Continuing our quest to try every new restaurant in DC (and write about it), we recently visited Tacos El Chilango, just off U Street at 9th NW.
TEC is brand new, but still a true, "hole-in-the-wall" joint, and it's easy to miss if you don't know what you're looking for (seriously, I did my first time here). TEC promises "the most authentic Mexican tacos this side of Mexico City." Pretty bold statement for a newly minted spot, yet not surprising as the owner (who is usually sitting at the register or cooking in the kitchen) hails from el DF (hence the name: "chilango" is slang for someone from Mexico City), started out with a food truck, and comes from a family of taqueria owners. I've got high standards when it comes to tacos and tend to take restaurant claims such as the aforementioned to be a serious food challenge. It's as if the owner were to march up to me in duel-esque fashion, slap me in the face with an oven mit, and say, "I dare you to eat my tacos and tell me they aren't the best *** tacos this side of Mexico City!" I am never one to turn down a challenge, hence the massive excitement over the opening of TEC and the late-night run across town.
We walk in. TEC is small, bright, and cozy. There are few tables in the front, a salsa and peppers bar to the right, and a perfect patio with more tables in the back. A glowing beverage fridge sits along the wall, stocked full of Jarritos in jazzy flavors like Tamarindo and Pina (if you aren't familiar with Jarritos it's definitely time to get acquainted with this great Mexican soda) alongside coca cola in glass bottles made with real sugar (not that high fructose junk). We walk up to the register and place our order:
-Tacos three ways--Queso con Rajas (cheese & green pepper), Queso con Aguacate (cheese & avocado), and Queso con Hongos (cheese & mushroom)
-Guacamole and Chips
-Agua Fresca de Jamaica
We grab a seat along with some salsas and peppers from the bar. We wait. The house made Agua de Jamaica (hibiscus iced tea) is good, but, to me, is a rather one-note version of the usually sweet and tart fuchsia drink. Not to nitpick, but I'll also point out that they add real milk to their house horchata--a rice milk drink that, depending on which old abuela you talk to and her country of origin, should not be made with real milk (my Salvadoran boss and her mother were always proud of our horchata because we didn't add milk, something they considered cheating).
Sipping on sweet Jamaica and watching the other diners chow down, we are anxious to get eatin'! The enchanting smells wafting our way from the tiny kitchen and its modest staff of three don't make the wait any easier. We talk about Latin food, Mexican tacos, and American attempts at Mexican cuisine. Now don't get me wrong, I've hit up my fare share Taco Bell drive-thrus, but the best tacos I've had to date happened to have come from a tasty street vendor in Mexico City. American tacos are too often characterized by being greasy, bland, and indistinguishable from other quasi-Mexican dishes (quesadillas, burritos, chimichangas). I don't see why I should have to cross the Border to find some decent tacos, but thanks to TEC this is no longer the case!
A very friendly staff member calls out our names and we pick up our tacos--the guac still isn't ready, but I don't mind once I realize they are making it to order. We dig in. The tacos are pure joy. Each topped with fresh cilantro, onions, radishes, and wedges of bright green lime. Just looking at the food is enjoyable--the colors pop off the plate--but eating it is even better. I go for the queso con rajas. First bite I take is sans salsa (when it comes to tasting I'm a purist of sorts and like to know what the cook intended). The corn tortilla is soft, the chopped onions and radish add the perfect crunch, there's just the right amount of cheese, and the peppers round out all the flavors in a pleasantly subtle manner. Time to throw on the salsas (red and green), which are equally enticing in color and taste, and the hot peppers, which add a great kick (too spicy for my companion but just right for me).
Onto the mushroom taco--another hit. We both agree that the Queso con Aquacate is the best of the three tacos (you just can't argue with the marriage of salty cheese and creamy avocado), but choosing a favorite is difficult--together the tacos create a heavenly vegetarian trifecta. The only downside? They're kinda small (which is standard for Mexican tacos), but at $7.50 for three the value ain't too shabby.
Midway through are taco munching the chips and guacamole are dropped off. I would argue that this is the freshest guac I've had...at any restaurant...ever. Now I know what you're thinking, "what about Rosa Mexicano?" Yes, I've had their guacamole. Yes, it is tasty. But let's be honest, it's all show--they aren't doing anything special. TEC’s guacamole might as well be served in the avocado peel it's so fresh, and it exhibits a praise-worthy balance of smooth avocado, chopped onions and tomatoes, and crisp cilantro. The chips, however, lack salt. We throw a little lime juice on top of everything and devour the chips and guac (a good-sized portion) almost instantly.
We left TEC totally satisfied. Is it a little pricey? Perhaps if judged just by quantity (tacos for two, guacamole, and one drink cost about 26 bucks). And yes, you may find it annoying that the tacos are sold in threes and can no longer be bought a la carte (this was not always the case). But all my complaints are quieted by the amazing food. This place isn't about quantity--it's about taste, and TEC knows how to do it right. This is authentic Mexican street food done in a simple, classic, unpretentious way--a welcome change for DC, where overpriced Mexi-fusion seems to be the latest craze (alongside "haute" donuts that is). The question then, is not, "to go, or not to go," but instead "can you get here before the secret's out and the taco line trails all the way around the block?"
Inside tips: (1) No booze or beer, but they have homemade aguas frescas; (2) there's a great patio out back.
Address: 1119 V St NW (U Street Metro, two blocks)
Phone: (202) 986-3030
Hours: Mon-Fri: 5pm - 10:00pm / Sat: 12pm - 10pm.
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