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Tortilla Cafe on Capitol Hill

Tortilla Cafe sells standout pupusas and tangy cabbage salad.
Tortilla Cafe sells standout pupusas and tangy cabbage salad. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

There's only one trouble with Tortilla Cafe. All I ever want to order are the pupusas. The dough is made with cornmeal, tomatoes, celery, peppers and cumin: "lots of cumin," says owner Juan Jose Canales, who opened the Salvadoran restaurant on Capitol Hill in 2001. The staff grinds the pork or chicken by hand, adds a little mozzarella and stuffs the filling into the corn dough before throwing the pupusas on the griddle. The result is a greaseless, satisfying meal that, at $5.95 for a platter including two sides, won't disappoint.

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It's a shame, though, because almost everything else Canales makes is good, too. There are tacos -- beef, chicken, shrimp or fish ($5.75 to $6.49) -- that with the exception of the flour tortillas he uses are good enough to sell in Mexico City. Try the fried tilapia taco, with crisp, meaty fish that only improves when you add the vinegar-spiked cabbage salad on the side. The tamales, too, are delicious. Canales mixes potatoes and chickpeas into the corn dough for the meat tamales to make them moister than the traditional Mexican variety. They are then wrapped in a corn husk and boiled.

Some regulars like their tamales with pork or chicken, but I prefer them plain, with nothing to distract from the sweet flavor. They're like comfort food I never had as a child and are terrific with a dash of Tortilla Cafe's creamy but hot jalapeƱo sauce.

You could also make a meal, albeit a starchy one, of the sides. The fried plantains ($3.75 for eight pieces served with sour cream and refried beans) are sticky caramelized goodness. The beans ($1.45 for eight ounces) are cooked and seasoned with a light touch, making them a nice companion to an impeccably fresh salad ($3.95). The crisply fried yucca ($4.25, served with fried pork) is bland, but yucca is supposed to be that way. Wash it all down with a sweet but refreshing horchata, made the Salvadoran way from the morro seed, or a tart passion fruit juice (both $2).

The only disappointment here is the empanadas ($2.50 each, $5.45 for a platter). These are made with flaky puff pastry dough instead of the traditional type, which in my experience is more like an unsweetened pie dough. By the time we got them back to the office, they had steamed inside the plastic-foam container and become soggy. But I don't mind. Finding at least one thing I don't love is one more reason to order pupusas.

-- Jane Black

Tortilla Cafe, 210 Seventh St. SE, 202-547-5700. Hours: weekdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.


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