Al Carbon

South American
$$$$ ($14 and under)
Al Carbon photo
(James M. Thresher for The Post)
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Editorial Review

Al Carbon, a grill restaurant on Park Road across from the Rockville Metro station, is housed in a tomato-red shack with corrugated-metal awnings. The outward appearance is unassuming, but enter and one catches a wondrous aroma, a transporting blend of steakhouse and campfire.

The restaurant has been open for seven years, and for much of that time it was run by a local Hispanic radio-show host. But in April 2010, two Salvadoran friends bought the place: Catalino Villatoro, who had cooked for many years at Uncle Julio's Rio Grande Cafe in Bethesda, and Jose Melvin Mendoza, a longtime baker who co-owns a bakery in Silver Spring. Both liked the restaurant's location and its wood-fired cuisine, a traditional preparation in their native country.

"We decided to keep it the way it is. We don't want to do so many changes," Mendoza says. "We want to go slowly."

Among the changes they did make: opening earlier to offer a breakfast menu, because Al Carbon is popular with morning commuters, Mendoza says. Among the best-selling breakfast items are a steak with fried egg ($8) and a desayuno tipico: eggs with sour cream, rice, beans and avocado ($8).

Almost all of Al Carbon's menu is prepared on a grill stoked by chunks of wood, which gives the food a pleasing smokiness. The grilled fish ($10.95) has crisped skin and moist meat that pulls apart easily with a fork; plantains ($4.50 for two) have charred skin and creamy flesh sprinkled with cheese; the carne asada ($11.95) is tender and well seasoned with pepper. Entrees come with a salad, nicely flavored black beans and rice.

The restaurant has patio seating: a space enclosed by yellow walls where the owners have hung painted bulk-food cans that have found new lives as flower pots. It seems like a nice spot to enjoy a margarita ($6), but Mendoza says they have a permit to serve them only inside, not outside.

While I waited for Villatoro and one other cook to prepare my sizable order, Villatoro gave me a complimentary steak taco with cilantro and sauteed onions in a house-made corn tortilla. As I was enjoying it, I noticed other customers saying goodbye to the staff, saying they would be come by again. Think I'll be back as well.

-Timothy R. Smith (Good to Go, Wednesday, May 18, 2011)