puerto Rican dishes such as pernil (roasted pork shoulder), pasteles (a tamal made with root vegetables), mofongo, and lechón. Mendez also plans to introduce more items such as a popular roadside drink in Puerto Rico called maví that’s made of fermented maví tree bark. Also look for lionfish ceviche, tostones de pana (breadfruit), and pastelón (a comforting layered plantain dish) in the future. Get a sense of the menu here.
The restaurant is currently serving takeout, but will open for full-service dinner Wednesdays through Sundays starting on May 21. Qui Qui will also serve lunch from Thursdays to Sundays. Brunch will be available in June.
At full capacity, Qui Qui will have 40 seats inside. Outdoor seating is not available. Although there is no wheelchair accessibility, guests can order from the Qui Qui menu at The Passenger downstairs (currently limited to 10 people).
Qui Qui DC, 1539 7th St. NW, 2nd Floor; (202) 642-3179; quiquidc.com