Savory Salvadoran in Southeast
By Moira E. McLaughlin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Aug. 8, 2008
At first glance: A perk to checking out restaurants is exploring different neighborhoods, ones I've never been to or ones I haven't seen since taking a wrong turn off Interstate 295 in high school. Las Placitas, a little Mexican/Salvadoran restaurant on Capitol Hill, is among a strip of restaurants and shops in Southeast Washington, in a neighborhood that has changed a lot since that wrong turn in high school. The restaurant is nothing fancy. You might even walk by, not noticing it. But inside, the dim lighting, pinatas hanging from the ceiling, sombreros and red strings of lights on the walls, give it a campy vibe. The Latin music in the background adds to the energy, which at times can border on frantic. This is not a romantic date-night place. Rather, it's a small, lively restaurant, good for a meal (and a few drinks) with a group of friends. (There is minimal outdoor seating for those fortunate enough to snag it.)
At your service: If you go between 6 and 8 p.m., you might feel a bit rushed by the waiters, who are very busy going table to crowded table, taking orders. (On weekends, you may be lucky just to get a seat.) If you go during off hours, you might feel forgotten by the wait staff and have to remind them about that second margarita.
The wait staff is Salvadoran and not all speak English fluently, but it's a problem that's easily overcome with good-natured pointing if your Spanish isn't up to par.
On the menu: Let's be honest, Mexican food is pretty straightforward with variations on a cheese, meat and tortilla theme. That said, there is plenty of bad (and overpriced) Mexican food out there. What sets Las Placitas apart is the freshness of the ingredients. Their salsa includes big chunks of fresh tomatoes and onions. That alone makes the trip worth it. The vegetable paella tapa with saffron rice highlights fresh green peppers, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli and onions. The vegetables are cooked perfectly (not too hard, not too soft) and the saffron rice is better than your standard grain. Expect big servings for all the dishes, including the appetizers.
If you prefer sticking to the tried-and-true, the cheese enchilada is very good. It's prepared with just the right amount of cheese, which is not thick and stringy, but rather gooey without being greasy.
The Salvadoran food on the menu is also fresh. The meat that comes with the yuca (a vegetable similar to a potato) and pulled pork appetizer is moist, and the fried beef in the pupusas is not your standard ground round, but rather shredded. You must try the deep-fried plantains, a fruit similar to bananas. Order the El Tipico and you'll get several Salvadoran staples in one dish, including a chicken tamale, a plantain, a pupusa and fried yuca.
Considering native Salvadoran brothers, Isidoro and Roman Amaya, opened Las Placitas in 1991, the Salvadoran food should be especially authentic. Today, along with their brother Jose, they own two more Mexican/Salvadoran restaurants: La Villa at 1317 14th St. NW and La Cabana, which opened two months ago, at 3614 14th St. NW.
What to avoid: Skip the guacamole. It's bland, and the salsa is satisfying enough. If you want a non-alcoholic drink, stick with water. The tamarind juice tastes watered-down with a slight cinnamon flavor. Its muddy color is not too appetizing, either.
The desserts leave a bit to be desired. But if you need something sweet, try the sopapilla, fried dough covered in honey and cinnamon. It was a bit chewy but better than the flan, which was too dense.
Wet your whistle: The alcoholic drinks are all light on sugar. The daiquiris are sour and tart, and the sangria is dry. If you're looking for a good margarita, this is definitely your spot. They are refreshing -- not too strong, not too sweet. Besides the beers Dos Equis, Tecate, Negro Modelo and Corona, the restaurant also offer top-shelf tequila.
Bottom line: Go to Las Placitas for the energy and liveliness of the place. Bring friends, share a pitcher of margaritas or sangria and get your fill of Latin fare.