Open Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m., daily 5:30 p.m. to midnight. AE, MC, V. Reservations for large parties. Prices: Lunch platters $2 to $3; at dinner appetizers $1 to $2, entrees average $5 to $6.
Stetsons is halfway between an old grungy bar and a modernized nouveau Victorian bar. Anyway, it is a bar. Furthermore, it's a Tex-Mex bar.Thus, for some unknown proportion of you, it is the eating place of your dreams. The rest of you will hate it.
That's all right, because it holds only a couple dozen at the small Formica tables anyway, and the lone waitress can't be expected to handle a crowd. Stetsons is a dim neon oasis on U Street, lightly adorned with a few Indian rugs and posters, deriving its only charm from the bar-classic tile floor, the pressed tin ceiling and the single hanging plant, as brown and dry as tumbleweed. Plus a TV, of course.
The menu requests that you order by number. But that's not hard since the main dishes number only four (five if you consider nachos a main dish). You start with a giant margarita ("made with real limes," boasts the menu) or a pitcher of the same, or a beer from a prime stock that includes Pearl, Tecate and Dos XX. All in the Tex-Mex tradition -- except that tradition is changing. Witness the following.
Bartender to three big guys in flannel shirts and caps: "It's got the same number of calories as Miller Lite and three times the taste."
Who ever heard of calories in a Texas bar?
Well, there's more wrong with Stetsons. For one thing, the hot sauce tastes like watered-down and slightly spiked ketchup. And the $1.95 Ensalada Mixta is a bowl of iceberg with a few sliced chilies and a few other passes at mixed greens, but it's nothing to take up 15 percent of the menu with.
There's also plenty right with Stetsons. If you hit the chili on the right day (or take it home and let it sit in your refrigerator until it is the right day) that dish is as good as you can find hereabouts. When it has had time to mellow, it is deep and powerful, made, it is said, with cumin and red wine vinegar and fresh hot chilies. It is also made with a lot of tomato and with finely ground beef, which some will object to. But there aren't too many beans, it is as complex as it is hot, and it comes topped with onions and white cheese -- really good stuff, at $1.95 a bowl or $1.25 a cup.
You could also start with guacamole, but though it is the start of a good job -- with chunks of avocado and tomato and a nice rough texture -- it lacks seasoning. Or fill up on refried beans or rice and beans with chips for $2. The nachos ($2.50) are a big platterful, with firm beans and plenty of white cheese, studded with rounds of moderately hot green chilies.
But once past the chili, you should skip diversions and head right for the main dishes: enchiladas with chicken or cheese, chicken chalupas, beef or bean burritos or tacos. The enchiladas are well stuffed and wrapped in firm, chewy tortillas; they have character. Their red sauce repeats the flavor of the chili, which is fine, and the dish hasn't been stored and reheated until it turns to mush. Burritos are enormous and densely packed, their flour tortillas baked to a crunchiness and topped with sour cream, lettuce and thick slices of tomato. Like the tacos, their beef filling is very finely ground and thus lacks bite, but they compensate with generosity. The tacos are open ones, also generous, but not as good as the chalupas, which have that added fillip of sour cream and guacamole along with the meat and melted cheese. All those things come with good beans that are cooked just firm enough, seasoned with bay leaves and not much else, ladled over rice. Or you can get pretty good refried beans, quite permeated with fat in their cooking.
That's it. The menu suggests that you see the waitress regarding the "dessert du jour," but all she has to add is that she wishes they had a dessert. In all, the food at Stetsons will fill you up for well under $10, but the sky's the limit on the margaritas and beer from what we could tell.
So, those for whom a Tex-Mex bar is dining heaven will find happiness on U Street, as long as there aren't more than about two dozen of them at a time.