The $20 Diner: Taqueria Nacional’s quiet subversion of the 14th Street corridor


A quesadilla served at Taqueria Nacional in Washington. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
October 3, 2013

As oxymoronic (or just plain moronic) as it sounds, the relocated Taqueria Nacional feels as much like a space for art and reflection as it does a place to gobble down cheap tacos. Perhaps it’s the location and the design of the space that generate this tension: Owners Ann Cashion and John Fulchino have summoned the dilapidated elegance of Cuba amid the commercial clatter of the 14th Street corridor, as if to remind us of the impermanence of fortune.

Then there’s the added poignancy of the building in which this second-generation taqueria operates: It’s a former U.S. Post Office, another once-powerful entity ravaged by human events out of its control. The symbols of wealth, decay and hope are everywhere in this captivating space designed by Cashion, Fulchino and artist Eric Abrecht: a chandelier, weathered benches, repurposed mailboxes, mismatched tables and chairs, a stately courtyard with fountain, rusted corrugated metal, a praying Virgin Mary.

It’s as if the one constant during life’s seemingly random cycles of abundance and ruin is the humble taco. Always affordable. Always open to suggestion and more toppings. Always there when your fortunes come crashing down and you still desire something satisfying to eat.

Who better to provide these two-ply creature comforts in all kinds of weather than Cashion? She’s a James Beard Award-winning chef who remains so grounded in tradition and technique that no blustery trend can blow her off course. Her taqueria requires no foam canisters, no sous vide equipment, no dehydrators. Cashion and team just buy quality ingredients (from Ecofriendly Foods, Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative and the like) and manipulate them into multi-layered — think meaty, acidic, aromatic — bites while still charging no more than $3.50 per taco. The integrity of this transaction cannot be overstated.

This dedication to a cuisine also is reflected in an atypical reality: Despite moving from its cramped quarters on Capitol Hill, where the original Nacional was tucked into the armpit of Johnny’s Half Shell, the expanded taqueria remains essentially the same in terms of its offerings. Sure, you can now order a margarita (bracingly tart), a beer or a “spirited” agua fresca with rum or tequila, but aside from that rush of alcohol, the menu has barely budged. The quesadillas and daily specials are Cashion’s main additions; everything else remains rooted in the timeless pleasures of the taqueria.

In fact, you could argue that Cashion and Fulchino have concentrated the Nacional experience by stripping away the Americanized specials they peddled to appease those handful of Capitol Hill heathens who apparently couldn’t stomach the idea of a taqueria without a touch of the Red, White and Blue. No more burgers or meatloaf at the new Nacional. This is an unadulterated taqueria.

By this point, I think I’ve sampled almost everything on the non-brunch menu, and let me be among the first to say: Vegetarians can eat well here. They can opt for the egg-and-green-chili taco from the regular menu (the curds are so light, the pepper heat feels ferried by air) or select a veggie special advertised at the ordering station near the tortilla griddle (such as the recent combo of fried eggplant with pickled vegetables and feta, a salty and sour and altogether gratifying bite). Nacional’s assertive guacamole, thick with tomato, onion and pepper, will remind you how retreating others are by comparison.

Cashion’s jewels from the garden frequently don’t stop there. Consider a pair of recent specials: Fried squash blossoms, stuffed with two cheeses, are folded into a corn tortilla with ranchera sauce, a taco that’s gossamer in texture but thick with flavor. The summer vegetable quesadilla is presented as a folded, crepelike tortilla, almost flaky in texture, each griddled wedge practically smiling with corn kernels so sweet and milky. Cashion promises more vegetarian specials even as the days grow shorter and the earth offers up a limited bounty.

Meat eaters can stop hyperventilating now. Taqueria Nacional hasn’t forsaken you. Some of the most essential bites here have been marinated, braised or just griddled into a state of salty succulence. Take your pick: the tender beefy nuggets tucked into the steak taco, the luxuriant pork confit at the base of the carnitas or the light, gamey lamb animated with a sprinkle of pickled, brightly colored veggies. My favorite, however, is that lowly ground pecker, the chicken, which has been transformed into a cumin-scented taco of surprising complexity. I should note that you can garnish your tacos as you please from a wide selection of condiments and salsas. Judge as you will, but I had a difficult time not throwing pickled vegetables on everything.

My nagging complaint about Taqueria Nacional concerns its tortillas, which are sourced outside these distressed walls. They’re serviceable, sometimes even agreeable, when loaded with juicy fillings, but they tend to reveal their flaws when forced to shoulder more of the burden. I’m thinking about the refried bean taco, a fairly lean bite despite the addition of onions, cheese, cilantro and pico de gallo. The scarcity of liquid to soften these tortillas only underscores their major shortcoming: a lack of hot-off-the-comal freshness.

I might find the juxtaposition of Cuban decline and 14th Street development quite compelling, but I’m less enamored of tortillas that mix good corn flavor with cardboardy texture. Then again, perhaps I’m just seeking perfection in a world of $3 tacos, an idealism and a reality that can never align.

Taqueria Nacional

1409 T St. NW.
202-299-1122. www.taquerianational.com

Hours: Monday-Wednesday 11 a.m. to
10 p.m.; Thursday
11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to midnight; Saturday 10 a.m. to midnight; Sunday
10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Nearest Metro station: U Street, with a 0.3-mile walk to the restaurant.

Prices: $2.50-$7.95.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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