If you haven't been to 18th Street and Columbia Road in Adams-Morgan for a while, you're in for a big and very pleasant surprise. It's not only a bright, lively intersection throbbing with energy and color, it's become a center for restaurants that are new, different and budget-priced.
El Tazumal, in the heart of this burgeoning area, not only has bargain prices and interesting food, it has a Latin American warmth that made everyone in our family feel comfortable and welcome.
El Tazumal is an El Salvadorean restaurant. In its former life, the restaurant was an ice cream parlor that on the side served some Salvadorean specialties -- mainly pupusas, a corn meal and melted cheese combination.
The ice cream parlor has given way to a full-fledged restaurant, complete with newly acquired wine and beer license and a maitre d' who is unusually helpful and pleasant. El Tazumal has moved so far from its origins that, although ice cream is on the dessert menu, none was available the night we were there.
The restaurant no longer looks like an ice cream parlor. The walls have been freshly painted with sprightly stripes in the corners of the room. An occasional travel poster, tapestry and wood carving remind you of the restaurant's roots.
The menu offerings are not wildly exciting but, when you're dining out with children, that's not necessarily a negative. Children used to tacos and enchiladas will find plenty of familiar fare.
We started our meal by sharing sopa de pollo: chicken soup, Latin American style, $1.35. It was a superb version of Jewish chicken soup. The hot, rich broth had thin, light noodles swimming in it, chunks of carrots and, instead of parsnips, a Latin American vegetable, yucca, which tasted like a cross between parsnips and potatoes.
The combination plates of rice, fried beans, and choices of various enchiladas, tacos, tortillas and pupusas range in price from $2.85 to $3.65. For very young children with limited appetites, there are taco and enchilada side orders for $1.
Pupusas, a delightful, warm sandwich-like dish with a pleasant texture but no spicy flavorings, are 80 cents as a side order. The pupusas are served with the house's cabbage and carrot relish and tomato-based hot sauce. Those who like it hot will find the pupusas a perfect foil for the excellent hot sauce. Our son, who doesn't like his tongue set on fire, found the pupusas delicious without the extras.
The two combination plates we tried -- jalisco, $3.65 for rice, fried beans, chicken enchilada and beef taco, and Guadalajara, $3.65 for rice, fried beans, beef enchilada and tamale -- were hearty fare. The fried beans could have been served hotter and the dab of cheese on the beans could have been melted more, but otherwise we found the platters satisfying.
A more striking and original dish we tried was bistec encebollado, $4.95, a steak that was pummeled paper-thin and sauteed with onions. It was superb and came with a simple iceberg lettuce house salad and a plate of rice and beans. The oil and vinegar salad dressing had a pleasant bite to it. Again, the beans and rice could have been hotter.
Our son, a vegetarian, could have had a tropical salad, $2.25, which featured artichokes and avocado. He chose, instead, a house salad, 90 cents, and cheese pupusas. If he hadn't nibbled on everyone else's rice and beans he would have had to have a second order of pupusas to fill him up.
We wouldn't have minded trying some dessert. The menu suggested flan, $1.25, cake, 95 cents, or ice cream ("Muchos sabores -- many flavors -- price by scoop"). But, alas, no desserts were available that evening. Our waitress suggested we walk around the corner to an ice cream parlor.
Our tab for dinner for four, including beer, a glass of wine, a glass of lemonade and tax and tip, came to $22.83.