I’m on the phone with José R. Ralat, a guy who studies taco culture with the devotion of a Shakespearean scholar. Ralat, taco editor for Texas Monthly, is helping me work through a dilemma I had with Taqueria Las Gemelas, the stylish new counter-service spot from the folks behind Espita Mezcaleria in Shaw. My dilemma was generating the kind of tension that needed the sweet release of conversation.
Las Gemelas, more or less, adopts a philosophy that has been rooted in fine dining since day one: Chef knows best. Each taco on its compact menu is a self-contained bite, stuffed, garnished and salsa-fied just as the kitchen likes it. The team will gladly provide extra salsas and hot sauces upon request, but no one, as far as I could tell, promotes this kind of customer customization.
We live in a different time now, I know. Salsa bars, like buffets, have gone dormant, as we learn to keep our hands (and our germs) to ourselves. Still, I was having this inner debate with myself: I love seeing chefs respect the taco enough to treat it as a composed plate, all its elements locked into place, with no further doctoring required from the diner. At the same time, I missed the customization offered from salsa bars. I fondly recall a tiny taqueria on Isla Mujeres, off Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, where the owners had assembled a vast and colorful spread of salsas, fresh herbs, sliced radishes, diced onions, wedges of lime, you name it.
One model is about control and precision. The other, freedom and personal preference.
Ralat, a born contrarian, has similar feelings about a lack of customization at taquerias. But he reminded me that some tacos have always come with rules, whether we were aware of them or not. Salsa verde goes with carnitas. Chipotle mayo is paired with Baja-style fried fish tacos. He also passed along a recent experience at Tacos Guerrero, a trailer in East Austin, where he had just taken a bite of his taco packed with chicharron and salsa verde.
“The taquera came out of the trailer, grabbed the plate from me and put frijoles de la olla right on top of them. It was so much better,” Ralat says.
“So,” he adds, “sometimes they know best.”
There is no single mastermind behind Taqueria Las Gemelas, whose name has a dual meaning among the members of the tightknit Destination Unknown Restaurants group. Translated into English, “gemelas” means “twin sisters,” a reference to partner and masa specialist Yesenia Neri Diaz’s two young daughters. But Las Gemelas is also a nod to the twin concepts from Destination Unknown that bookend La Cosecha, the Latin American emporium in the Union Market District. The taqueria occupies one end of the hall, while the high-end Cocina Mexicana sits on the other.
The competing concepts, says co-founder Josh Phillips, are “kind of like how twins might share the same DNA, but usually have pretty different personalities.”
Neri Diaz, a native of Ahuacuotzingo in the Mexican state of Guerrero, is just one of several hands that have crafted the menu here. She oversees the daily production of fresh masa, fashioned from blue bolita corn from Masienda, an heirloom variety that makes for a sturdy base for the tacos, tlayudas and quesadillas. Neri Diaz collaborates with a multinational team, including executive chef-partner Robert Aikens (who hails from Norfolk, England), chef de cuisine-partner Ben Tenner (Cape May, N.J.) and butcher-partner Rogelio Garcia (Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, northeast of Mexico City).
As a creative team, the quartet draws from its many strengths: fine-dining chops (Aikens’s résumé is rich with high-end experience), discipline (Tenner was once a Winston Wolfe-like figure, fixing underperforming restaurants) and regional Mexican cooking (Garcia and Neri Diaz). Together, they have developed some of the most labor-intensive tacos I have ever seen.
Take the superb lamb barbacoa. The team has created a kitchen hack to mimic the traditional earthen-pit cooking technique. The crew splits open lamb shoulders and places them in a perforated hotel pan, which is then tucked inside another pan layered with smoldering wood chips. They cover this makeshift stovetop smoker and let the meat cook for 30 minutes, just long enough to get a whiff of applewood perfume. From there, the crew will cure the semi-smoked lamb with kosher salt and spices, then rub it with a marinade that features, among other ingredients, ancho and guajillo chiles, orange juice, roasted garlic, oregano, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, mint and honey. They’ll wrap those shoulders tightly in banana leaves and foil, then roast them overnight.
The finished lamb comes wrapped a pastel-blue tortilla, along with charred tomatillo salsa, onions and fresh cilantro. It’s a dense bite, both in heft and flavor. Few would argue, I suspect, that it needs any further manipulation.
You could argue, however, that there is an inherent contradiction about a taqueria, set inside a marketplace dedicated to Latin American food and culture, that alters its approach to appease more mainstream palates. I’m thinking about the housemade habanero salsa, a condiment that should give pause to the chile-pepper averse. This version is a lap dog, a sweet and lovable lap dog for sure. No one would ever think to slap a warning sign on the fence around its backyard.
The kitchen also mixes beef cheek into its lengua taco, downplaying the livery component of tongue in favor of the familiar, more luxurious flavors of cheek meat. The tlayudas play to their audience, too: Instead of a massive, open-faced tortilla, crisped up on a plancha and topped like a pizza with a layer of refried beans and string cheese, this version is stuffed and folded, more a nod to portable Oaxacan street food than to restaurant-style tlayudas, which demand utensils.
These adaptations may be conveniences or compromises, annoying perhaps to those who swear allegiance to authenticity, but you’d be hard-pressed to call them anything but delicious. Especially the green chorizo tlayuda, packed with crumbly pork shoulder and smoked bacon, their richness counterbalanced with the acid of pickled jalapeños and tomatillos.
Yet my favorite dishes here kind of, sort of, toe the line of tradition. The carnitas, a combination of pork shoulder and belly, are shredded after a long confit in pork fat spiked with a variety of fruits, herbs and aromatics. Yet the kitchen has found some atypical side kicks to pair with the carnitas: pickled red cabbage and a sweet, multifaceted mole, their personalities serving as bright, animated foils to the pork’s heaviness.
The al pastor is the real deal: pork marinated in a rich achiote paste before taking a spin on a vertical spit. The dish is basically Garcia’s pet project, I’m told. He’s a man so devoted to al pastor that, long before he assumed the duties at Taqueria Las Gemelas, he built his own rotisserie, which he used to tote around for private parties. Topped with pineapple, ribbons of raw onion, cilantro and salsa taquera, his al pastor needs no alternation. It’s perfect as is.
The taco is a tribute to the notion that the chef — or, in this case, the butcher — knows best.
Taqueria Las Gemelas
1280 Fourth St. NE, 202-866-0550; lasgemelasdc.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Nearest Metro: NoMa-Gallaudet U, with a half-mile walk to the taqueria.
Prices: $2 to $15 for all items on the menu