Street food gets a little latitude, a lot of attitude
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
“This will be the best corn you’ve ever had!” crows the server behind the poured-concrete counter at El
Chucho in Columbia Heights. Eating the ear -- gilded with mayonnaise, grated white cheese, cilantro and chili-lime salt -- I grasp his enthusiastic delivery. And I’m just as smitten with the drink I can’t request with a straight face: Senor Cluster----, smoky with mezcal and treated to a peanut tincture.
The corn and the cocktail are dished up in a slip of a storefront that will look familiar to anyone who has eaten at the groovy, American-themed Jackie’s in Silver Spring. Both restaurants are owned by Jackie Greenbaum, whose whimsical approach to dining is repeated at her fledgling Mexican joint. Walls painted pink and teal and light fixtures crafted from torpedo casings signal a gay old time (in the old-fashioned sense). The $4,000 lime crusher on the side of the bar and house-made sodas that run to such exotic blends as ginger-lemon grass accentuate El Chucho’s priorities.
El Chucho’s muse is Jackie’s Chicago-born chef, Diana Davila-Boldin, who is Mexican by heritage. Her latest menu is, like the new open kitchen, tiny. Think street food with a twist. The Sonoran Dog, for instance, combines an all-beef frankfurter with black beans and braised pork belly. Woof. Fragrant, saucer-size corn tortillas piled with a choice of chicken, steak, crumbled pork and even tripe with foie gras (!) come two to an order. What looks like an egg roll via Mexico is a flour tortilla hiding sauteed cabbage, mushrooms and onion (yep, it’s vegetarian), fried to a crisp.
Not every plate merits another round: The salsa is soupy, and queso frito resembles nothing more special than a fried mozzarella stick. But they’re nothing a tangy margarita can’t help a critic overlook for the moment. Co-owner Gordon Banks created a bunch of variations, including a margarita drawn from a tap that sells for a bargain $5.
Topped off with a patio on its roof, El Chucho has several meanings in Spanish. One of them is “the mutt,” a reflection on the principals’ diverse backgrounds, says Greenbaum. “We’re a mixed breed,” she jokes.