To eat at Tico, a playful import from Boston chef Michael Schlow, is to graze as he has on his travels around the world. Behind every dish hovers a short story.

The restaurant’s accessory for brick-pressed chicken? It evolved from a trip Schlow and fellow top chef Mario Batali took to Spain, where their mission was to sample the Michelin three-stars. Between their fancy meals, however, the chefs repeatedly sought out the specialty of a humble roadside kitchen in Torrent: escalivada, a rustic mix of peppers, eggplant, onions and anchovies eaten simply with grilled bread.

If a diner detects cumin and scallions in the tomato sauce for Tico’s lamb meatballs, it’s because Schlow, on a visit to a home cook in Colombia, left impressed with a grandmother’s use of the dusky spice and green onion tops in a tomato sauce she made.

Even Taco Bell has inspired Schlow. The creator of seven restaurants, including the original Tico in Boston, recalls a late-night TV ad in which the fast-food giant played up its soft and crispy textures. Drop by Tico, which somehow fit into bursting-at-the-seams 14th Street NW in June, and you’ll find a beef taco presented two ways on its tortilla: Half the short ribs are soft; half the meat engages the teeth more.

“The chef has fun here,” says a server with the verve of a shaken bottle of cava as she steers us through Schlow’s menu of seviches, tacos, food cooked on a griddle (a la plancha) and more. In interviews, the chef has said he’s less interested in nailing foreign accents than in making customers happy. He even refers to Tico, which translates as a term of endearment for Costa Ricans, as an “American restaurant with international influences.” That explains his fried stamps of panko-crusted manchego cheese, dusted with thyme and sea salt. “You’ll never go back to mozzarella sticks!” a server exclaimed in trying to sell me on the novelty, which comes with a dip of honey and pomegranate. Actually, one square sated my curiosity.

The bar invites you to belly up to it with some seriously fun pours. First among equals are the signature hibiscus margarita, its kick countered with citrus, and “Papa Made Bail,” pisco and pineapple juice that take a fiery turn with chilies. One drink easily leads to another, which is my inner dad telling you to order a seviche to soak up the booze. Meaty cubes of tuna, flecked with mint and cilantro, show up with a side of fiery cucumber slices and tostadas for scooping.

“There’s a lot of citrus and a lot of heat in our food,” a server says of the cooking. She’s right. The kitchen, under the day-to-day watch of chef George Rodrigues, 33, has the good sense to regulate both sensations so that the featured attraction remains your focal point.

Tico’s tacos are packed with personality. Crunchy fried chicken with fennel slaw and buttermilk dressing on a tortilla? It’s not anything you’re likely to find in the suburbs, but I’ll take it. Same for the citrusy braised duck, pulsing with a serrano heat that’s foiled by diced papaya in the filling. (What sound like Pop Rocks going off in your mouth are in reality duck cracklings.) All the tacos come two to an order. Unprompted one night, a server delivered three tacos to a trio of diners. Do parties that don’t include a food critic enjoy such hospitality? Let’s hope.

Vegetables tend to be treated like stars rather than sidekicks in a number of small plates. Even if you think you don’t like cauliflower, you owe it to yourself to try the roasted vegetable as it’s tossed here, with chipotle-spiked mayonnaise and a dusting of cotija, Mexico’s answer to Parmesan. One bite can convert naysayers. The straightforward-sounding shredded cabbage salad is to Tico what the fried spinach starter is to Rasika in Penn Quarter, an appetizer poised to generate a following. In Tico’s case, marcona almonds and a zesty salsa verde vinaigrette nudge the cool green cabbage, shredded zucchini and scallions into talker territory. Sweet corn blasted with jalapeño and fragrant with Thai basil is also smoky with bacon, an ingredient the kitchen can leave out for herbivores.

My go-to small plate salutes Italy and Spain. Risotto, rich with butter and Parmesan and rugged with bites of house-made chorizo, is underpinned with sofrito, every ingredient in the swirl present in just the right amount. Another worthwhile excursion: sliced beef tongue, crisped on the plancha and bolstered with olives, onions and glossy tomatoes.

Bigger plates can induce siestas. Sea bass on a garden of corn and asparagus is pleasant enough, but the entree also tastes like a dish you’ve had a dozen times before . Lamb loin separated with ribbons of cucumber on a soupy mound of lamb ragu with chickpeas and charred asparagus bits brings to mind leftovers — of two different dishes. Schlow’s souvenir from Spain — the aforementioned escalivada, a companion to Tico’s stellar roast chicken — snaps me awake. His refined take on the racy vegetable salad can lead to a return engagement with the main course; beneath the chicken’s shattering skin is flesh that keeps your fork returning.

Diners open to letting the kitchen decide what they eat can opt for one of three meal deals, based on their appetites: Kind of Hungry ($35), Forgot to Eat Lunch ($55) and Full On Tico Experience ($85). The last choice, says Schlow, tends to be selected by customers who are celebrating something. Schlow delivers. With advance notice, he has been to known to add a suckling pig to the feast.

Yes, those are cookies and milk you see on your neighbor’s table. The chef wants you to have fun, remember? More in keeping with the loose theme at Tico is a satisfying wedge of goat cheese cheesecake decked out with cookie tiles.

Credit for the restaurant’s scarred appearance — peeling concrete columns, graffiti-streaked walls — goes to Schlow’s artist-wife, Adrienne, who channels edgy Berlin and Barcelona in her dark interior. At Tico, I discovered there’s a worse distraction than a bank of TVs in a dining room. It’s a bank of windows, open to one of the city’s busier sidewalks, when you’re the diner with your back to the passing circus outside. Should you find yourself in such a situation, be prepared to be ignored by the gawkers at your table. And thank goodness for attentive servers.

Of Tico, Schlow says, “I’d love to do more.” Game on, chef.

2 stars

Location: 1926 14th St. NW. 202-319-1400. www.ticodc.com.

Open: 4 p.m. to midnight Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to midnight Saturday and Sunday.

Prices: Small plates $7 to $14, main courses $15 to $29.

Sound check: 79 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

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