Compared to many metropolitan areas — think Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, New York — Washington has long suffered from a taco inferiority complex.
The District’s disorder is, in part, the result of basic immigration patterns. Mexican immigrants historically have preferred to settle in California, Texas, Illinois and other states over Washington. Just as relevant, the D.C. area is home to a sizeable population of Salvadoran immigrants whose eateries have latched onto Mexican cooking as a way to attract more diners. The cross-pollination has regularly led to confusion and inferior tacos.
Sometime in the early-to-mid 2000s, Washington took a serious interest in regional Mexican cooking. In pricier Zip codes, the movement’s leader was José Andrés, who made repeated trips to Mexico to prepare for Oyamel, which debuted in 2004 in Crystal City (and has since moved downtown). But in neighborhoods far from the city’s center, immigrants from Mexico were leading their own charge, opening unadulterated experiences such as Taqueria La Placita in Hyattsville.
The D.C. taco movement picked up more steam in 2007 when Ann Cashion, a James Beard Award-winning chef, opened her bricks-and-mortar taqueria. Two years later, Washington’s streets became the incubator for a new generation of food trucks, including a number of rolling taquerias.
Suddenly, it seemed as if the movement had become a full-fledged taco revolution. For once in Washington, there was a legitimate argument over who served the best tacos.
Washington has, in fact, reached the point where we can talk about which joint serves the best tacos in specific categories, although some categories still have little to no competition.
— Tim Carman
Few words are more fraught than “authentic.” One person’s definition can be another’s fraud. With that said, the Washington area practically swells with taquerias committed to the genuine street snack from Mexico. A couple leap quickly to mind: Taqueria La Placita in Hyattsville and La Jarochita No. 2 in Arlington. But no place captures the flavors and handmade freshness of Mexican tacos better than Taqueria Habanero . It starts with the ingredient that so many cooks pull straight from a bag: corn tortillas, which are rolled fresh daily from masa, then pressed and griddled into soft, puffy rounds at this 14th Street NW shop. Two of these fragrant discs come wrapped around your choice of filling, such as lush lengua or pineapple-laced al pastor, then garnished with chopped onion and julienned cilantro (prices range from $2.50 to $3). The taqueria now offers beer to pair with your tacos but withholds its namesake salsa unless you specifically ask for the hot-headed condiment, somewhat mellowed with orange juice. The joint is charming in its self-deprecation: The menu calls the taqueria “99% Mexican,” docking itself one percent for its D.C. location.
Taqueria Habanero, 3710 14th St. NW. 202-722-7700.
— Tim Carman
Perhaps a concession to the conservative American palate around seafood, chefs tend to prepare fish tacos with flaky white fillets, the milder the better. Which is a shame, given that the original snack was frequently stuffed with full-flavored species, including mako shark, pulled from the waters around the Baja California peninsula. Victor Albisu at Taco Bamba hasn’t created a Mid-Atlantic version of the Baja fish taco with local seafood. But he has created a chef-driven version that takes the general elements of the dish and elevates them a notch or two. His tilapia fillets are beer-battered and fried to a delicate, tempura-like crispiness; the fillets come surrounded by squid-ink aioli, a carrot-and-cayenne enhanced slaw, a creamy strip of fresh avocado and filigree curls of green onion. At $4 a pop, the Black Pearl taco is among the pricier specimens on the suburban taqueria scene. It’s also, with a generous drizzle of the house-made tomatillo-jalapeno-cilantro salsa, one of the very best.
Taco Bamba, 2190 Pimmit Dr., Falls Church. 703-639-0505. www.tacobambarestaurant.com.
— Tim Carman
For such a simple, cheap pleasure, tacos can require serious effort. No one is more acutely aware of this than the dozens of people you’ll find waiting in line at market stand Chaia, which specializes in locally sourced vegetarian tacos (three for $10). While the White House wonks pass the time checking their e-mail, masa is being patted out and tossed onto the griddle. Pans full of veggies are stirred, fluffy microgreens are arranged and thoughtfully paired sauces are drizzled onto season-driven combinations as daring — and unabashedly inauthentic — as okra and corn, or Moroccan-style crunchy roasted carrots spiked with cumin and coriander seed. Goat cheese on a taco? Yup, that’s what you’ll get at Chaia. It can take 10 minutes or more for your name to be called, but as veggie-focused dining trends, the lines keep growing. So Chaia founders Suzanne Simon and Bettina Stern will soon offer their meat-free model year-round: A brick-and-mortar store is expected to open this fall in Georgetown at 3207 Grace St. NW.
