With its precious few culinary traditions, transient population and lack of representation in Congress, Washington can often feel to outsiders like some frontier territory to be tamed. Or perhaps it’s the ultimate blank-slate infant: a still drooling bambino who can assume any personality newcomers care to thrust upon it.
Back in the 1990s, Glen Adams was just another transplant who found himself working in the District. A journeyman chef from Southern California who had done time in hotel kitchens, Trader Vic’s and even the White House, Adams had no intention of serving up Polynesian fare or vaguely defined continental cuisine for tourists. Like so many before and after him, Adams was going to give the Washington area a taste of his youth: California-influenced Mexican food. In 1999, he and his late wife, Karen Kowalczyk, opened Taqueria el Poblano in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood.
Cal-Mex cuisine, just like its black-sheep cousin, Tex-Mex, has its apologists and its detractors. The critics, of course, deride the food for not being regional Mexican cooking, as though geography has no influence on how one puts together a meal. Cal-Mex shares another quality with the Texas branch of the family, too: It’s hard to define in any scholarly or even satisfactory way.
Is Cal-Mex defined by the cheesy combo plates of the once-powerful El Torito chain, by the healthy/lardless approach of the California-based Baja Fresh chain, or by the fried fish tacos first popularized in SoCal? Is it all of the above or just one of three separate cuisines (including Fresh-Mex and Baja-style)? Or maybe it’s something more self-defining, as though the cuisine’s contours are the result of selective memory. Cal-Mex is what you remember it to be.
Certainly Adams has memories of specific California-oriented Mexican dishes, from burritos to crispy tacos, that he brought to life at Poblano. But in the 14 years since launching his taqueria, he has expanded not only its presence, with two more locations in Arlington County, but also its menu. Aside from tributes to Cal-Mex tacos and burritos, Poblano serves up dishes influenced by regional Mexican cooking, whether from the Yucatan (an achiote-rubbed steak Tampiqueno) or Oaxaca (a chicken mole verde).
Based on my experiences with the grilled steak (fragrant with the peppermint-y aroma of annatto seeds, but underseasoned and chewy) and the mole verde (the breast meat bone-dry, the pumpkin-seed-and-lettuce sauce uncomplicated), I strongly suggest sticking to the Cal-Mex dishes that Poblano knows best. Adams has clearly drummed into his crew the importance of fresh ingredients and house-made preparations, even after good old American industrialization allowed restaurateurs to hawk tacos and margaritas without the need to deeply train employees in either cooking or mixology.
So the clean, sweet pucker of the margarita comes courtesy of a homemade, not pre-made, mix. The beef fillings are not bottom-grade hamburger spiked with packaged seasonings, but shredded, full-flavored top-round that has been braised with poblanos, onion and garlic. Even the avocado dressing drizzled onto a massive burial mound of meat, refried beans, cheese, guacamole and shredded iceberg (otherwise known as Poblano’s multilayered and textured tostada) is prepared with mayonnaise made in-house. You read right: Taqueria el Poblano makes its own mayonnaise.
The taqueria wavers on freshness only when it comes to tortillas. Like so many Mexican eateries, Poblano doesn’t make its own. Instead, the restaurant receives three deliveries a week from Moctec Mexican Products, the Landover-based company that prepares its fresh masa daily. I have no issue with Moctec’s generally superior tortillas, except when the rounds approach the end of their multiday existence and turn dry and crumbly. On more than one occasion, my aged tortilla undermined everything stuffed into it, requiring that I apply extra sauce and/or lime-heavy guacamole to compensate for the lack of moisture in, for example, my Baja fish tacos with fried mahi-mahi.
When the rounds are fresh, however, the tacos can be things of beauty: a marriage of meticulously prepared fillings (the cumin-poached chicken and the adobo-seasoned pork among my favorites), corn-dense tortillas and a smooth, smoky house-made salsa constructed from mild-mannered ancho and Anaheim chiles. (A watery, habanero-based sauce is available on request.) I even found pleasures in the duck-carnitas tacos wrapped in flour tortillas, although many of those pleasures, I admit, were based on the pickled red onions sprinkled on top. (Busted: I’m a charter member of Acid Freak Nation.)
But to my mind, Taqueria el Poblano’s greatest public service can be traced to two of the items Adams helped introduce to Washington all those years ago: the L.A.-style crispy taco and the Southern California take on the humble burrito. The taco is stuffed with your choice of meat, then skewered tight and submerged in a deep fryer, a technique that keeps unwanted fat out of the fillings while providing a contrasting, deeply satisfying crunch. The burrito, completely bereft of rice filler, is instead bloated with a mass of salty-and-savory refried beans that caresses and complements whatever starring ingredient you fold inside the soft flour tortilla.
If the mere mention of all those refried beans makes your stomach swell, consider this: Taqueria el Poblano uses no lard whatsoever. This, after all, is Cal-Mex, baby.
2400-B Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria.
2503-A N. Harrison St., Arlington.
2401 Columbia Pike, Arlington.
Prices: Entrees, $6.95 to $15.95.