El Centro D.F.

$$$$ ($14 and under)
Authentic Mexican comfort fare by Richard Sandoval.
Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; daily 5-11 p.m.; Sun-Thu 11 p.m.-2 a.m.; Fri-Sat 11 p.m.-3 a.m.
(U Street/Cardozo)

Editorial Review

Nightlife Review

Salsa beats, eats in one stop
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, March 23, 2012

From bands to bocce to beers, the strip of 14th Street between Logan Circle and U Street can offer just about everything you could want for a Saturday night bar crawl. The problem comes when you're ready to trade the DJ for some alfresco cocktails or late-night snacks, and you just know that there's a line - and maybe a cover charge - outside your next destination.

Unless, that is, you're at El Centro D.F., where it's remarkably easy to progress from rooftop margaritas to dancing with clubbed-up Rihanna remixes to satisfying a 2 a.m. tacos-and-tortas craving without leaving the building.

Richard Sandoval's upscale taqueria made a splash last summer as a outdoor happy-hour destination - you can still get $4 margaritas, Mexican beers and glasses of wine from 5 to 7 p.m. all week on the roof - but lately the place has also been pushing itself as a place to go for late-night grooving.

Stop by on a Saturday night from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. - no cover, no dress code - and head for the basement "tequileria," a low-ceilinged den with Mexican clay masks tucked into nooks in the brick walls. On one side of the room, bartender Joel Mann athletically slings drinks made with a choice of more than 150 tequilas and mescals.

On a recent visit, the room was alternately throbbing with Nicki Minaj remixes and up-tempo salsa beats. No matter the style, the dining-room-turned-dance floor was in nonstop motion. It's an unusual arrangement - most clubs put salsa and Top 40 in different rooms - but it works, thanks to DJ Ayyaz's blend of songs and styles.

There's salsa here on Thursday and Friday -- I'm partial to Thursday, which features no cover charge and an open bar from 11 to midnight. -- but on Saturday, you need to be in the house by 11:30 if you want to beat the lines for the small basement party, which occasionally snakes into the dining room. You can hear the music on every floor, but there's something about the lively atmosphere downstairs.

After you've danced and chilled on the roof deck, it's time for what may be the best part: The kitchen on the main level is open until 2 a.m. You won't find the whole dinner menu, there are tacos, quesadillas, tortas, and chips and guacamole. (The menu items cost $3.50 to $9.)

It's a great night out - with no cover charge, all under one roof.

First Bite Review

Guacamole mashed tableside, steak grilled as you ask for it, a rooftop deck for sipping beer: at first glance, El Centro D.F. in Logan Circle seems to give visitors plenty of reasons to taste-drive the latest partnership between New York-based Richard Sandoval and Washington's own Kaz Okochi.

Eventually, patrons of this sibling of the nearby Masa 14 might get the sense that the restaurateurs' interpretation of "casual Mexican" is more relaxed than it ought to be. Witness the soupy white-fish ceviche, uninformed waiters, margaritas ordered "up" but routinely presented with an ice floe.

Consider yourself fortunate if the hostess leads you from the clatter of the narrow ground-floor taqueria and see-through kitchen to the downstairs tequileria. The transfer means you made a reservation and "you're a VIP!" she jests as friends and I are introduced to a basement lair with flickering candles, tall wooden tables fronting leather banquettes and a curved slatted ceiling. Clay masks occupy shelves carved into the concrete wall; a deejay surfaces Thursdays through Saturdays starting at 11 p.m.

In a restaurant with 200 kinds of tequila on its list, I'm surprised to ask for a recommendation for a smoky mezcal (a spirit made from a plant called maguey) and see the request bumped from server to bartender, who reroutes it to a manager. This is a restaurant with lots of staff, but not much focus when you need it.

As for the chow, even the "spicy" version of the guacamole is tame, and that goes for much of the rest of the food here. The tacos filled with beef tongue ("it tastes like roast beef," a manager tells neighboring diners) are dry, and chicken tamales come draped with a ringer for ketchup. Tres leches, the famously moist Mexican cake, tastes like a vending machine version.

Indeed, the best that can be said after two meals here is that the carne asada came out medium-rare, as I'd wished, the chipotle shrimp weren't overcooked and the refried beans are the one accompaniment worth finishing.

Check, please! It takes a few minutes to flag my waiter and get the bill, which turns out to be someone else's. I am not surprised.

-- Tom Sietsema, June 1, 2011