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All We Can Eat
Posted at 02:00 PM ET, 10/05/2012

A behind-the-scenes look at Fuego Cocina

Passion Food Hospitality chef and partner Jeff Tunks is known as Papa Grande, or “big potato,” among his colleagues. The name fits the restaurant group's new Mexican concept, Fuego Cocina, in Clarendon. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
The D.C. metro area has witnessed a small invasion of Mexican restaurants and taquerias — or Mexican “inspired” as Mike Isabella likes to call Bandolero, always keeping his options open (and flank protected). None of them seem, shall we say, as comprehensive as Passion Food Hospitality’s sprawling Fuego Cocina y Tequileria in Clarendon, which officially opened on Wednesday.

Part of it has to do with the sheer scale of Fuego. Executive chef Jeff Tunks’s new restaurant is massive, occupying two floors in the former Market Tavern space. The place has the ability to serve more than 250 diners at once, piling tables high with chef-driven Mexican dishes such as cochinita pibil, sopes, pozole verde and even genuine al pastor meat sliced straight off a vertical rotisserie.

Tunks gave me a tour of Fuego earlier this week, a pair of former Texans reminiscing about the South-of-the-border food that has so influenced the state’s cooking. I came away with a renewed appreciation of the hard work that goes into this “humble” cuisine. After the jump, I’ll give you a sense of exactly how much work, all in photos.

Jeff Tunks bought this copper pot during a recent exploratory trip to Chicago’s Mexican eateries. It's the traditional vessel for making the slow-cooked pork known as carnitas. Mexico native and Fuego chef de cuisine Alfredo Solis's version is prepared with real lard, but tempered with — I kid you not — evaporated milk to help reduce the strong aroma of the pig fat. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

Precious few taquerias in the D.C. area make their own tortillas, which is a small-but-serious offense against these hand-held bites. Even my beloved Taqueria La Placita in Hyattsville doesn't make its own. Fuego has employees dedicated to doing nothing but making tortillas. That sound you just heard? My heart skipping a beat. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

The meat used for Fuego's carne tacos will not be the ubiquitous flank steak. Solis will be using slow-cooked short rib meat. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

For a Mexican restaurant located in the fairly conservative dining milieu of Clarendon, Fuego will push its customers beyond the traditional cuts of chicken, beef and pork. Among the options will be slow-roasted organic goat (pictured above) and braised beef tongue. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

All salsas and moles will be made in-house at Fuego, including a habanero salsa prepared by pureeing the scorching chile pepper with tomatillos, garlic, onions and roasted yellow bell peppers for added color. And get this: The habanero salsa will be one of three served with every order of tacos. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

One of the condiments at Fuego will be a mixture of lime juice, onions and ghost peppers. You read right: Living up to its name, Fuego will be serving a condiment with ghost chile, which was once the hottest pepper on Earth. (The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper is now considered the grand champion of heat.) “This is a punch in the face,” Tunks tells me, and he's not joking. I ate just one of the onions soaked in the mixture. I thought someone took a soldering iron to my tongue. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

Fuego is growing its own pepper varieties on the second-story balcony, including banana, jalapeno, habanero and poblano. “Of course, it’s not enough” to satisfy the kitchen’s needs, says Tunks. “It supplements what we're doing now.” (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

Fuego has about 105 tequilas available now, which compares favorably with the massive list at El Centro D.F. on 14th Street NW. ”We're still waiting on a few coming in,” Tunks says. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

As a Texas native, Tunks has gnawed on more than a few rubbery flautas that could double as garden hoses. He and Solis have devised a shredded duck-confit flauta that's sealed at both ends to prevent fat from escaping the fried tortilla and turning it into a dehydrated riding crop. It's served with a mole negro composed of nearly 30 ingredients, including dark chocolate, ancho chile, dried chipotle, tomatoes, cumin, fried plantains, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and (believe it or not) fried animal crackers. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

I have just two words for you: queso fundido. Fuego's is prepared with Oaxaca and chihuahua cheeses, blistered peppers and topped (for an extra buck) with chorizo. It’s served in a molten-hot cast-iron pan. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

By  |  02:00 PM ET, 10/05/2012

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