Inside each container, there is a colorful house-made condiment: a sherbet-green salsa thick with avocado, a scarlet salsa prepared with pureed tomatoes, a dense tangle of sliced and slightly pickled white onions and hot peppers. On a wall above the bar, someone has taped short descriptions, in Spanish and English, of the condiments, which are presented from mild to supernova. Should you forget the sequence, the affixed printouts will help you avoid carpet-bombing your taste buds.
“Chile Habanero ((muy picante)),” reads the description above the container on the far right, before repeating the message in all caps for the sensitive-palate set. “HABANERO PEPPERS ((EXTREME SPICY)).”
By the time you reach the back counter, you’ll be ready to order, like the coolly insatiable character in Barry Levinson’s movie “Diner,” the whole left side of the menu at this Landover Hills taqueria. Seriously. You’ll be tempted to find the perfect dish to pair with every one of those salsas, just to explore the whole color spectrum of spice at Tacos 5 de Mayo.
As with the folks behind Taqueria Habanero, on 14th Street NW, the owner of Tacos 5 de Mayo hails from Puebla, that culturally rich destination that lives in the shadow of nearby Mexico City. Maria Balderas was the eldest sibling in a family that grew up on Cinco de Mayo, a street named in honor of the Mexican army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla. The famous date has become synonymous with tequila-fueled revelry in the United States, but in Puebla, Cinco de Mayo remains a cause for more reserved celebration: remembrance of a time when an undermanned army held off an imperialist foe.
The name that Balderas selected for her restaurant strikes me as metaphor: The taqueria, housed in a plain concrete building on the edge of nowhere, seems as much of an underdog as the Mexican army in 1862. Balderas’s place must compete against Mexican establishments with more money, more flash and far better locations. The atmosphere inside Tacos 5 de Mayo consists of a flat-screen TV, some dried chile peppers hanging from the ceiling and that salsa bar, an attraction all its own. In the days before smartphones, you might have literally stared at a blank wall.
The kitchen prides itself on scratch cooking. Practically everything, save for the bolillo bread for tortas and the chips for salsa, are made in-house, including the tortillas, the sopes and the midnight-black mole that can trace its ancestry back to Puebla and the trade routes that introduced many of the spices buried deep in the sauce. Tacos 5 de Mayo is not a place for the time-sensitive.
In fact, there’s another sign taped to the wall, near the Square system where you place your order: “We are not a fast-food restaurant. Your food is made fresh every order. PLEASE BE PATIENT.” Am I reading too much into the fact that it’s printed only in English?
An investment of 20 minutes will pay you back many times over. The quesadilla de maiz is a folded corn tortilla, all golden from the griddle and stuffed with stringy Oaxacan cheese, jalapeños and your choice of filling. Huitlacoche is the way to go: Its swollen and earthy kernels still carry enough corn DNA to form a tight bond with the tortilla, which, to be honest, may be pressed a millimeter too thick for you to fully enjoy the contents within it.
Maybe I’ve become spoiled by the thin, almost diaphanous taco wrappers at El Sol Restaurante & Tequileria, but I found myself wishing the kitchen would apply a heavier hand on the tortilla press here. Regardless, the rounds swaddle their fillings with a cloud of sweet corn perfume, as intoxicating as the aroma of popcorn from the next room. The kitchen’s real talent lies in its ability to make you take notice of ingredients too often manhandled at taquerias of similar scale: The crew’s lengua, or beef tongue, is meltingly tender; its carne asada picks up a smoky edge from the grill; and its al pastor, although not traditional, still packs all the flavor you expect. (Well, except pineapple.)
I should place an asterisk next to almost every mention of the flavors at Tacos 5 de Mayo, because they can mutate or disappear altogether, depending on your choice of salsa. Even the crispy chorizo sope can be taken hostage by that habanero salsa, which gags its prisoner with chile peppers. I think most will find that the green guacamole salsa hits the right heat level — radiant but not radioactive — despite signage describing it as “mild.”
You won’t need the salsas for the sopa de gallina, a chicken soup with more depth than an Eastern philosopher, or for the house specialties. I’d happily recommend the mole poblano, all sweet and spicy, if only the kitchen would ditch the dreary, almost dehydrated breast meat underneath the sauce. Same for the pipian rojo, a brick-red sauce jacked up on seeds and chile pepper spice: The bird underneath the sauce just doesn’t fly.
The thing is, the kitchen clearly understands that chicken can be a problematic protein. Its enchiladas verde are not stuffed with lifeless strands of breast meat. Instead, the fresh, almost flaky tortillas are wrapped around cheese, and only cheese, then topped with a tomatillo sauce that balances acidity with a serious, lip-tingling heat. The chicken is served on the side, cut into chunks and browned on the griddle. You can compose your own bite, each ingredient at peak flavor.
As I devoured one bite after another, I kept thinking: This is the kind of engineering trick that must come naturally to a native of Puebla, where, as a child, you learn that you can overcome any obstacle.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Sunday.
Prices: $2 to $15 for starters, soups and salads; $12 to $18 for entrees.