Keep two tips in mind when you go to Pica Taco: Head around the corner, and listen to Maria.
This little Mexican restaurant is located not on Columbia Road, as its address suggests, but on Harvard Street, attached to the Argonne apartment building. We spent a few confused moments trying to find it on a scorchingly hot afternoon, but the search was the sole low point of our experience. Once we were inside, the smell of stewing meat enticed us; its taste won us over.
And clearly our enthusiasm is shared. Pica Taco opened in July, and already business is brisk, with five tables inside and six outside. "I come in before 6:30 a.m. and find people there, waiting for their coffee," says Maria Villalta, the co-owner (and Mexican mother you never had). She shares the operation with her daughter, Janice, but it's Maria who is there every day, cooking and working for hours: 14 hours, to be exact.
Villalta's Mexican offerings, nearly all of which she makes from scratch, include breakfast burritos ($4.50) and enchiladas served with rice and beans ($7.50). Several types of soft tacos are also available ($2.25 each). The corn tortillas are delicate and therefore fall apart, but it's a happy mess: a squeeze of lime and a squirt of house-made salsa verde only make things happier. Be careful with that green sauce, though: Its heat is ferocious.
Villalta, who ran the now-shuttered Margarita's in Glover Park for 20 years before rising rent forced her to close, is a really fine Mexican cook, and you'd be wise to let her help you order. Take the tacos, for example, all of which are open-face. Her chicken version, piled with tender meat smothered in a smoky red sauce, is satisfying, but she'll steer you toward the barbacoa (beef). She braises the brisket all day, and it is truly luscious. The lengua (cow's tongue) is worth trying, but the pastor (sliced pork with chipotle) is a bit tough.
If you're in the mood for a torta, Villalta may suggest adding queso fresco (Mexican white cheese) to the sandwich for a classic, mildly tangy touch. We were glad we let her make ours even more traditional, with a slather of refried beans on one side of the soft bread. All tortas cost $6.82 and come adorned with slices of avocado, onion and roasted pepper.
In addition to her regular menu items, Villalta prepares occasional specials such as ceviche ($9.50), carne asada ($7.50) and Mexican corn with lime and chili-mayo sauce ($1.50). Homemade salsas for chip dipping are forthcoming. For now, though, she's busy keeping up with demand and trying to enjoy her success: "I'm only in trouble if I run out of cilantro!"
-- Catherine L. Barker (Good to Go, Aug. 26, 2009)