I owe you an apology.
Consider Chicatana on 14th Street NW. In my defense, the little storefront doesn’t do much to promote itself beyond a simple small sign, something of a handicap given the abundant sources for Mexican fare on the block or a taco’s toss away, including DC Corazon and Añejo Bar & Grill.
My eyes pegged Chicatana as a find within moments of strolling through the door. The right side of the narrow interior is a brick wall devoted to paintings of an Aztec god and a shaman by Washington street artist Jah One. The left side lines up stools in front of a small open kitchen outfitted with a trompo, or vertical meat spit, and a bar backed with a wall of spirits.
The thought poured into the decor surfaces in a basket of warm tortilla chips served with two sauces: one pureed avocado bright with lime, another bold with chiles, garlic and cumin with a hint of sweetness. I almost choked on my margarita — one of the best for miles, a perfect union of mezcal, agave and lime juice poured over a single block of ice — when I asked the man behind the kitchen counter when Chicatano opened.
“Two years ago,” said Marcelino Zamudio, one of two chefs and five owners, including bartender Hector Flora, an alumnus of the late Tico in Washington.
How could such a seemingly special restaurant fly under the radar for so long with so little fanfare? Chicatana is not far from where I live, after all, and I’d eaten at much of the competition.
Could it be the name of the place — a Spanish reference to a type of flying ant? Zamudio, a native of Guerrero in southwestern Mexico, is so eager to turn his audience on to the insect, he offers diners a free taste from an ornate box he keeps on the counter and incorporates them into half a dozen dishes. (Ants, among other insects, are a topic of conversation in culinary circles: I’ve appreciated their texture and flavor, which changes depending on where they’re from, at restaurants including the world-renowned Noma in Copenhagen.) Chicatana’s dried stash looks like shiny black beans and adds a nice pop to dishes as diverse as esquites — roasted corn mixed with mayonnaise, queso fresco and lime — tacos and buñuelos, or Mexican doughnuts.
One of the perks of sitting close to the people making your food and drink is getting to know their stories. Zamudio says he came to the area in 2009, when he got a job as a dishwasher at the original Rosa Mexicano, and kept his mother’s life advice in mind: Learn how to cook eggs and salsa, just in case a romantic interest doesn’t. Zamudio’s sister worked at Oyamel and got him a job washing dishes there, where he showed an interest in cooking and advanced to work on the line. (He still works days at José Andrés’s Mexican restaurant before tending to his own business.)
Zamudio later helped open Boqueria in Penn Quarter, where he met Jose Abrego, his co-chef and fellow owner, and dreamed up the idea of serving polished versions of Mexican street food — “tapas in a taqueria,” Zamudio calls it.
The faint sign outside Chicatana promises “fine Mexican cuisine.” In my experience, based on four visits, almost every dish (and every drink) delivers on the pledge. It helps that Flora uses fresh-squeezed juices and housemade syrups for his libations and that Zamudio and Abrego perform their tasks with skill, and a la minute.
Chicatana serves one of the lightest, brightest shrimp cocktails around. A nod to sunny Acapulco, the base for the sliced poached seafood, red onion and buttery avocado uses Clamato juice mixed with fresh citrus juices and Worcestershire sauce.
You don’t have to sit in front of the kitchen to appreciate its output. The small plates are the style you see in fancier places in Washington, and pay more for than at Chicatana. The sopes show up on a handsome black plate: faintly crisp rounds of masa spread with black beans and topped with springy shrimp, threads of guajillo chile, garlic slivers and fresh cilantro. Prettier still are the gorditas, a trio of two-bite, pork-stuffed masa cakes garnished with cream, spicy salsa and a few crisp ants. Fittingly, the edible baubles are nestled in a slender, hand-painted box.
Taco time! Half the pleasure are the tortillas, shaped from masa harina, pressed so that you can almost read through them and brushed with lard before they land on the griddle. The rest of the fun is thanks to the fillings: tongue braised for eight hours in cloves, bay leaves and garlic; grasshoppers sauteed with onion, mezcal and chipotle (and noisy in the eating); shredded pork, juicy from orange juice and warm with allspice. Carved from the spit, the cumin-zapped meat for al pastor is orange with guajillo, crisp on its edges and sweetly balanced with shaved pineapple. Watching the tacos being assembled from start to finish reveals the precision with which the chefs work, another reason to aim for a seat at the counter.
The quesadillas are good, too, plate-size corn tortillas that puff up on the griddle and whose fillings include sauteed mushrooms, spinach and cheese, a package that arrives with a tangy dip of thick Mexican cream dotted with orange oil from fiery salsa macha.
Zamudio says the restaurant was designed to be what diners want it to be, “a taqueria or fine dining.” Depending on your order, though, it can also serve as a bridge.
As he readies whole rockfish, one of a handful of entrees, for the flat-top griddle, Zamudio asks if we’ve seen “Like Water for Chocolate,” the 1989 novel turned 1992 film that saw legions of restaurants offering quail with rose petal sauce. The chef says he shares the passion for cooking — the power of a good meal — brought to life on screen. His conviction rings true when we taste the rockfish, simply brushed with adobo — a weave of slightly sweet guajillo peppers, apple cider vinegar and cumin — that flatters the sweet-fleshed catch, festooned with watermelon radishes and cilantro before it’s handed over.
A few things remind us that mortals are at work. The black beans lack depth, and the flash-fried Brussels sprouts tossed with goat cheese and raisins come with a splash too much agave for my taste. But those are uncommon and easily fixed issues at this otherwise engaging cooking show, which distinguishes itself with its focus on freshness and finesse. (Unfortunately for some diners, all the seating involves tall stools. And you will probably lean in to talk, given all the hard surfaces, although opening hour is relatively quiet.)
I never have room for dessert here — tacos take precedence — but Zamudio sometimes insists. The flan is a sturdy round, better for the ring of strawberry sauce that circles it and the passion fruit sauce on top that lends pucker. The light crunch? All together now: ants.
By the time you read this, Chicatana expects to add to its repertoire scallop ceviche, green chicken enchiladas and tlayuda, a Mexican pizza that scatters sliced hanger steak and buttery Oaxaca cheese on a big tortilla spread with black beans. I can vouch for the last, which Zamudio gifted this anonymous customer after my second dinner. After my third dinner, Flora was whipping up gratis drinks, one night mezcal and tamarind syrup capped with frothy egg white freckled with chocolate bitters. (In response to the unexpected hospitality, I left cash or tipped extra.)
Lessons learned: It pays to be a regular at Chicatana and, well, better late than never. It took me a while to get here, but you can bet I’ll be competing for a stool going forward.
3917 14th St. NW. 202-516-4924. chicatanadc.com. Open for inside and outdoor dining, delivery and takeout 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $9 to $14, tacos $3.50 to $5, entrees $13 to $28. Sound check: 78 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance, although the tables are high-tops. Pandemic protocols: Masks are optional; staff are vaccinated.