Ice cream trucks meandering through neighborhoods where the grass is always green and the sky never wavers from crystalline blue--that's the Norman Rockwell take on a yupster's childhood.
For Glen Adams, who was raised in Santa Monica, Calif., the picture was painted with more savory brush strokes: The 46-year-old chef remembers street vendors dispensing taquitos, "baby tacos," three for a quarter, from the windows of their kitchens on wheels.
Shades of that scene have been rekindled in Adams's fledgling storefront eatery, Taqueria Poblano, nestled on a friendly little stretch of Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood, opposite a barber shop and a TV repair store that could have been lifted from "Mayberry, R.F.D."
It might be dark and cold outside, but Taqueria Poblano bids its guests welcome with a modestly sunny dining room. Tiny white lights frame the picture window. The walls are bathed in terra-cotta hues and dressed up with sconces and pictures, souvenirs picked up during trips to Mexico by Adams and his wife and partner, Karen Kowalczyk.
As the evening unfolds and single diners wander to the small bar in the rear, strangers become friends over quesadillas made piquant with chorizo ($2.95) and washed back with a refreshing tamarind cooler ($1.75). The latter is sweetened to taste with simple syrup, a bottle of which stands at the ready nearby. A kickier elixir comes by way of the lime cooler ($1.75), fizzy with club soda and spirited with lime juice and rind. Housemade sangria and a trio of Mexican beers are also offered.
No sooner are you seated than a complimentary little nosh shows up: fingers of crisp, cool jicama dusted with chili powder and flanked with lime wedges, plus sauces of roasted tomato and poblano, and tomatillo. Matchsticks of fried tortilla strips round out the fillip; they disappear quickly as they're dredged through the dips by hungry diners.
Adams, who cooked previously at Union Street Public House in Alexandria, has written a short script that encourages grazing and fosters a casual air. Portions are mostly appetizer-size and appear on paper plates, a reminder that this 45-seat operation is as much a place to carry out as it is to eat in.
Dig in with a trio of taquitos ($3.75), three cigar-shaped, crisp-fried corn tortillas that come plumped with shredded pork or chicken and ride with enhancers of guacamole and a zesty drizzle of sour cream sauce. Rajas poblano ($1.95) teams soft strips of roasted peppers with onions, garlic, oregano and a whisper of cheese while the cilantro-laced Mexican slaw ($1.25) teases the tongue with lime juice and chili powder, sassy foils for the mild shredded cabbage.
Tacos, including the "L.A.-style crispy" versions, can be stuffed with all manner of fillings--think chili-braised beef ($2.75) or mahi mahi, which is dipped in a beer batter and fried to a delicate crunch, then tucked into a soft tortilla. It's only $2.95 for a taste of Southern California, considered the home of the fish taco. There's rotisserie-cooked pork, too, set off with pineapple bits and red chili sauce, among other accents ($1.50).
Don't come expecting Mexican fast food that is Americanized in a cloak of cheese or loaded on a combo platter (thank goodness). That said, you'll probably find yourself wishing for a little more zip and a little more nuance in Adams's cooking--the bottled hot sauce got a workout at my table. Yet the price is right; a diner would be hard-pressed to spend more than $12, beverage and tip included, for a fill-up here.
Should there be room to spare, wrap up your meal with a wedge of warm rice pudding, veined with plump raisins ($2.75). Adams cooks the grains in water that is infused with cinnamon and lime zest. The result: comfort food with a pleasing Mexican accent.
Taqueria Poblano is at 2400 B Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria. Call 703-548-8226. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Monday.