As I stand at the counter at La Jarochita No. 2 in Arlington, next to the open-air molcajetes filled with fresh salsas, I scan the overhead menu board, feeling my hunger escalate with each dish listed: tacos, gorditas, tortas, huaraches, pozole, sopes, enchiladas. My mouth keeps ordering one after another before my brain comprehends the calories I’m stacking up like so much firewood for the winter.
“Is this all for you?” someone suddenly asks.
I glance down and notice the young woman at the register. She looks worried. But I’m a pro and have my stock response ready: “It’s okay, I may have some leftovers.”
La Jarochita’s unapologetic focus on its working-class clientele — i.e., not Mini-driving white-collar boys like me, who typically flee at the sight of tacos stuffed with jelly-like meats — is part of its paradoxical draw. The more the place doesn’t cater to my kind, the more I like it. There’s probably some deep psychosis here, but who cares. It’s a tasty, tasty psychosis.
The taquerias that have opened in Washington lately, even the good ones, feel sanitized for our protection. They stick to a strict business plan: Don’t push customers too far. Beef tongue tacos are as daring as they get. La Jarochita No. 2, by contrast, still feels rooted in a Third World economy. The folks here will stuff your tacos with almost every part of the animal, short of bones and eyeballs: intestines, stomach, brain, skin, head meat and so on.
Most offal meats, of course, are budget proteins. They’re the ugly stepchildren locked in the attic while the glamour kids (lobster, squash blossoms, yellowfin tuna, you name it) are paraded around in those delicate, two-bite, pinky-in-the-air tacos. But here’s the thing to remember about off-cuts: They provide a portal into another dimension of texture and flavor, one that few bother to investigate.
Cueritos tacos are not packed with pork rinds but with braised segments of pig skin: It’s a mean mouthful of pork butter. The gordita stuffed with cabeza meat, picked straight from the cow’s head, has a big, pot-roast-like quality, requiring a generous hand with the tomatillo salsa to cut through the richness. The sesos, or cow brain, tacos go down like custard, a texture you may not immediately associate with organ meat. The flavor can be hard to identify, a kind of ethereal creaminess, so should you bite down on something more fragrant, send those brains back!
With that said, the meat central to La Jarochita No. 2 is al pastor. You’ll find the pork tower rotating on a vertical spit in a corner of the restaurant, sometimes topped with pineapple, sometimes not. Come to think of it, sometimes the spit isn’t even rotating.
The shop’s focus on al pastor makes me think the owner hails from either Puebla (birthplace of tacos arabes, an early iteration of al pastor fostered by Lebanese immigrants who introduced shawarma rotisseries to Mexico) or Mexico City (where tacos al pastor have been dubbed the “municipal dish”). Alas, among employees here, the owner’s name is a state secret more closely guarded than nuclear launch codes. Only after a few calls, including one to La Jarochita in Manassas, did I determine that the perro grande is a gentleman by the name of Felix Vargas.
According to database searches, Vargas and his family are living out a Horatio Alger story: Mexican immigrants who have built a small-business empire in Northern Virginia with establishments that include (or have included) markets, restaurants, a video store, a modest mall and even a radio station. Felix Vargas, according to one employee, owns both La Jarochita in Manassas and its sequential sister, La Jarochita No. 2 in Arlington. The guy may feed as many people per day as Mike Isabella, all without a public relations staff to trumpet his work.
Anyway, back to the al pastor: When sliced off the “trompo” — the name Mexicans have given the “spinning top” of meat — the marinated pork sports some lusty char, adding a smoky depth to your preferred masa delivery system. There are exceptions, though: If you dine later in the evening, the trompo may disappear altogether from its corner, even though mostly uncharred al pastor meat will remain available for tacos, huaraches, sopes, tostadas, gorditas and this beast called a “super taco” (a mountainous pile of ingredients that cannot be eaten by hand). But whether charred or not, the al pastor meat drips with spice and this haunting little sweetness.
By and large, the other meats don’t stand a chance against the al pastor. The ultra-thin carne asada looks as if it were beaten into submission, although the charred, garlicky beef proves satisfying, especially when rolled into enchiladas topped with a semi-piquant salsa verde. Skip the carnitas, dry and characterless. The lengua can hold its own, but only with a little help from the tomatillo salsa. And should you feel unadventurous, stick with the chicken, seasoned, browned and succulent.
Once you latch onto a meat, you can enjoy it any number of ways. The two-ply tacos offer a decent entry-level approach, although the corn tortillas come straight from a bag. My preferred carriers are fresher: the griddled gordita, with its crispy shell popped open like the hood of a Dodge, and the griddled huarache, its masa base simultaneously crusty and soft as polenta. Make sure to ask the man at the garnish bar which salsa works best with your selection. He’s never wrong.
The inherent issue with La Jarochita No. 2 is that you will run out of table (and stomach) space before you run out of possible combinations to try.
On my last visit, as I stood next to the squeeze bottles of salsa — they replaced those adorable molcajetes, which the health department 86’d — I did the same thing all over again. I ordered a super taco al pastor, enchiladas rancheras, carne asada, huarache al pastor and . . .
“That’s a lot,” a voice said at the cash register.
85 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington. 703-243-2545.
Hours: Daily, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Virginia Square or Ballston, with a 1-mile trip to the restaurant.