Chaia, Thursdays at the Fresh Farm White House market (810 Vermont Ave. NW), Sundays at the Dupont Circle market (20th Street NW between Massachusetts Avenue and Hillyer Place). www.chaiadc.com.
— Lavanya Ramanathan
Food scientists say insects are the cheap protein of the future for our ever-more-populous planet. But at José Andrés’s Oyamel, the future is now, at least where tacos are concerned: The chapulines (or grasshopper) taco ($5), is one of the Penn Quarter restaurant’s longtime, and legendary, offerings. Grasshoppers are a common snack in Oaxaca, Mexico, where they’re toasted on a comal, or clay griddle. At Oyamel, they’re served atop a bed of guacamole in a shallot-tequila sauce with plenty of heat; the grasshoppers add an earthiness that’s nicely offset by the creamy avocado. The insects have been served whole before, but on a recent visit, mine arrived slightly mashed. Honestly, even a squeamish person could wolf one of these down without a problem, as long as he or she didn’t look too closely — a more thorough inspection will reveal legs and other things less delicately described as “bug parts.” Don’t think about it too much! Your bravery will be rewarded with an authentic taste of Mexico — and the checking off of an item on an adventurous eater’s bucket list.
Oyamel, 401 Seventh St. NW. 202-628-1005. www.oyamel.com.
— Maura Judkis
Often associated with Austin, Texas, this scrambled egg-stuffed taco hasn’t developed the same cult following in the District, perhaps because Washington isn’t much of a breakfast town. Taco Bamba, a terrific taqueria in Falls Church, plans to add a chorizo, egg and cheese taco to its breakfast menu, which I assume will blow away the competition given chef Victor Albisu’s penchant for pushing traditional Latino cooking in creative directions. Until then, the best breakfast taco ($2.50 each) by default can be found at Pica Taco, the small local chain that serves a soft corn tortilla overflowing with scrambled eggs, green peppers, onions, shredded cheese and black beans (the latter provides welcome relief from the hegemony of cubed potatoes). When topped with chorizo for $1 extra, the bulging fold assumes a sloppy and slightly spicy personality, a gentle way to jump start your day.
Pica Taco, 1629 Columbia Rd. NW, 202-518-0076; 1406 Florida Ave. NW, 202-518-6820; 6480 Landsdowne Centre Dr., Alexandria, 703-541-5555. www.pica-taco.com.
— Tim Carman
A taco shell is a blank canvas, says Mike Lenard, owner and founder of five-year-old food truck turned brick-and-mortar shop TaKorean. He uses tortillas to fuse Latin American and Korean fare, a combination perhaps most famously put to use by Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ in Los Angeles. The two cuisines line up in many ways, including their inclusion of spicy, sometimes fermented ingredients. The slaws of El Salvador, for example, inspired Lenard’s Asian greens, which include kimchi and spiced kale with a soy sauce and gochugaru dressing. The “proteins” that form the base of the tacos ($3.50; $3.85 for steak) are chicken, bulgogi-style steak, slow-cooked pork, caramelized tofu and seasonal vegetables. Toppings straddle both cuisines, too, with such choices as Sriracha, Korean-style salsa roja, sesame seeds and cilantro. Put everything and anything on your corn tortillas (the menu has been engineered to ensure it all goes together) — just know they will likely fall apart at some point. And, no, flour tortillas are not available. “We’re kind of just sticking to our guns on that,” Lenard says.
TaKorean, 13th and F streets NW (National Place); 1309 Fifth St. NE (Union Market); 1212 Fourth St. SE, Suite 130. www.takorean.com.
