Tortilla Coast: Congress’s power restaurant, with extra cheese

So, a Texas senator and a dozen conservative congressmen walk into a bar, and . . .

What, exactly? Some shutdown strategizing over a late-night dinner — no one’s sharing what transpired between Ted Cruz (R) and the House Republicans who met at a local watering hole on the sly very late Monday. The punch line, then, when news broke of the supposedly secret meeting was simply the name of the bar: Tortilla Coast.

A low-budget Capitol Hill institution for 25 years, the restaurant quickly found itself the butt of every joke in an otherwise humorless week in Washington.

“I just hope the solution to this problem ultimately is known as the ‘Tortilla Coast Accords,’ ” snickered Willie Geist on the MSNBC political gabfest “Morning Joe.”

“Ted Cruz and his Tortilla Coast Republicans are leading us to a default,” an unnamed GOP Senate aide told Talking Points Memo.

Social media wits LOLed over the name after Roll Call reported on the meeting, which House leadership learned about only because Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) happened to dine at the Tex-Mex hangout that night, too. There were riffs on “running for the border,” “the coast is clear,” the irony of immigration foes enjoying Latin-flavored cuisine — and the hilarity of high-level talks going down in a place with a name just stinking of suburban strip-mall kitsch.

Tortilla Coast!?! That’s where congressmen go?

Yes, actually. Push past the beer-drinking interns making a meal of free chips and salsa, and you’ll find the unlikeliest power hub in town — one of Washington’s seven busiest venues for political fundraisers, according to the Sunlight Foundation, along with the white-tablecloth likes of Charlie Palmer Steak and Bistro Bis. In the 2011-12 cycle, House campaigns spent $208,753.42 on events at Tortilla Coast, according to campaign finance reports.

“It’s the only place that’s beyond convenient,” explained GOP fundraiser Lisa Spies, noting its location at First and D streets SE, just three blocks from the U.S. Capitol and one block from the Cannon House Office Building, possibly the absolute closest restaurant to those seats of power. “People were rumbling that ‘oh, it’s a secret meeting.’ You don’t have a secret meeting at Tortilla Coast! It leads people outside D.C. to think they went to some hole-in-the-wall that no one knows about. Everyone goes there. You go there to see and be seen.”

It’s definitely not for the ambiance — unless it’s for the utter lack of ambiance. You know those oak-paneled suites and elegant ballrooms where lawmakers mingle and connive on “Scandal” and “House of Cards”? This is not that. At Tortilla Coast, the windows are bedecked with decals promising “MARGARITAS” and “BBQ RIBS”; inside are worn vinyl booths, neon beer signs, murals of leaping fish on walls of deep red and acid green.

Unimpressed yet? Wait till you see where Cruz & Co. met. Tortilla Coast’s “Rio Room” is a windowless, low-ceilinged basement space of perhaps 400 square feet, with neutral walls and green, low-pile carpet. A guest who attended a typical event this summer — an early-evening fundraiser for a Democratic rising star — recalls a few high-top tables with bowls of guacamole and salsa, a table in the back laden with fried appetizers, and a bar with pitchers of beer that was barely touched. No banners, flags or other decor for the occasion — nothing to slow down lobbyists in their quest to hand off a check and have their three minutes with the lawmaker before racing off to the next event.

Last week, said general manager Bil Anderson, the room was booked for breakfast every morning. What’s the appeal? “Maybe,” he speculated, “if you don’t want to look like you're showing off.”

For its down-at-the-heels vibe, Tortilla Coast was once a very hot restaurant, in the days before Washington was a restaurant town. Founded by two Texas natives who had graduated from Georgetown, it opened in summer 1988 at Second and Massachusetts NE amid a Tex-Mex craze that also saw the launch of Austin Grill. It quickly became a gathering place for the Beltway’s Lone Star expats — James Baker’s daughter-in-law painted the murals — but also drew a future congressman from Wisconsin, Paul Ryan, who waited tables when he first came to town out of college. It also merited an entry in the notoriously spicy diaries of former senator Bob Packwood.

But it really took flight as a fundraising venue in 1996, after it moved to a building with more meeting space on the House side of the Hill. Three years ago, founders John Breen and Bo Marcus sold the original Tortilla Coast — as well as its new Logan Circle offshoot and their Cafe Deluxe restaurants — to Clover Investment Group.

It remains a modestly priced place, with entrees topping out at $14.95 — not that food is a big draw in the fundraising game. “It all goes to show that nobody gives a [hoot] about what the food tastes like — it’s who [the event’s] for,” Spies said. “I did an event for [current Indiana Gov.] Mike Pence when he was in Congress. I had the place packed! I thought, I can’t believe people are here! But people are going to pay $1,000 whether it’s Tortilla Coast or Capital Grille.”

Restaurant management won’t say much about Monday’s “secret” meeting, other than that it was scheduled on relatively short notice and “it wasn’t so secretive,” said Deborah Topcik, Clover’s marketing director. “It was just a place to meet in.”

Although they’re a little concerned that the Tortilla Coast Accords might brand the restaurant as a GOP hangout — they get just as many Democrats, she said — they are mostly enjoying the attention. “Maybe in six months, Betty Sue from Alabama comes in to tour the Capitol and sees the name and thinks, ‘Oh, that’s the place!’ ”

Or, more immediately, a visitor such as Maj. Stephen F. Barker from West Point. The Army history instructor stopped by the Hill on Wednesday to complain to his representative about how the shutdown had forced him out of a military education program at Fort Belvoir — and, yes, he’d heard about the place on the news.

“It’s the idea that there’s a funny little Mexican restaurant that senators and congressmen meet in. It just sounds absurd!” But he remembered having a good quesadilla there last summer — so he went back for another.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Amy Argetsinger is a staff writer for the Style section.
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