A fiery concept: Tortillas and tequilas
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, December 2, 2012
The owners of Passion Food Hospitality didn't plan to open their seventh restaurant on the heels of their fifth and sixth, the side-by-side District Commons and Burger, Tap & Shake in Foggy Bottom. But when a prime spot became free in hopping Clarendon, the group jumped on the real estate before they even had a theme.
Only after surveying the market did the partners settle on a cuisine: Mexican. There wasn’t much of it being served near their fresh purchase (the short-lived Market Tavern), and the company had a chef from Mexico City on its payroll to whip up a convincing menu, says Jeff Tunks, one of the three principals.
Fuego Cocina y Tequileria was born in October with some serious heat in its belly. You see it on the plates of tacos that show up with three house-made sauces, one a habanero that is always introduced with a warning. You feel it when you sit upstairs, near the dancing flames of a mesmerizing linear fire. Ultimately, you also taste the inspiration for the name -- Fuego Cocina is “fire kitchen” in Spanish -- most vividly in a condiment of grated onions, lime juice and ghost peppers.
For the uninitiated, ghost peppers, or Bhut Jolokia, are some of the fiercest on earth, more than 100 times hotter than Tabasco. To ingest even a speck of the stuff is to kiss a welding torch. For sure, you will sweat. Si, you are also likely to cry. This diner couldn’t stop hiccupping. When Tunks asked a dishwasher to clean a board used to chop the menacing ingredient, a blast of hot water against the surface created a mace-like mist that nearly forced the evacuation of the rear kitchen.
Gimmicks will get customers in the door, but it takes good cooking to seat them again. And there’s plenty to sustain a diner’s interest at Fuego Cocina, supervised by Tunks in these early months and supported by chef de cuisine Alfredo Solis, who left the American-themed District Commons to work south of the (District’s) border. At a time when every third new place to eat seems to be a taqueria, their two-story bar and dining room is taking extra steps to win hearts and stomachs.
Unlike the popular District Taco on F Street NW, for instance, Fuego Cocina features expensive goat meat among its taco fillings. The chefs give the goat a dry rub of chilies and sea salt before braising it for seven hours over low heat until the meat is so tender it can be pulled from the bones.
El Chucho in Columbia Heights counts a rooftop deck and margaritas on tap among its charms, but the hipster taqueria doesn't pat out its own tortillas, as Fuego Cocina does. The latter restaurant employs three people to keep up with the demand, a server tells us one night. Made to order, the corn tortillas are like model pizza crusts: good enough to eat on their own. But why eat just corn wraps when you can get them with meaty short ribs or pineapple-sweetened pork in addition to that comforting goat? The only taco I wouldn't go back for is the one with shrimp, which were overcooked whenI tried them.
Warm and delicate tortillas served with two salsas make a proper introduction, as does the guacamole, which is mashed backstage rather than table-side, but is nevertheless vivid with lime juice, cilantro and serrano heat. Heartier is the queso fundido, a bubbling skillet of white Mexican cheeses and limp green peppers that is best decorated with (optional) chorizo and scooped up with those tortillas. I’ll save my seviche eating for Oyamel in Penn Quarter; Fuego’s tilapia parfait is milky and common.
As is so often the case, entrees are less engaging than the appetizers at Fuego Cocina. Take a pass, then, on the thin red snapper fillet draped with an olive-and-caper sauce that didn't quite mask its off flavor, and the chicken that, while juicy, is most interesting for its nuanced green mole.
As with the tacos, meat makes the best centerpiece. Beer-marinated carne asada is tender and succulent beneath its citrusy cactus paddle salad, while a seasoning of achiote and sour orange enhances sliced pork loin garnished with pickled onions. The dish that reminds me most of my time in Mexico City, however, is the pozole verde. Gather a fistful of shredded braised pork, add some soft hominy, crank the bowl up with lime juice and some fire, and what’s to stop a party in your mouth?
Vegetarians are acknowledged with rice and beans that are both prepared sans meat and one of the best empanadas now playing, a hot pocket that cracks open to reveal roasted squash, goat cheese, epazote and more.
To ignore the second part of the newcomer’s name would be to miss out on half the fun of the fiesta here. As you might expect of a bar that stocks more than 100 kinds of tequila, Fuego Cocina y Tequileria shakes some memorable margaritas. Ask for them “up” rather than on the rocks, and if you’re partial to heat, request the margarita infused with habanero and grapefruit juice.
Squint downstairs, where two TVs blare from the bar, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a sports lounge. For a full meal, my preference is the second floor, a vast expanse of booths, pendant lights, glass-enclosed spirits room plus a see-through kitchen. Thirty-five steps separate the ground from upstairs, prompting Tunks to tell his staff “you can quit your gym membership.” Less amusing is the reality for diners, who endure long waits to wet their whistles as their cocktails make the journey from one level to the next.
Attentive service is a hallmark of Passion Food Hospitality. If there’s a crumb to be swept away or a plate to be cleared -- or a margarita glass running on empty -- the enthusiastic team at Fuego Cocina is on it.
Count me an amigo.