A big part of why Carolina McCandless wanted to swap the Bay Area for the East Coast was to be close to her family in Silver Spring. She and her chef-husband, David Perez, who both worked for a catering start-up, had a daughter, Shiloh, 19 months ago. But the high-cost of living in San Francisco, where McCandless says “the great parts are in Oakland,” played a part, too. At 35, she didn’t want to have housemates.
A year ago, the couple decided to return to her native Maryland. In January, they opened Cielo Rojo in Takoma Park, a 32-seat storefront serving their favorite food: Mexican. “Red Sky” refers to both their love of sunsets and a favorite mariachi song. The menu, about a dozen dishes long, plays to the skills and memories of Perez, a native of Mexico City who met his wife seven years ago when he was cooking at Gracias Madre, a vegan Mexican restaurant in San Francisco.
Cielo Rojo is so compact that someone perched at the snug, copper-topped bar can more or less see their meal being made in the open kitchen. The starting point for the pleasing tacos ($3.50 to $3.75) and quesadillas ($10 to $13) is house-milled, heirloom corn — the chef plays with yellow, blue and red varieties — sourced from farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico. Mushrooms sauteed with garlic and finished with a splash of tequila make for a delectable “drunken” taco, and I’d gladly return for a blue corn tortilla wrapped around beer-braised, orange-juiced and shredded pork and white cheese, a quesadilla striped with tingling chile de arbol and tomatillo salsas and sprinkled with pepitas.
Any meal is better if it starts with some lush guacamole, scooped up with crisp tostadas or gorditas, nubby potato-and-masa cakes that arrive on an enameled plate accessorized with creamy avocado, lettuce ruffles and more. Chicken mole skews sweet for my taste, a flaw that’s forgiven in light of the otherwise delicious work at Cielo Rojo. See, for instance, the grilled rockfish. Better yet, taste the strapping entree, cloaked in guajillo-red and parsley-green sauces and flanked with soft but satisfying housemade fries and an onion-sharpened green salad.
The owners enlisted McCandless’s father, Jeffrey, a former carpenter who co-owns the Takoma Park boutique Amano, to outfit the dining room; his oak benches and tile-topped tables are on display. San Francisco photographer Kelly Puleio added richness to the white walls with her pictures of a church, dancers and a parade in Oaxaca. Expect to see a line in front of the counter, where orders are placed, and customers hovering near the bar hoping someone might finish their enchilada or pan-fried organic chicken soon.
Perez’s food is best washed back with something spiked with mezcal or tequila. The margaritas are first-rate, and most in keeping with the outpost’s theme. Not that you can’t get something else, says McCandless. “We keep whiskey and gin under the bar.”
7056 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park, Md. 301-755-0833. cielo-rojo.com. Entrees, $12 to $20.