More recently, though, some have suggested that Tex-Mex’s days are numbered. They say the gloriously gloppy fare of previous generations is circling the drain as chefs and restaurateurs strip away the layers of grease, colonialism and industrialization to locate the beating heart of regional Mexican cooking, pre-Hispanic or otherwise. Chris Svetlik is not one of those restaurateurs. He’s moving in the opposite direction with Republic Cantina in Truxton Circle. A former Texan who, like other transplants, found himself pining for breakfast tacos and enchiladas smothered in brown gravy, Svetlik has embraced the magnificent, messy, love-it-or-hate-it mash-up known as Tex-Mex. And Washington is all the better for it.
Yet Svetlik’s concept of a Tex-Mex establishment — as envisioned by him and journeyman chef Antonio Burrell — is not a wallow in retro-hip nostalgia. It’s not a wax museum, built with hardened Velveeta, dedicated to a golden era when Chuy’s was the toast of University of Texas undergrads and Felix Mexican Restaurant was fattening up Houstonians with its electric-orange chile con queso. It is a place rooted in Tex-Mex classics, but still wise enough to adopt the practices of more modern Mexican restaurants. Yes, Republic Cantina serves up a cast-iron pan of beef fajitas, but the juicy strips of outside skirt steak are marinated in gochujang, the Korean chile paste, and paired with mezcal, if you so desire.
Svetlik and Burrell understand they’re wading into dangerous waters whenever they mess with Tex-Mex protocols, especially when catering to former Texans who long for combo plates but can’t cotton to any preparation that deviates from the ones of their youth. In fact, any deviation from the recognized norms — gratis chips and salsa, courtesy sides of rice and beans, queso thickened with processed cheese — can be grounds for immediate damnation. But owner and chef have placed their bets on a version of Tex-Mex that is, if not postmodern, at least post-Sysco. And post-lard.
His place, Svetlik tells me, has adopted a “measured push for lightness and balance that is conventionally a little lacking in Tex-Mex.” This quote, aside from laying out Republic Cantina’s ethos, is ample evidence that with enough time, Washington will turn anyone into a diplomat, even a Texan from the wildcatter wilderness of Houston.
You won’t find a lick of lard in Republic’s flour tortillas, these soft and elastic ovals built with Crisco. In a way, the tortillas remind me of the flaky, freakishly delicious rounds at Teddy’s Roti Shop on Georgia Avenue NW, where the Trinidadian flatbreads are also prepared with Crisco. The tortillas swaddle any breakfast-taco filling you want, providing only minor resistance as your teeth sink into, then through, the warm wrappers. Aside from the carne guisada, with its tickle of chili gravy, the taco fillings themselves routinely border on the bland, which is where Burrell’s salsa offers salvation. Fresh, garlicky and robust with charred tomatoes, the salsa instantly animates everything it touches. Don’t hesitate to ask for a second bowl of the stuff.
Breakfast is the foundation of the cantina, which is not surprising given that Svetlik is a founding partner of Republic Kolache, the business that basically introduced the yeasty Czech pastries to Washington. Svetlik was searching for a permanent space from which to serve his tasty little squares, both sweet and savory, when he realized it would make more sense to expand the concept to include other dishes that Texans miss like the Darrell Royal era of University of Texas football. Think: chile con queso, tacos al carbon, fajitas, enchiladas and even chicken-fried steak (which has nothing to do with Tex-Mex foodways, other than its fat content also makes dietitians flee to the nearest farmers market.)
Still, the breakfast service, as expansive as the Texas prairie, stretches into the early afternoon at Republic Cantina. Sitting under drooping strands of chile-pepper lights, next to pots with stubby little cactuses and serenaded by the music of Lucinda Williams and Los Lobos, you can relax into a cast-iron pan of migas, the “national breakfast of Texas,” as the menu explains. Despite the dish’s assembly of peppers, onions, tomatoes, fried tortilla strips and soft wedges of avocado, you’ll still need Burrell’s grand unifying salsa to bring order to your migas tacos, freshly composed at the table. The lush avocado Texas toast needs no such condiment to provide harmony, though denizens of Tex-Mex nation may wonder what this trendy interloper is doing on the menu, other than making the other dishes look old and lumpy.
Forget the bitter mud of previous Tex-Mex eras. The coffee at Republic relies on beans from Small Planes , the excellent roastery from the owners of Peregrine Espresso. I’d suggest sampling these specialty beans in a standard drip preparation, to better appreciate the character of the coffee. I can’t fully endorse the Texicano, a pairing of dark espresso with Dr Pepper, a combo that I consider as bastardized as Kennedy does Tex-Mex, proof perhaps that we all have areas where our dogma won’t budge.
Dinner service is a serious attraction, especially on the weekends. This can quickly turn into an issue at the no-reservations restaurant. One Friday night, some friends and I knocked back mescals, looking to kill time as we waited for a six-top. We left an hour later when informed that we still had another 80 minutes or so to go before we could park our backsides at a table. Weekday evenings are the time to secure a table, unless you have the patience of Job.
The refinements and innovations on the dinner menu generally go down without fuss. The shrimp ceviche tostada surrounds its cleaned curls of shellfish with so many competing ingredients that it’s a bit difficult to embrace the ceviche part of the description, though I tried with every monstrous bite. The esquites casserole turns the Mexican corn salad into a mac-and-cheese dish, relying on the kernels for terrific bursts of sweetness. The enchiladas are leaner, and less cheesy, than you may prefer, but, man, I love the brown chili gravy atop those tortilla logs filled with cheddar and Oaxaca cheeses. The chicken fried steak is a polished preparation, with slivers of pickled onion to cut through the richness of the pepper gravy.
Yep, Svetlik and Burrell avoid excess almost everywhere, save for desserts. The tres leches banana pudding cake is a shotgun wedding of Latin American and Texas barbecue traditions. It’s a mess, a beautiful mess. It’s also further confirmation that when cultures collide, good things can result from it, no matter what Octavio Paz says.
If you go
43 N St. NW, 202-997-4340; republic-cantina.com.
Hours: Cafe: 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Dinner: 5 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: NoMa-Gallaudet U, New York Ave., with a 0.4-of-a-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $3 to $7 for items on the cafe menu; $2 to $52 for items on the dinner menu.