El Rey, U Street’s new shipping container taqueria, will open this month


El Rey, the taqueria under construction at 919 U St. NW, has risen up out of an alley between Dodge City and a building occupied by nail and hair salons. Check out the taco window, carved out of the blue container, where you'll be able to get tacos till an hour after last call. (Lavanya Ramanathan/The Washington Post)

El Rey, a taqueria and beer garden on U Street constructed largely from shipping containers, is weeks away from opening.

Shocked? So are we. It's been just shy of two years since we first heard rumbles of the restaurant helmed by Eric and Ian Hilton.  After releasing an initial design in March 2012, the duo instead opened the Brixton and Satellite Room. After a couple of summers came and went, we'd lost hope that we'd be drinking margaritas under the stars anytime soon.

Suddenly, construction is cranking at 919 U St. NW. A trio of brightly hued shipping containers that seem to have sprung up overnight now mark the future home of El Rey, which is set to open sometime between Christmas and New Year's Eve, Ian Hilton says.

Shipping container restaurants are popping up around the world, and like its forerunners, El Rey will be something of an architectural wonder. The approximately 3,600-square-foot restaurant and bar is going up in what was a paved lot adjacent to Dodge City, with two brick walls and nearly all of its interior architecture (with the capacity for 200) carved out of 11 shipping containers.

"Anything that's under cover is containers," Hilton says. "The dining seating is inside a container. The bathrooms are a container. The kitchen is a container. The outside bar is a container." The design, he says, can be described as "a rustic Mexican feel with all recycled materials." (Paxton Van Lines, the Washington-area moving firm, sourced and delivered the shipping containers, which were then dropped into place using cranes.)

About 1,200 square feet of the restaurant is covered under a fixed roof. But the sight to see is a glass-like retractable roof, which will pull back onto a summer garden when the weather is amenable, or close in bad weather, leaving diners dry but with an outdoor view. Gas heaters will keep it all toasty, even in the dead of winter.

The menu, he says, will be taco- and tequila-focused. Brendan Murphy is crafting a menu of not only margaritas, but other tequila cocktails. Expect eight beers on tap, most hailing from Mexican brewers, with a few lesser-known South American beers as well. Chef Jorge Pimentel will move over from the nearby Satellite Room, where he has been testing tacos for El Rey since the diner-esque restaurant opened last year. "Tacos are his thing," Hilton says.

El Rey, 919 U St. NW. Opening late December. 

Lavanya Ramanathan is a professional eater/drinker/thinker for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. University of Texas. Northwestern University. Rap fan.
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