During a telephone interview, in which he spoke freely about Mexicue’s ongoing evolution, Kelly said that, awhile back, he and his culinary team were sampling pork shoulders prepared two ways. One shoulder was cooked with smoldering wood, a technique almost as old as fire itself and one favored early on at Mexicue. The other was braised in stock with orange juice, hibiscus, dried chipotles, smoked salt and more.
“We tasted them side by side,” Thomas recalls. The braised shoulder “was just a melding of all these flavors versus just the classic smoke, which is so good. I mean, I love barbecue obviously,” the owner adds. “But for us, [the braised shoulder] is just so much more Mexicue.”
The story goes a long way toward explaining why, despite its name, Mexicue has little in common with a growing movement in Texas, where pitmasters (often of Latin American heritage) are combining barbecue with Tex-Mex, two of the most influential cuisines in the state. Think: tamales stuffed with smoked brisket. Tacos loaded with spicy carnitas-style pulled pork. Sausages packed with Oaxacan cheese and serrano peppers. Flour tortillas in which rendered brisket fat stands in for lard. This hybrid cooking has invigorated a Texas barbecue scene that was at risk of becoming hidebound.
Mexicue, alas, does not draw inspiration from that movement. The chain was born on the streets of New York in 2010 when Kelly and then-business partner David Schillace launched their mobile taqueria with the barbecue bent. They were inspired by the runaway success of the Kogi BBQ food truck in Los Angeles where chef Roy Choi mixed Korean barbecue with Mexican tacos and a savvy use of social media, recognizing the latter’s promotional potential long before our Twitterer in chief. Mexicue has evolved over the years: Schillace moved on to other projects; Sandy Beall, the founder of Ruby Tuesday, has moved in and become a partner; and Mexicue has ditched the traditional smoking techniques, if not the barbecue flavors.
Debuting last fall in the space abandoned by the short-lived Meatball Shop, another New York import, Mexicue has a wider focus than in its early food-truck days. Kelly, Beall and the team have expanded the menu to incorporate influences from Nashville (hot chicken), New Orleans (jambalaya) and Silicon Valley (plant-based meats). I never tasted Mexicue before it reached Washington, but on a purely conceptual basis, the chain gives the impression that it’s a trend chaser, apparently willing to alter its persona in the hot pursuit of popularity. In this sense, Mexicue feels less self-assured than Choi and Kogi BBQ ever did.
Can you taste insecurity? Maybe. Mexicue’s insecurity comes across as a form of insincerity, a place that talks big and delivers little. Evidence can be found across the menu: a Nashville hot chicken taco that bears no resemblance to the original sandwich and whose heat, in fact, must be applied via a habanero hot sauce, available within arm’s reach from a Mexicue-branded bottle. A barbecue pork rice bowl that packs plenty of stomach-expanding ingredients, but only a whisper of smoke, ostensibly from the salts used in the braise. A charred jalapeño guacamole that’s short on spice, heat and salt. It’s the avocado that laid a goose egg.
Mexicue is not short on ambition. You see it at the bar, which is stocked with excellent bottles of mezcal and tequila, available in flights for those who want a quick tabletop lesson in agave spirits. You also find it on the cocktail menu, which bursts with invention, such as the Frida Mezcal, a drink prepared with pechuga mezcal (a spirit distilled with raw chicken to give it more flavor and body), at least three fruit juices, two kinds of simple syrup and an edible flower as garnish. As radiant as a folk dance, the Frida falls flat on first gulp, a victim of cheap ice diluting its elements. My favorite cocktail at Mexicue may actually be a mocktail, the grapefruit paloma, a tall tart sip counterbalanced with pinch of chile-hibiscus syrup.
The best way to navigate Mexicue’s menu is to focus on its least-fussy plates: The smoky chicken taco, the charred cauliflower taco, the salsa verde and the black bean dip are all idle pleasures. You take your chances when the ingredients start to pile up — or when they start demanding higher prices. The tuna tostada pairs mealy squares of fish with a mash of guacamole and heavy squirts of cashew vinaigrette, a mound of mush atop a crisp tortilla. The lobster taco tastes mostly of creamy chipotle aioli, which is just as well since the featured ingredient has a pronounced fishiness. Or did in my case.
Then there’s the “Jamburrito.” It’s a flour tortilla packed with black beans, guajillo chili salsa, cotija cheese, creamy chipotle and chicken-and-chorizo jambalaya, the latter a Mexican variation on the classic Crescent City dish, itself a melding of culinary traditions from the Old and New Worlds. This dense mass of ingredients is then flattened into quesadilla form and griddled till crisp. It’s essentially a mash-up of a mash-up. It’s also a dish so confused that, in the end, you don’t know what you’re stuffing in your face. Or why.
So, given my list of grievances, why do I feel guilty dissing Mexicue? I think it’s because the place is just so aggressively … nice. The servers, the hosts and the bartenders, they’re a friendly crew, every last one. It’s as if the chain’s HR managers conducted a personality test on Kelly and hired people just as affable as he is. But nice can have its problems, too, like allowing your business to bloat into something ordinary and undistinguished. Mexicue is a concept that doesn’t understand the best concepts have clearly defined boundaries, not ever-shifting ones. Sometimes nice just doesn’t always know when to say no.
If you go
1720 14th St. NW, 202-234-1595; www.mexicue.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: U St./African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo, with a 0.4-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $5.50 to $22 for dips and starters; $5 to $55 for tacos, tostadas, bowls, quesarritos and platters.