Tacos el Costalilla

Mexican
$$$$ ($14 and under)
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Editorial Review

The name carries weight with locals
By Tim Carman
Friday, April 12, 2013

For those (like me) who enjoy affixing highfalutin terms to humble snacks, we’re living in a golden age of tacos. You no longer have to venture to the hinterlands for a good one; you can remain right in the District and trust that someone with a general understanding of taco engineering has constructed your plate of stuffed corn tortillas. This is one byproduct of America’s obsessive food culture for which we can be thankful.

The only downside to this local invasion of Mexican-style tacos is its somewhat monolithic nature. By which I mean that the new lifestyle conscious, small-batch-tequila taquerias may feature dishes that originated in different parts of Mexico -- fish tacos from Baja, tacos al pastor from Puebla -- but they tend to lump everything into a large, undifferentiated menu. So while our appreciation for Mexican cuisine has increased, our knowledge of regional styles has remained stagnant.

By and large, you still have to flock to the hinterlands for a true taste of regional Mexican cooking. It’s in these crusty margins of the metro area that you’ll find places like Tacos el Costalilla, a family-run operation that serves up dishes from Jalisco, the state in western Mexico that Fidel Gallegos-Perez once called home.

Gallegos-Perez is the guiding light behind Tacos el Costalilla, even though the strip-mall eatery in Alexandria is owned by his sons, Alejandro and Fidel Gallegos. Back when he served as chef at Taco Jalisco, just down the road, Gallegos-Perez was known among his regulars as “Costalilla,” a nickname the family can’t seem to define for me. (Seriously: I pressed Alejandro, thinking the nickname might have some eccentric connotation, but he had no clue.)

Regardless, among the hungry masses in lower Alexandria, the “Costalilla” handle is apparently as bankable as the Andres surname in Penn Quarter. Ever since the family opened Tacos el Costalilla three years ago, customers have been magnetically attracted to the restaurant, virtually based on the familiar echo of the name alone, Alejandro tells me.

You immediately understand the attraction once you bite into the torta ahogada, an oval of fresh bolillo bread stuffed with carnitas and smothered with two house-made sauces, one blisteringly hot from arbol peppers. This particular torta, native to Jalisco, is the Mexican equivalent of a double-dipped Italian beef sandwich, only with twice the firepower. Although the pillowy bolillo can dominate everything, silencing the other ingredients with its soft wad of bread, you can easily slice off a smaller bite that allows the pork and arbol peppers to tantalize and torture the tongue. Think pleasure and pain all in one.

True to so many taquerias, Costalilla doesn’t make its own tortillas (except for those on the carne asada plate, which I don’t recommend, because no amount of refried beans or fresh avocado can re-animate the desiccated flap meat). The path to navigate runs, again, through Jalisco, where “tacos al vapor” are a staple of the diet. At Costalilla, these tacos are steamed in a pot and filled with your choice of cow off-cuts, whether tongue or head or brain; the gelatinous head meat proves an ideal partner for the moisture-laden tortillas, provided you don’t have a regrettable encounter with an uncooked mass of cartilage. While I’m thinking of it, make sure to ask the cook to steam your tacos with the garnishes and sauce included; it intensifies the flavors.

If your decision at Costalilla boils down to a choice between a torta and a regular griddle taco, opt for the former, mostly because the restaurant has a direct line on these exquisite, soft-and-crusty bolillo rolls, delivered fresh daily. When toasted and overflowing with lettuce, crema, avocado, refried beans, tomatoes and, say, al pastor meat (prepared on the griddle, not a vertical rotisserie), the bolillo bread becomes a sandwich vehicle par excellence. The griddled tacos, by contrast, can suffer from tortillas well past their prime, cardboard cutouts that can drag down otherwise tasty fillings, like the Mexican chorizo.

Costalilla’s sopes -- their crunchy masa shells giving way to this simultaneously dense, delicate and flavorful interior -- compare favorably to those at my favorite new mystery in Manassas, Taqueria Tres Reyes. But it’s important to choose a meat, like chorizo, that adds a booming voice to the sope’s soft-spoken vegetable and cheese toppings. Otherwise, you’ll need a generous application of red salsa, boasting those same throat-searing arbol peppers, to elevate the masa when topped with the succulent-but-watery chicken.

Another tip: Don’t skip the seviche, just because you think a budget-minded outpost on the outskirts of civilization can’t prepare raw fish. Costalilla’s version comes on a crispy tostada loaded with onions, tomatoes, peppers, fresh tilapia, lime juice and cilantro, which collectively provide concentrated, pinpoint bursts of flavor. The dish is a reminder that coastal states like Jalisco tend to have a good relationship with fish.

The one taste of Jalisco that eluded me was Costalilla’s jericalla, a sort of cross between creme brulee and flan, neither of which this dessert flatters. The top layer was browned and leathery, while the custard underneath had been cooked to the curdy texture of scrambled eggs. I tossed out a good portion and exited Costalilla’s with my lovely sweet-and-tart hibiscus agua fresca, dreaming of the day I might visit Jalisco in person, not through this fine third-party interpreter in Alexandria.