The good word about the freshly minted Taqueria del Barrio is the chance to eat the signature dish from DC Empanadas at a table, alongside a margarita. Until the arrival of the Mexican outpost in Petworth in March, the hot pockets were available only from a food truck or out of a stall at Union Market.
Much as I miss Domku, the quirky Slavic-Scandinavian restaurant that preceded the taqueria, owner Anna Bran Leis saw potential for a different accent in the storefront. “I loved the brick walls,” says Leis, who painted one with murals of playing pieces from the card game called loteria, similar to bingo, and another with sugar skulls and agave plants. Aqua chairs add a hit of color to the dining room; a series of ropes set off the bar, fronted in black-and-white Mexican tiles.
It’s a spirited backdrop for one of Taqueria del Barrio’s pleasing empanadas, which originate from a commissary in Springfield and take on a golden tan in a fryer at the restaurant in the District. (The empanadas can be baked on request.) Every day brings two choices (one with meat, another without) and I can vouch for both styles now that I’ve dispatched the “Weapon of Max Deliciousness” stuffed with cayenne-ignited shredded beef and beans and “El Greco,” verdant with spinach, onions and feta cheese. The nubby half-moons are fine (and hot!) on their own but benefit from a dollop of salsa and a Margarita del Barrio. The saffron-colored cocktail comes tinted with turmeric, hot with habanero, refreshing with pineapple and . . . bend my rubber elbow, I’ll have another.
If only the same could be said for much of the rest of the menu. Stray from the product that made DC Empanadas popular, and you’re apt to encounter disappointment.
Take the $3 tacos served on damp, blank-tasting saucers — please. Carne asada rounds up dry diced beef and nopals delivers strips of cactus paddle that are slippery but not especially flavorful despite the inclusion of Oaxacan cheese. Something of a lifesaver on the table is the accompanying habanero salsa, which I repeatedly returned to for a jolt of flavor.
Dips into other categories might make you wish you had ordered another empanada. The Milanesa torta slips a stiff piece of underseasoned breaded chicken between slices of bread, while the leathery chile relleno, set on a black bean puree, looks like a deflated football striped in crema. Fajitas are silent. Where’s the expected sizzle when they’re ferried from kitchen to table? The strips of beef, chicken and bell peppers are also slick with oil and muted in flavor. The nuanced mole on an entree of chicken raises my hopes, but it’s dashed by a scoop of black beans that reveal no evidence of garlic or cumin — anything to give them some depth.
Leis comes from Guatemala but calls Mexican food “my love, my go to.” Here and there, that affection comes across. Her kitchen does a nice job with a tamal of shredded chicken draped with salsa verde and a bowl of tender, cilantro-strewn beef meatballs, subtly smoky beneath a cloak of chipotle salsa.
The continuous shake, shake, shake from the bar and the laughter in the room hint at the taqueria’s strengths. But the drinks and hospitality could use more backup from the kitchen.
821 Upshur St. NW. 202-723-0200. taqueriadelbarrio.com. Entrees, $12 to $16.