Chef Richard Sandoval is an empire builder. The Mexican maestro already owns Masa 14, Zengo and La Sandia here in the D.C. area — as well as numerous Latin-themed eateries around the world — but apparently that’s not enough. He wants mas. Expanding his culinary kingdom even further, Sandoval opened El Centro D.F. in May with a focus on simple “south of the border” street food.
Vision: This taqueria and tequileria aspires to occupy the middle ground between mass-produced Mexican like Chipotle and higher-end ventures like Oyamel. “It’s not about innovation,” admits chef Antonio Burrell, who oversees the kitchen. “It’s about making food that’s near and dear to Richard’s heart — the dishes he grew up on.”
Eats: Diners are best served by sticking to the basics. Eschew the tacos stuffed with beef tongue or nopal (grilled cactus) and order the ones with more traditional fillings. The Baja ($13.95 for three) is stuffed with a griddled white fish (whatever is freshest and looks best that day) and perked up with chipotle aioli, while the Al Pastor ($12.95 for three) takes pork belly marinated in adobo (a paprika-based rub) and tops it with colorful cubes of sweet grilled pineapple and a light salsa verde. All the tacos platters come with rice and refried black beans topped with smooth queso fresco (mild white cheese), which should fill you up. If that’s not enough, have some chips with guacamole ($9.95), which is made tableside and has the merest hint of heat courtesy of a piquant serrano chili.
Drinks: Looking to relive that debauched spring break in Cabo, the one that made “The Hangover” look like a fairy tale? With more than 200 kinds of tequila on hand ($8-$150 per shot), this is the place to do it. Class up your trip down memory lane by ordering a tasting flight, which come paired with the requisite lime wedges and a chaser shot of tangy sangrita (a blend of tomato, lime and orange juices).
Atmosphere: Head to the dusky downstairs bar if you’re on a date, stay on the main floor by the hustling and bustling open kitchen if you want to grab a fast bite, or ascend to the rooftop if you want to party like it’s still Cinco de Mayo.
1819 14th St. NW; 202-328-3131, Elcentrodf.com. (U St.-Cardozo)
Written by Express contributor Nevin Martell
Photo courtesy Richard Sandoval Restaurants