From Alejandra Owens. You can find her on Twitter, @frijolita, or on her own food and cooking blog, One Bite At A Time.
I’ll be honest. When I heard about El Centro DF opening up on 14th Street, I had only tempered enthusiasm. With an on-again, off-again Cinco de Mayo opening and a seemingly hastily pulled together opening night event, I thought it would only be fair to give El Centro some time to settle into the neighborhood.
We all already know I have a history for being hard on Mexican restaurants in town, but we also know that I’m not unreasonable as I found an unlikely favorite in La Villa. That said, I made dinner reservations and met a fellow food blogger friend one night last week. Expectations were low, but minds were certainly open.
The atmosphere of El Centro does not disappoint. The main floor is a hustling bustling open kitchen with several large high-top tables and bar style window seating for walk-ins and carryout orders (which can conveniently be ordered until 3 am on weekends).
The rooftop is large, with two levels and two impressive bars to match, and is an ideal spot for these steamy summer nights we seem to be having lately. As a happy hour destination ($5 margaritas and $4 beers), El Centro hits the spot, too. The “Tequileria,” or basement level, is dark, quite deep and seats a surprising amount of people and hosts its own bar. Raw wood tables, roughly finished concrete floors and lots of punctured Mexican tin makes the place feel authentic from the get-go.
Myself an Arizonan and my dining companion a Californian, we ordered guacamole and queso fundido to start. The fundido was perhaps the most impressive thing we ate all evening. Three types of cheeses melted in a cast iron skillet, we were delighted to find that the cheese had been broiled bubbly, hot and with a crispy layer of charred cheese along the bottom. Served with warm tortillas and chips, we were certainly in heaven. Only, the first of what ended up being a recurring trend for the evening showed up: dryness. Literally, the tortillas were lacking the moisture even corn tortillas usually have.
Next up, we ordered pork carnitas and baja taco platters respectively. We inquired about a mix and match taco platter, which apparently you can do at lunch but not dinner. Our plates arrived with heaping piles of Mexican rice and bowls of black refried beans. But then, our friend “dry” showed up again in my carnitas.
While the flavors were delightful — a hint of sweetness, almost an Asian style treatment, the carnitas were dry to the bone. The tortillas that carried them were equally dry. My friend complained that the fish tacos didn’t taste as fresh as she had hoped, and the slaw that topped the fish nearly overpowered each taco.
Both of us left feeling like it was a mediocre experience, but still willing to go back and give other dishes a go. A Twitter tip included a recommendation for the tortas and I have heard good things about the ceviche. Did we just order wrong? Or is D.C. doomed to just never have as many great Mexican food options as we do Pho spots?
El Centro DF
Where Am I Going: 1819 14th Street NW (between S and Swann Streets).
When Am I Going: Monday to Wednesday and Sunday, 11 am-11 pm; Thursday and Friday, 11 am-2 am; and Saturday, 11 am-3 am.
Paycheck Pain: Main dishes are moderately priced at $13 for a plate of three tacos up to $19 for an entree of chipotle shrimp.
Say What?: With three spaces, two of which you can dine in, you have a range of seating options that range from large, high top tables in a bustling space to intimate two tops where you can have a more private conversation. And if you’re in the mood for a vibrant social scene, there’s always the rooftop.
What You’ll Be Eating: Our waiter, upon greeting us at our table, reminded us that Richard Sandoval is an award winning, internationally known chef — he even has restaurants in Mexico! That said, you can expect traditional Mexican fare like tacos, refried beans, Mexican rice, carne asada, chile relleno and more.