As proud of Little Havana as owner Alfredo Solis was, the Washington chef and restaurateur says he couldn’t compete with the Mexican outposts on the block, including Taqueria Habanero and his own consistently busy Mezcalero. He and his crew at the Cuban retreat would see the lines outside the friendly rivals and wonder where the audience was for their roast pork lit with bitter orange juice and pina coladas served in pineapple halves. After mulling the idea of closing Little Havana in April, Solis shuttered the storefront in October. The eatery’s successor, Anafre, made its debut last month.
More Mexican? Sí, but the arrival adds something different to the mix: a focus on seafood dishes from the Yucatán Peninsula, Acapulco and elsewhere. The name of the newcomer references the charcoal-fueled clay pots Solis remembers his grandmother using in the countryside near his native Mexico City. Indeed, the burnt-orange walls of Anafre share the color of the stove.
A few things haven’t changed at this location. When you walk through the door, you’re greeted by the twin red carpets of cooking aromas wafting from the rear open kitchen and bouncy music that cures whatever ails you — or at least puts you in a better mood.
The menu is plastic and shiny, as if processed by a corporate chain, which gives me pause. (Well, that and a flat-screen TV above the bar with Guy Fieri doing his shtick.) Doubts about quality are erased when slender sails of baked spiced tortillas are brought out, accompanied by a chickpea dip scattered with pepitas and warm with ancho. The margaritas that follow, nicely tart, reveal a conscientious bartender, too.
The room looks darker and smaller than when it served Cuban food. Still, Anafre’s fresh coat of paint, abundant greenery and a row of wall-hugging booths create a cozy interior, personalized here and there with a few theistic touches. (Fieri, the Food Network star, has competition in the Virgen de Guadalupe.)
As requests start arriving, more space is required to accommodate everything you want. The portions are generous, the tables less so. Twice, servers have expanded our real estate by sliding over another surface.
Make way for the queso fundido, served not in a bubbling bowl but inside a banana leaf that’s spent some time on a grill. Open the shiny green packet (carefully, to avoid the steam) and discover a trio of melted cheeses, along with grilled corn and an overlay of herby epazote. The hot blend is scooped onto purple corn tortillas, dappled with one of several sauces, then rolled up like a fat cigar. Avocado sauce is thin, and sharpened with serrano. The real TNT among the condiments is a little dish of sliced onions and radishes rocked with both vinegar and habanero. Hot heads, have at it.
Carve out space for the combination of grilled oysters and sweet crab, too. They sport a web of cotija and Parmesan cheese and a wash of jalapeño butter, which explains the crusty bread that rides shotgun with the seafood. Dip ahoy! Solis, who commands the kitchen with his sister and co-pilot, Jessica, also does something different, and delicious, with fried calamari, a craggy mound of which explodes with flavor thanks to the presence of pickled jalapeños and hot sauce.
You hear the camarones before you see them. Shrimp hooked up with pineapple, singed on the grill, sputter like fajitas on their platter. The combination is sweet, juicy, satisfying. But what’s up with the asparagus? All the plate-mate does is remind you it’s winter.
The vibrancy of the main attractions is helped by the restaurateur’s purchase of good-quality fish and seafood (only wild salmon will do) in small batches (rarely more than six lobsters a day). The cooking is careful, too. Whole snapper a la Veracruz takes well to a roll in corn flour seasoned with cumin, black pepper and paprika and a quick swim in hot canola oil. The accompanying red sauce, coaxed from shrimp stock and vegetables, reveals a flair for accents.
Anafre does tacos, good ones, staged on flour tortillas. Fried mahi mahi, shredded red cabbage and rousing stripes of chipotle aioli make a fun getaway to Baja, and a blistered jalapeño stuffed with Oaxacan cheese amounts to a hotter than usual chile relleno.
There’s plenty for the tag-along demanding meat. Anafre simply marinates lamb chops with fresh oregano and rosemary, which flatters the flavor of the red meat, and lavishes beer, curry, cumin and dried chiles on the chicken before it cooks to succulence over charcoal. Entrees come with a choice of sides. Happiness is inky black beans and fried yuca, sliced thin so that every bite is crisp as a potato chip.
You are likely to overeat. Save space for some flan. The custard is firm rather than silken — the chef’s preference, he says — and darker than customary. Turns out Solis adds espresso powder to the flan, a neat trick that brings a touch of mystery to the eggy eating.
As at Little Havana, cocktails (including an Old-Fashioned fueled with Mexican whiskey and the chef’s mole) make the best lubricants. That’s also a nice way of saying the wine list could be more interesting.
Solis and company are doing such an admirable job with Anafre, it’s hard to argue with the flip of allegiance in the kitchen. Besides, the chef teases that he can see opening another Cuban restaurant down the road — just not here on 14th Street NW again.
I’d like to hold him to the idea. But first, let me play in the ocean.
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Anafre 3704 14th St. NW. 202-758-2127. anafredc.com.
Open: Lunch and dinner daily. Prices: appetizers $9 to $15, main courses $12 to $25 Sound check: 74 decibels. Accessibility: Dining room is easy to navigate, but restrooms are cramped.