A friend and I occupy a two-top at Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana, on a 14th Street NW strip that’s become a destination for Mexican cooking, and I’m waiting on steak and a Caesar salad.
No, Donald Trump didn’t order for me.
The steak is carne asada, a beer-marinated slab of skirt steak grilled to a lip-smacking shade of ruby-red and served with sauteed cactus paddles and a blistered jalapeño. The salad is a stack of romaine leaves lightly coated with a jalapeño-spiked dressing, a sharp reminder that the Caesar originated in Tijuana, where border-hopping Americans used to tie one on during the dark, dry days of Prohibition. The croutons, incidentally, are toasted from house-made torta bread.
This kind of thought and finesse doesn’t come along often in small, neighborhood restaurants dedicated to south-of-the-border cooking. Then again, siblings Alfredo and Jessica Solis don’t come along often, either. They’re a pair of cooks, baptized by fire in the busy kitchens of Passion Food Hospitality, who have rechanneled their professional training into the cuisine of their native Mexico. Their efforts first brought us El Sol Restaurante & Tequileria, a deceptively modest spot that deals in traditional Mexican fare but dares to push it forward in small-but-significant ways.
Brother and sister have raised the ante with Mezcalero, a colorful, mural-heavy place with a comically large rooster sculpture out front. Located two doors down from Taqueria Habanero, whose sophisticated scratch cooking owes a debt to Puebla, Mezcalero is a more expansive expression of the siblings’ savvy takes on Mexico City fare. Whichever restaurant you select for the night, it feels less like a confirmation of one than a betrayal of the other. Both deserve your patronage.
As the name suggests, Mezcalero pushes the smoky handcrafted spirits of Oaxaca. Alfredo Solis and his bar manager, Arturo Zaloga, have collected more than 65 mezcals, available in individual pours or in flights served in small clay cups called copitas. One evening, I ordered a flight of mezcals distilled from roasted tepextate, a wild agave varietal that can take 30 or more years to reach maturity. Served with orange slices, and sal de gusano, or worm salt, the mezcals whispered their own private messages: The Vago, for instance, spoke of grasses and sweet-corn tortillas. The Koch delivered a romantic tale, perfumed with flowers and fruit, as elegant as anything expressed by a single-varietal Peruvian pisco.
The mezcals are just one of the warm-up acts. Before your antojitos ever hit the table, your server will deliver a tray of hearty, house-made tortilla chips along with a side of dipping sauces spooned into tiny metal containers. Consider the latter your own personal salsa bar, whose offerings span the heat and color spectra. The avocado-and-serrano salsa is a cool, kid-friendly ride. The habanero-roasted-tomatillo salsa is a zero-gravity thrill ride that will leave your head spinning. The Solises make few concessions to the gringo palate. Chip at your own peril.
Chile heads will find much to love. For their new place, the siblings have amped up the spice on the Mole el Sol enchiladas, a trio of corn tortillas wrapped around shredded chicken and coated with a midnight-black sauce that almost roils with its four chile peppers. Likewise, the posole rojo burns brighter at Mezcalero than at El Sol: This Mexico City stew could animate the dead with its twin injection of guajillo pepper and chile de arbol. The crackly chicharron gordita, positioned on the plate like a Venus flytrap that has snagged its prey, electrifies the palate with spice. It also coats the palate with oil, one of the few missteps at Mezcalero.
Every morning, Alfredo Solis stacks thinly sliced pork and vinegared onions into a pair of al-pastor towers on rotating spits, each topped with pineapple. The preparation requires an hour per tower, a laborious time-suck that most restaurants simply can’t afford, no matter how rooted in the Lebanon-to-Mexico tradition the skewers may be. Shavings of al pastor can be added to any number of items — burritos, huaraches, sopes — but I suggest going simple: Cram the marinated meat into two-ply tacos, whose gossip-thin tortillas best showcase the pork, all crisp, sweet and glistening from its spin on the rotisserie.
Frankly, you can’t go wrong with tacos when ordering almost any protein: Their lean, three-bite constructions are designed to spotlight the fillings with only minimal interference, at least compared with, say, the burrito, a cheese-coated log so packed with ingredients your palate may not know where to turn. The Baja California fish taco is a smart reimagination of the Ensenada original, in which the crispy beer-battered mahi-mahi needs no cabbage to provide the trademark crunch. The cueritos tacos are pure silk, the pork skin braised in the same copper pot of lard (scented with citrus juices, garlic and herbs) used for the carnitas.
One of the signature tacos at Mezcalero is found among the antojito snacks: The tacos de canasta, or basket tacos, are lifted from the streets of Mexico City, where construction workers often wolf them down on break. The Solises have, by necessity, altered the preparation, arguably prohibiting the fillings from saturating their tortillas with flavor. But I can’t argue with the results: a trio of steamed tacos, at once lush in the center and crispy around the edges.
I don’t mean to gush about the tacos at the expense of other dishes that merit attention. The chile relleno, a charred and battered poblano stuffed with a rich flow of Oaxacan cheese and smothered in ranchero sauce, has no peer. The tuna ceviche finds a satisfying balance between fruit and spice. The queso fundido, served in a molcajete, blends Oaxacan and Chihuahua cheeses with chorizo for a buttery, nutty and, well, delightfully stringy experience.
You know, the more I think about the place, the more I think the man-size metal chicken on the patio makes for a perfect mascot. Mezcalero is the big strutting rooster of the local Mexican food scene.
3714 14th St. NW, 202-803-2114, mezcalerodc.com.
Hours: 10 a.m. to midnight Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Columbia Heights or Georgia Ave.-Petworth, with a half-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $2.50 to $16 for tacos and antojitos; $5 to $29.95 for gorditas, huaraches, quesadillas, tortas, enchiladas, fajitas, guisados and specials.