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El Secreto de Rosita seasons its pan-Latin menu with charms galore

Bartender Keith Ward mixes up a pisco sour. (Laura Chase de Formigny/for The Washington Post)

Unrated during the pandemic

Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld says he’s content to have his club days behind him. Of the many lessons the 54-year-old founder of Latin Concepts gleaned from the pandemic, one is that the entrepreneur, who retired his black suits and bleached hair a long time ago, is happy to be in bed at 11 every night and not get calls from his establishments at 2 in the morning.

Long story short: After 24 years, Fraga-Rosenfeld replaced Chi-Cha Lounge, the popular Andean outpost on U Street NW, with El Secreto de Rosita, a tribute to the grandmother who helped raise him on the family avocado farm, 360 trees big, in Ecuador.

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The restaurant, unveiled in May, seduces patrons from the start. Diners are greeted by servers in flowered shirts who possess the kind of enthusiasm generally reserved for family reunions, then are ushered into a dining room that reminds me why green is my favorite color. You could be forgiven for thinking the place is a garden center, given all the hanging plants; grass-colored wallpaper takes up lots of space, too. The floors are partially covered with rugs, the soft chairs invite you to sink in, and, yes, those are photographs of the owner’s grandparents on the wall. Fraga-Rosenfeld says he designed the room, which co-stars a handsome bar with yellow stools and tilted mirrors, so that “something happens in every corner.” Also, “every piece has a story.”

So, what’s the deal with all the nude paintings in a restaurant designed to evoke warm childhood memories? The owner says they’re a hat tip to the cheeky calendars he grew up with as a kid; his grandmother took a marker to the parts she deemed too graphic. “I do want to be provocative,” says Fraga-Rosenfeld, who shares that the tasteful nudes at El Secreto de Rosita are an extension of what he displays at home.

Ready for a pisco sour? The bar whips up a proper classic, capped with frothy egg white, as well as elegant riffs using a syrup derived from purple corn (ask for the Chicha Morada) or passion fruit puree and lime (the Atardecer, “dusk” in Spanish).

The Old World bows to the new reality when diners are directed to QR codes instead of printed menus. While there are tastes of Peru here and there, the chef for the past four months, Cristian Granada, 31, is a Colombian native who comes to the job from Xiquet by Danny Lledo, a high-end Spanish venue in Glover Park. Granada feels free to roam around Latin America for inspiration.

“The food comes out as it’s ready,” a server tells us, and I mentally furrow my brow, imagining a crush of dishes. Sure enough, on the first visit, the dishes sprang from the kitchen like greyhounds out of the gate. On subsequent trips, I ordered a few plates at a time; the food deserves leisurely contemplation. Rings of fried calamari seasoned with paprika, black pepper and cumin pop with the help of sliced jalapeños in the mix, its accompanying aioli sharp with lemon and vinegar. Bites of smoky grilled rib-eye share their skewers with scallions and benefit from a dunk in red wine sauce. The golden empanadas stuffed with shredded chicken or juicy beef suggest that the entrees featuring those meats — aji de gallina and lomo saltado, respectively — will be similarly enticing. The half-moon-shaped hot pockets get a sunny companion in their creamy dip of aji amarillo.

The chef’s preferred ceviche is mine as well, the “mixto” bringing together raw corvina, tuna, shrimp, fried calamari and leche de tigre, the spicy, citrusy “tiger’s milk” that lightly cures the seafood and electrifies the salad.

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Earlier in his career, Granada was a sous-chef at the Palm. That’s a carnivore’s cue to try lomo saltado: chunks of rib-eye that pick up a sear and smoke from their time in a wok and show up at the table with glossy peppers and soft onions atop a fistful of sliced, fried potatoes that soak up the juices like a sponge. Heartier still is a short rib the size of a brick, served with a sauce made with beer and cilantro and rounded out with pinto beans and oiled rice.

The chef sweats the small stuff. The rice is floral-flavored jasmine, and cooked in a broth that flatters the centerpiece — say, seafood broth for the rice destined for mahi-mahi and calamari draped in Peruvian red pepper sauce. (Don’t eat fish or meat? Ask for rice cooked in vegetable broth.)

Not every dish matches the cachet of the interior. The aforementioned Peruvian chicken, for instance, offers the expected creaminess but not the fruity heat one associates with aji amarillo, the chile pepper whose skin gives the dish its distinctive yellow hue. And the Peruvian-Asian dishes, nods to the influx of Chinese and Japanese immigrants early in the 20th century, have stiff competition at China Chilcano in Penn Quarter. But the restaurant’s serious charms help forgive any slips.

This is a generous place. Strangers to the menu might be brought a gratis taste of ceviche. Regulars — me after my maiden visit in September — have been rewarded with a shot of something the bartender is eager to share, one time a restorative piña colada. Free glasses of cava might make their way to customers celebrating an anniversary.

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Manuel Olivera, the opening general manager, knows there’s lots of competition for stomachs and sees good service as paramount. “We want to make people feel as if they’re dining in a family’s house,” he says. Now an adviser rather than a day-to-day presence, Olivera is an alumnus of Del Mar, the chic Spanish restaurant from Fabio Trabocchi, a chef known for his exactitude in and out of the kitchen.

A small cafe to the side of the restaurant offers coffee, juices, pastries and empanadas by day. Like its sibling, the slim storefront feels like someone’s home. Plush mismatched chairs and a piano help foster the illusion.

Granada says he’s just warming up. This year, he expects to incorporate different products — cassava from Brazil and small, sweet peanuts from Ecuador — and add more dishes from his homeland. Stay tuned for vegan tamales stuffed with olives, red peppers and carrots, steamed in banana leaves.

Even now, though, El Secreto de Rosita is as easy on the tongue as the eyes, a hacienda full of good taste.

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El Secreto De Rosita 1624 U St. NW. 202-234-8400. elsecretoderosita.com. Open: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $8 to $18, main courses $20 to $32. Sound check: 80 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers at the entrance, but wheelchair users can’t access the basement restrooms.

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