Those days are far behind us. Immigrants from Puebla, Mexico City and Jalisco have scattered to all corners of the D.C. region, opening taquerias, restaurants and bars that showcase the finest in Mexican regional cooking. You can tear into a torta ahogada, a salsa-smothered sandwich from Jalisco, right in suburban Alexandra. You can bite into a starchy pambazo, a Mexico City street snack, on 11th Street NW. And in Arlington, you can order tacos al pastor with the pork sliced straight off a rotisserie, just like in Puebla.
Yes, the time seems right to count down the $20 Diner's five favorite places to dine like a Mexican. I've ordered these eateries into a hierarchy, but on any given day, one may out-perform another, save perhaps for the reigning No. 1, which has lapped the competition. (And perhaps this doesn't require explanation, but I've purposely neglected high-end Mexican restaurants such as Oyamel and Espita Mezcaleria.)
No. 5: Tacos el Costalilla in Alexandria. Owners Alejandro and Fidel Gallegos are the sons of chef Fidel Gallegos-Perez, who's the guiding light behind this strip mall restaurant. The family hails from Jalisco and, as such, their place specializes in the food native to the state in western Mexico. Don't miss the torta ahogada, in which fresh bolillo bread is stuffed with carnitas and dunked into salsa hot enough to smelt ore, or the tacos al vapor, in which offal meat, salsa and garnishes are steamed right inside the tortilla. 7862 Richmond Hwy., Alexandria, 703-704-9088.
No. 4: La Jarochita No. 2 in Arlington. The focal point here is the "trompo," or spinning top, of marinated pork slowly cooking in its own fat and juices. The al pastor pork, spiced and a little sweet, can be stuffed into a taco, sprinkled over a huarache or jammed into the crispiest gordita shell that I've ever had the pleasure of devouring. The meat can even be packed into this beast called a “super taco,” a mountainous pile of ingredients that cannot be eaten by hand, no matter how hard you try. 85 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington, 703-243-2545.
No. 3: Taqueria Tres Reyes in Manassas. This secretive little spot, where no one ever returns my calls, has mastered the art of masa-based shells, wrappers and flatbreads. As I joked a few years back, if this taqueria were run by a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, Tres Reyes would cordon off a section of its menu and call it A Study in Masa. The tortillas, huaraches, sopes, gorditas — they're all made in-house, and they all have a personality distinctly their own. 8562 Mathis Ave., Manassas, 703-335-6663.
No. 2: Taqueria Habanero on 14th Street NW. Even though countless taco joints have set down roots in the District in recent years, none have lit me up like Taqueria Habanero did when it opened in September 2014. Chef and owner Dio Montero, a native of Puebla, prepares almost everything on premises, including a trio of sauces that span from a soothing tomatillo-avocado salsa to a ruthless, take-no-prisoners habanero condiment. The tacos are exceptional, but don't overlook the huarache, a crispy oval of masa stuffed with refried black bean paste and topped with your choice of meat. This masa platter provides the perfect canvas for experimentation with those salsas. 3710 14th St. NW, 202-722-7700.
No. 1: El Sol Restaurante & Tequileria on 11th Street NW. Chef and co-owner Alfredo Solis, a veteran of the Passion Food Hospitality group, opened his second restaurant on 11th Street last year, and it is without peer. El Sol combines the technical obsessiveness of a chef-driven restaurant like Oyamel in the District with the intimate, unadorned charms of a family-run taqueria in Riverdale Park. The menu is deep and wide, and it compromises on nothing. The ingredients match the quality you'll find in restaurants with much higher prices, and Solis, along with sister and chef Jessica Solis, have developed dishes that search for new methods to make the traditional flavors of Mexico come alive. 1227 11th St. NW, 202-815-4789.
Quick links to the Top 5 taquerias and Mexican restaurants:
No. 5: Tacos el Costalilla
No. 4: La Jarochita No. 2
No. 3: Taqueria Tres Reyes
No. 2: Taqueria Habanero