On a shelf high above the gumball machines, where you can purchase a peewee-sized plastic critter for 50 cents, there is an altar at Taqueria El Mexicano in Hyattsville. This perch is public but feels private: Novena candles and artificial flowers camouflage framed photographs, which are watched over by towheaded angels and a radiant Our Lady of Guadalupe statue.
I’m not sure why, but I feel the need to tread lightly around the altar, as if I’m walking on hallowed ground inside this no-frills taqueria, located just steps from the every-man-for-himself tumult of University Boulevard, otherwise known as the “international corridor.” Co-owner Bernardo Vargas tells me the shelf-based shrine is just a sign of the religious convictions of his wife, Clara, and nothing more.
Even if the ground’s not sacred at Taqueria El Mexicano, it is rare. The Vargas’s corner shop is the scarce Mexican restaurant tucked into a neighborhood better known for its immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. This explains why the owners, for example, offer pupusas on a menu dedicated largely to the dishes of Puebla, the central Mexican state that the Vargas family calls home.
The place to start here is with the mole poblano, the labor-intensive dish that, according to the $20 Diner’s favorite Mexican cooking authority, Pati Jinich, can trace its origins to the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla. The taqueria’s mole is as dark as crude oil, coating the chicken leg and breast in a shimmering sauce built from Mexican chocolate, bananas, nuts and several dried chilies, including pasilla, guajillo and ancho peppers. If the chicken arrives overcooked, don’t sweat it; you’ll be too busy deciphering the sweet, spicy, earthy, nutty flavors contained in this bottomless mole.
The mole is thickened, in part, with bread, which the Vargas family sources from its own bakery, located two doors down, next to the Hair Afrique salon in the same cinder-block strip center. Panaderia El Mexicano supplies the bolillo loaves for the big, bready torta sandwiches at the taqueria, too. But the restaurant’s reliance on fresh bread takes a complicated left turn when it comes to tortillas.
Some of the tortillas are made fresh from masa harina; others are pulled from a bag, Bernardo tells me. This information immediately resolved a mystery at Taqueria El Mexicano: how the tortillas can be so supple and fragrant one visit — and so thick and lifeless the next. When you dine at the taqueria, Bernardo says you should tell the counter crew that you don’t want the “regular” tortillas; you want the house-made ones.
Regrettably, I came by this insider information after I had dined multiple times at the taqueria. My taco face-stuffings would have been far more satisfying with fillings swaddled in warm, fresh-from-the-griddle tortillas. One key to prime taco enjoyment — other than ordering those hand-formed tortillas — is to slather your bite in a house-made salsa (although I should warn you that the red version, spiked with arbol chiles, has enough electricity to jump-start a ’48 Studebaker). The salsa application is the final, vital step in the taco-making process: It’s the element that mostly seasons the meat, which often picks up color and char in the kitchen, but not much salt and pepper.
One of the taqueria’s most mouthwatering meals is a plate of marinated pork blackened on the grill and served with Mexican rice and charred green peppers and cactus paddles. Billed as “enchiladas de cerdo,” the dish doesn’t feature a single tortilla on its decorative plate, rolled or otherwise. The issue may be nothing more than a gringo-Latino miscommunication. The Mexican culinary canon includes a large number of chile-marinated pork dishes, sans tortillas, which go by such names as “puerco enchilado” and “cecina de cerdo enchilada.” Whatever the explanation, the dish is magnificent, even with the slimy cactus.
There is no lost-in-translation problem with either the carne asada or the fajitas. The former is a pile of beef pounded mercilessly into thin, chewy, perfectly seasoned strips. The fajitas plate practically groans under the weight of the chicken, beef and head-on shrimp, the proteins mixed with grilled onions, green peppers and long portentous fingers of dried chile. If you can’t cobble together Grade A, tortilla-wrapped snackage from these meats and vegetables, there’s little hope for you.
To review all the available dishes at Taqueria El Mexicano, you must scan not only the menu on the counter but also the illuminated offerings on the wall, which advertise some plates not listed elsewhere. Such as the tamales, these rather dry, crumbly logs that are more masa than filling. The chicken chilaquiles suffer from the opposite problem: The plate is so flooded with liquid — from the sauce, from the crema, from the egg yolk — that the tortilla chips have lost their edge.
After five visits to the taqueria, I’ve drawn a conclusion about the kitchen: The dishes cooked to order can weave all over the place, like a teenage driver checking his Tinder messages. Sometimes the plates are spot on; other times, they’re just spotty. Yet the dishes prepared in larger batches, such as rice and pinto beans, will knock you out every time, as if those recipes are so dialed in that they’re foolproof. Tablemates risk a fork wound if they dare steal my pinto beans.
Sometimes a dish doesn’t align with my understanding of Puebla cooking. The masa base for the huarache — I ordered the flatbread with chorizo meat, spicy and sour — isn’t stuffed with a thin layer of refried black beans, like the version at Taqueria Habanero, another shop run by Puebla natives. When I mention this to Bernardo, it’s almost like I jog his memory about the huaraches of his youth. “That one is much better,” he says about the bean-stuffed version.
Upon reflection, Bernardo thinks he should add the authentic Puebla huarache to his menu at Taqueria El Mexicano. I’m going to light a novena candle and pray that he does.
7811 Riggs Rd., Hyattsville.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Prince George’s Plaza, with a 2.5-mile trip to the restaurant.