The Washington Post

The reluctant $20 Diner: Taqueria Tres Reyes in Manassas

When we launched the $20 Diner back in February, I expressed the opinion that most of the restaurants I reviewed wouldn't be dining destinations. But just weeks into this cheap-eats adventure, I tripped upon a Mexican eatery in Manassas that challenged my assumption. Or, I should say, that inspired my friend and The Post's Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin to challenge my assumption.

Tacos, tacos, tacos. (M. Carrie Allan) You can douse your tacos in any number of housemade sauces at Tres Reyes in Manassas. (Photo by M. Carrie Allan)

"I'll tell you what, dude," Jim pronounced, as only Jim can. "You say this isn't a destination restaurant. But I'd make the trip to eat here."

The place is Taqueria Tres Reyes (apparently not related to the one in Riverdale), and Jim is correct. If I had a jones for genuine Mexican food — the kind of home-style Houston barrio cooking which I miss like lazy childhood afternoons — I'd pile my closest friends into a car and set the GPS straight for Manassas. (Well, if I had a GPS.)

The thick crispy gordita, at $2.50 each, is practically a meal in itself. (Photo by M. Carrie Allan) The thick crispy gordita, at $2.50 each, is practically a meal in itself. (Photo by M. Carrie Allan)

Like any food scribe, I was excited to share this hidden treasure (I refuse to use the word "discovery," because I loathe its patronizing, imperialistic overtones) set in a small strip center down the road from the Mexico Lindo Plaza on Mathis Avenue. I was primed to gush about the deep, satisfying crackle of Tres Reyes's thick gorditas stuffed with beef and crumbly Mexican cheese. I was fired up to tell you about the restaurant's pizza-like take on huaraches, with this thin layer of fried masa topped with any number of good-and-gloppy ingredients. I was ready to pass along the news that the eatery makes its own tortillas, these soft supple rounds, fragrant of corn.

Masa, two ways: huarache and sopes at Taqueria Tres Reyes. (Photo by M. Carrie Allan) Masa, two ways: huarache and sopes at Taqueria Tres Reyes. (Photo by M. Carrie Allan)

I was even ready to make a joke about Tres Reyes's humble approach to corn-flour dough: If this place were run by some Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, I was itching to write, he would cordon off a section of the menu and call it A Study in Masa. At Tres Reyes, the kitchen's masa work — gorditas, tortillas, sopes, huaraches — is just part of its quotidian brilliance, no more worth trumpeting than, say, praising it for shredding iceberg lettuce.

Yes, I was almost electric from my experiences at Tres Reyes, but then a funny thing happened on the path to publication: The owner wouldn't return my many calls. He wouldn't return the calls of my Spanish-speaking colleague, Manuel Roig-Franzia, who all but assured the place that we weren't out to get them.

The chicken mole was a relative disappointment, its sauce more sweet than complex. (Photo by M. Carrie Allan) The chicken mole was the only (relative) disappointment, its sauce more sweet than complex. (Photo by M. Carrie Allan)

This is the moment when you might wonder why we, The Washington Post, didn't just proceed with a formal review of Taqueria Tres Reyes anyway. It's pretty simple: Without the ability to fact check, without the ability to talk to the owner about his history and background, the review would have been robbed of both authority and context.

So instead of a glowing review of Taqueria Tres Reyes, I had to fall back on another subject that gets my blood pumping: food trucks. The replacement column, to be honest, felt like a poor consolation prize. I mean, in a metro area so bereft of good-to-great Mexican cooking, it seemed a crime to hoard my knowledge of Tres Reyes, which is why I'm writing about the place now, though in abbreviated form and without any idea of who is behind the operation.

Perhaps you, as readers, will help shed light on this mysterious, delicious restaurant.

Taqueria Tres Reyes, 8562 Mathis Ave.,Manassas, 703-335-6663.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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