— Becky Krystal
Blink and you might miss the itinerant El Sabor Del Taco carrito, which sells its tortilla-wrapped gems ($3.50 each) at farmers markets on the weekends. Trust your nose to lead you to owner Paty Cruz’s roasted meats, made from family recipes that are generations-old. “All my spices are brought directly from Mexico to maintain the tasty flavor that makes them good,” Cruz said through a translator. “I really try to maintain the same taste my mom and grandma used when they used to cook back home.” You can’t go wrong with such basics as carnitas and chicken, loaded with shredded lettuce, chopped onions, cilantro and a lime wedge.
El Sabor Del Taco, Fridays at Capital Harvest on the Plaza in front of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, Saturdays at the Columbia Heights Farmers Market.
— Holley Simmons
Cheap tacos are a staple of the happy hour diet, especially for interns and young people who need something other than cheap beer to fill their stomachs. That’s why so many people look forward to Taco Tuesday, the day of the week when even non-Mexican restaurants offer discounted taco deals. But one of the best deals can be found on Wednesday at Capitol Lounge . Tacos are offered for $1 apiece in orders of three, with the usual beef/chicken/veggie options. They arrive with the beef and cheese melted together in the bottom of the soft flour tortillas. They’re cheesy, cheap and get the job done. The deal is offered from 4 to 8 p.m., but tacos sometimes run out earlier — and my bartender said not to blame hungry Capitol Hill staffers but the bocce teams that gather after Wednesday night games.
229 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-547-2098. www.capitolloungedc.com.
— Fritz Hahn
There are Fire Sauce people, and then there’s everyone else. These are avid supporters of Taco Bell who have learned to overlook such perversions as the Quesalupa and the Quesarito. (Though even us die-hard fans have to throw a side-glance at the new breakfast biscuit taco.) The chain, which was founded in 1962 in Downey, Calif., knows that sometimes only junk food will do. Case in point: its Doritos Locos Tacos ($1.86), a beef taco served in a hard shell that tastes like Doritos. Before you judge, know that it’s one of the company’s best sellers, with more than a million sold a day in 2012.
Taco Bell, various locations. www.tacobell.com.
— Holley Simmons
Taco salad is a salad in the same way that potato salad is salad, which is to say that it’s an assemblage of ingredients — a few of them may even be vegetables! — without the virtues of its kale-laden peers. You get more of every filling than you’d get in a serving of tacos, so you’re not exactly eating it for your health. Really, it’s more an issue of convenience. Do you want the hands-on but potentially messy method of eating your chicken, cheese and pico de gallo, or the neatly contained and utensil-recommended one? At Eastern Market’s Tortilla Cafe, you should opt for the latter, which is a hefty taco salad ($7.85) in a house-made crispy shell nearly the circumference of a basketball. Though the choice of romaine instead of iceberg is a principled one in the world of taco salads, Tortilla Cafe makes no attempt to feign healthiness, loading the shell with sour cream, grilled peppers, jalapenos, your choice of chicken or beef, and cheese, so much cheese. This is as it should be. Our only complaint: the tiny thimbleful of guacamole.
Tortilla Cafe, 210 Seventh St. SE. 202-547-5700. www.tortillacafe.com.
— Maura Judkis
Room 11’s Taco Chocos come around only once a month, but they’re totally worth the wait — and calories. The frozen treat consists of a taco-shell-shaped waffle cone filled with ice cream (Trickling Springs Creamery) or gelato (Dolcezza), dipped in chocolate and decorated with toppings. Lizzy Evelyn of in-house bakery Paisley Fig credits her husband and Room 11 co-owner, Nick Pimentel, and fellow pastry chef Katy Kinch with the original so-crazy-it-might-work idea. “It just reminds you of being little,” Evelyn said of the nostalgic appeal, which is so powerful that a batch typically sells out within 48 hours. Flavors are often inspired by candy bars but also have included such combinations as strawberry-lavender, butter pecan and peach Melba. The size and price ($10-$14) mean this is a dessert meant to be shared: Not so subtly, the Taco Choco comes with a steak knife for easy splitting — that is, if you can stand to give any of it up.
Room 11/Paisley Fig, 3234 11th St. NW. 202-332-3234. www.room11dc.com.
— Becky Krystal