With the introduction of La Puerta Verde in the historic Hecht Warehouse in Ivy City in January, Carlos Camacho achieved two things. After years of cooking under others, he was elevated to principal, and for the first time in his career, the chef got to showcase the food he grew up on.
Washington, in turn, gained a handsome spot for (mostly) traditional Mexican food. To enter the green door that explains the restaurant’s Spanish name is to encounter a dining room and bar whose visuals give you a sense of place without resorting to cliches. Here’s your chance, for instance, to see what a couple of cargo containers can do for an interior.
Winter and spring found me eating from the Mexican canon: chile relleno, chicken mole, tacos with half a dozen fillings. Summer has me reading a menu that retains some of the standards while casting a wider net with, among other things, tostones.
The fried green plantains are more closely associated with Central America and the Caribbean, but Camacho now devotes a menu category to the snack. Latin fusion isn’t at the top of my list of cooking styles the city could use more of, but there’s no denying the pleasure of a crunchy round of starch topped with, say, fried chorizo, a dab of lemony mayonnaise and herby chimichurri. Or squid, lightly grilled, sliced into thin bands and slicked with cilantro and chile oils before being heaped on tostones.
Another common dish done uncommonly well is guacamole. The chef grills avocados, lending a pleasant smoky note, before mashing them with lime and serrano. Warm tortilla chips, aided and abetted by stealth fingers, make short work of the lush staple.
The tacos, presented three to an order in respectable corn tortillas, show off some tasty fillings: mild braised beef tongue; juicy, chipotle-seasoned chicken; fleshy roasted mushrooms bound with gooey white cheese; steamy fried cod matched with cool shredded mango. The messiest of the bunch, al pastor, is also one of the most satisfying, pork that stains your fingers orange with achiote paste and gets a refreshing assist from diced pineapple.
Indeed, pork is my pet protein here. You’ll find it as a filling to a soothing tamal, draped in a sauce of cream cheese ignited with serrano and finished with crumbled queso fresco and a sail of fried epazote. Pork is also offered as shank meat braised in orange juice, beer, cumin, coriander and (surprise!) Coke for color and sweetness, the chef tells me later. The full-throttled array is finished with a garnish of pickled onions.
A veteran of both the local Chef Geoff’s and Great American Restaurants chain, Camacho, 39, has been cooking since he was 5 and his mother taught him how to make salsa using a mortar and pestle. She also coached him on making whole fish, which patrons of the restaurant can experience as grilled branzino splayed on citrusy shredded cabbage. The marinated fish is plenty flavorful, too, slathered in a racy chile mayonnaise. Camacho doesn’t have far to call if he forgets how his mother made something; his sous-chef is his sister, Yuri Camacho.
Side dishes include beans and rice. The former, charro beans, are dotted with diced fresh cheese and pork. The rice, spotted with roasted corn, is tinted green with cilantro and is sometimes fluffy, other times undercooked.
As the menu at La Puerta Verde has expanded, consistency is occasionally missing, even with the basics. The careful presentation of the early months has also given way to plates that look less tidy. Whereas in winter the chicken with green pepita mole was worthy of being Instagrammed, a more recent encounter with the dish suggested it had been rear-ended en route to the table. (Still love the mole, though.) And the service, while friendly, skews young and unsure, except when a manager touches a table.
The sound of ice shaking against metal prompts a Pavlovian response in some of us, which is another way of steering you to a margarita. The signature drink acquires its dark green color and punch from cilantro, a detail that’s better than it sounds. (Purists will be happy with the classic version, appropriately tart.) White sangria, fueled with brandy and fruity with peach and mango, is a nice complement to whatever food ends up on your table, too.
One of three nearby eating and drinking establishments from the Mindful Restaurant Group, this sibling to Ari’s Diner and Dock FC welcomes customers with the design equivalent of an embrace. The most desirable real estate involves the spacious booths set within the shell of a cargo container in the center of the room. An overhead quilt of fabric absorbs the din, and the seats capture views of the kitchen, including a glass-enclosed station where tortillas are made.
The rest of the room is no less engaging. On the back wall is a mural incorporating animal masks and cactus leaves by Washington graffiti guru Cita Sadeli Chelove, and on the floor, well, when is the last time you noticed one? Talavera tiles add to the whimsy of a restaurant that already has it in spades.
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2001 Fenwick St. NE.
Open: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers $5 to $14, entrees $13 to $18.
Sound check: 85 decibels / Extremely loud.