Carlos Camacho was 5 years old and living in Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos, Mexico, when his mother placed him on the kitchen counter and showed him how to use a mortar and pestle to make salsa.
“Men need to know how to cook,” he remembers her telling him — never mind that his grandfather joked that the early exposure to the kitchen might “turn him into a woman.”
Fortunately for Washington chowhounds, Camacho stuck with cooking, going on to work for Great American Restaurants in Northern Virginia and multiple Chef Geoff’s locations in the area. Since mid-January, he’s been chopping and grilling at the new La Puerta Verde (“The Green Door”), yet another score from Mindful Restaurant Group in burgeoning Ivy City. (The newcomer’s neighbors include Ari’s Diner and Denson Liquor Bar, also from entrepreneur Ari Gejdenson. And yes, the door of the restaurant really is green, a color that signifies hope in Mexico, explains the chef. )
The Mexican restaurant is the first time in his 20-year career that Camacho gets to serve some of the food on which he was raised. The executive chef, 39, figures more than half of the menu at La Puerta Verde involves memories of his mother’s cooking or food he serves to friends and family at home. The lot includes corn tortillas made by hand and whole grilled fish (typically striped bass) served with roasted chile sauce.
A cheat sheet might start with guacamole made from lightly grilled avocados, hence the hint of smoke in the mash, and fried cod tacos, steamy fish paired with cool mango slaw. This is, for the most part, food that wakes you up. The chile relleno stuffed with roasted corn and Oaxacan cheese sits on a pool of roasted tomato sauce, biting with serrano, while grilled skirt steak swells with flavor thanks to its marinade of beer, mustard and garlic. Thick slices of roast chicken benefit from a lovely green sauce teased from toasted pepitas, green tomatillos, epazote and more. With the entrees come fluffy cilantro rice and both black beans and charro beans, the latter laced with chorizo and ham.
A tip: Food is best ordered a few plates at a time. Dishes dart from the kitchen. Cooking of this caliber deserves leisurely appreciation.
Built in part with cargo containers, the setting for this spirited food is one of the area’s more alluring backdrops for Mexican. Awash in fanciful Talavera tiles and dressed with woven rugs, the dining room gives you a sense of place the moment you walk in the door. A long steel beam is outfitted with wooden tops that can glide together to become one long table or be separated into eight discrete eating surfaces.
Camacho has as his sous-chef someone he’s known for decades. Leave it to his sister, Yuri Camacho, 36, to correct anything that doesn’t taste like home.
2001 Fenwick St. NE. 202 290-1875. lapuertaverdedc.com. Entrees, $18 to $28.