Walk north on 14th Street NW, past that Epcot Center of trendy bistros and beyond that big-box retail canyon in Columbia Heights, and you cross squarely into Latino territory. The high-concept storefronts suddenly give way to modest, sometimes immodest, shops: A Salvadorian pupuseria. Money transfer joints. A Dominican hair salon. A Latina clothing store with a booty fixation. Street vendors hawking fruits.
You’ll also find, increasingly, genuine Mexican fare. First was Taqueria Distrito Federal, a pioneer to the strip. More recently, Taqueria Habanero decided to fly its Puebla flag in the neighborhood. Last year, brothers Marco and Luis Gonzalez thought they would give it a go, too. They opened 3 Salsas, a subterranean spot so inconspicuous you can walk right by the place, even after you’ve dined there previously.
The brothers sketched a rough outline for their debut restaurant — they wanted to recreate the dishes of their paternal grandmother, Epigmenia Gonzalez-Islas, a Puebla native whose cooking had inked an “I ♥ Grandma” tattoo on the boys’ psyches while growing up in Mexico City. Problem was, they had launched other careers in the United States: Luis had become a graphic designer and Marco a certified public accountant. Neither had much experience developing dishes or sourcing ingredients.
Relying on memory, and the kindness of family and friends in Mexico, the brothers reverse-engineered Epigmenia’s homestyle plates, component by component, flavor by flavor. They tested one corn flour after another until they unearthed the brand that recreated the soul-satisfying crunch of grandma’s fried quesadillas. They surveyed suppliers until they found one with a cinnamon-scented chorizo that tasted like the sausages back home. They even found a reliable source for huitlacoche, those corn kernels bloated and discolored from a naturally occurring fungus, a delicacy sometimes called, with a semi-ironic tone, Aztec caviar.
No background information is required to appreciate 3 Salsas’s huitlacoche-stuffed fried quesadilla, a golden shell that crackles like a spring roll but goes down like pie crust, rich and flaky. The ashen kernels add an earthiness to the bite, but not at the expense of their natural sweetness, which lingers on the periphery like a bashful child. Sprinkled with salty shavings of queso fresco along its clam-like lips and paired with a chunky tomatillo salsa, the quesadilla should instantly earn a spot among the finest Mexican offerings in the District. This is not food critic hyperbole.
Unlike nearby Taqueria Habanero, 3 Salsas does not griddle up its own house-made tortillas for most of the tacos here. Nor does the place protect its fillings with a twin swaddling of tortillas, which means your taco platter can disintegrate into a taco hash. But when fresh, the bagged, somewhat leathery tortillas prove an adequate carrier for the fillings that the kitchen prepares to order. The shop’s dedication to freshness generates obvious side effects: Unless you order ahead, you have to wait on your food in the small, blood-orange dining area, surrounded by a cut-and-paste Mexican mural and overhead televisions.
It’s a wait richly, though sporadically, rewarded. Your food arrives piecemeal, as the kitchen finishes each dish, as if 3 Salsas were the taqueria equivalent of a tapas house. The system can leave you empty-handed as your dining companion digs into a plate of enchiladas verdes, the shredded chicken sprinkled on top with the rest of the salad, which allows the tightly rolled tortillas on bottom to perfume the dish with roasted corn in more concentrated doses.
Most dishes come with your choice of salsa. You can probably guess how many are available. The tomatillo salsa, thickened with orbs of natural tomato gelatin, displays the most versatility; you can use it to brighten the lush lengua tacos or to tart up the faint, ephemeral flavors of the fried squash blossom quesadilla. I found the tomatillo salsa also helped tie together the unfocused fusion called alambre tacos, a popular Mexico City mashup of kabob meat, bell peppers, rendered bits of bacon, cilantro, onions and ropy lengths of fresh Oaxacan cheese.
Perhaps because the Gonzalez brothers have not toiled in the restaurant industry for decades, they don’t appear bound by convention or conventional approaches. Take their house-made chips and salsa, a hot mess of spice, grease and tartness: The fresh, glistening tortilla chips arrive already smothered in tomatillo and hot-pepper salsas, then heaped with queso fresco, the colors of the Mexican flag enjoying a siesta in my red plastic basket. The chicken mole taco may shift your paradigm, too. For engineering reasons, this hefty bite merits its own thick-but-pliable house-made tortilla, half of which is coated with a muddy stew of bittersweet mole chicken and the other half covered with Spanish rice. When the two halves meet, the sum adds up to something less than its whole, a calculus problem that you might enjoy solving.
Buried deep in the quesadilla section of the menu are two dishes that put their own spin on fried masa: the sope (available in your choice of meats) and the gordita (you’ll have pork, and you’ll like it!). The sope adopts a thinner, tostada-like persona, while the gordita borrows characteristics from a fine French baguette, at least with its crustiness and chewiness, if not with its form. Whether you agree is beside the point; the point is, these masa carriers force you to pause and reflect, as original food always does. The chorizo-and-egg torta, on crackly bolillo bread from nearby Mi Casita Bakery, does much the same: The sausage, its sweetness as pronounced as its spice, sent me on a reverie about a trip years ago to the Yucatan, where the longaniza links tasted much the same.
If other countries have their own rhythms and eccentricities, then so does 3 Salsas. Lamb consomme and corn-drunk tamales stuffed fat with cheese and jalapenos can be had only on weekends — and sometimes not even then. Desserts may not be available no matter the day. Your tolerance for such fickleness may correspond to your patience when traveling to foreign lands, even if they’re situated north on 14 Street.
3439 14th St. NW, 202-733-5821.
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Columbia Heights, with a 0.3-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Dishes range from $3 to $12.