Category Archives: Tex-Mex

Mi Cocina Revisited

Last time, soon after Mi Cocina opened in Friendship Heights: weird service, mixed food, solid margaritas.

Revisited recently: not much has changed.  The managers seem both competent and aware that the servers have issues, and I’m not sure why the service is proving difficult to fix.  It isn’t due to lack of attention.  Maybe too much attention: we had multiple servers dealing with our table but apparently not communicating with each other; beverages took a long time to arrive, but at one point we had five bowls of (pretty good) salsa on the table, because different guys kept bringing more.

Overall I think MiCo’s food is reasonably good, especially the sauces.  The Tacos de Brisket are pretty good.  Enchiladas are a fine example of the genre.  I can’t decide how much I like the tortilla chips, thick and richly corn flavored but oddly chewy – they’re good but the texture may be an acquired taste.  Mrs. Me got the tortilla soup again and liked it but not quite as much as the first time.  First bite of the apple…

We still have a gift certificate to use so we’ll be back to MiCo at least one more time, and if one finds oneself hungry in Friendship Heights, one could do worse.  But Uncle Julio’s in Bethesda beats MiCo in all possible Tex-Mexy ways, from the crucial rice’n’beans to enchiladas (which Julio recently upgraded, much to my delight — used to be kind of dry and insufficiently cheesy, but no more) to service.

Mi Actual Cocina: Tortilla Soup Edition

Homemade tortilla soup

Homemade tortilla soup

Inspired by Mrs. Me’s ongoing quest for the perfect tortilla soup, and by the high-quality version produced by Mi Cocina (the recently opened in Chevy Chase and recently reviewed here restaurant), I decided to see what I could whip up on my own in mi cocina.

I used a recipe from the illustrious J. Kenji López-Alt, but made a couple of small adjustments.  Uno, I cut the recipe in half — in case it turned out poorly, I didn’t want to have extra wasteful servings. Dos, H Mart didn’t have any poblano peppers this week — they always have poblanos! Que pasa, H Mart?  So I substituted a bit of jalapeño, after testing to make sure it wasn’t too fiery.  But still less than I would have used of a poblano.  Y tres, I didn’t feel like buying corn flour just for this recipe, so I raided my stash of rice flour instead.

Otherwise, I stuck to the recipe.  I tend not to broil anything because I have never had an oven capable of doing it well, but I tried our Breville toaster oven on the tomatoes and they charred like a charm, so that was a happy experiment.  And I had a small blender incident — it was too full and the top blew off and there was a certain percentage of kitchen drenched in tomato-ancho splooge, but that’s what paper towels are for?  And everything else went smoothly.

In particular, I don’t think the substitutions made any difference, although I’d like to use poblano next time.  And next time I will make the full recipe — I may double the recipe!  Although I’ll be blending for days if I try a double recipe (or else the kitchen will flood).  I also tried frying my own tortilla strips for garnish, and that worked great, a little corn oil and cut-up corn tortillas and in just a few minutes I had golden brown, crisp shards for added texture and presentation.

There will be a next time.

End result: a tasty tortilla soup that I don’t think was quite as good as the one at Mi Cocina, and much more labor-intensive (for me, anyway), but it was fun to try and Mrs. Me liked it a lot, and that’s what really matters, right?

Mi Cocina es Su Cocina?

I don’t normally link to WaPo reviews but this is the first time I can remember Tom Sietsema’s initial review being published mere days after we visited the same restaurant — not surprising since we’re not usually such early adopters.  But thanks to my Tex-Mex obsession we did visit the new local outpost of Dallas-based chain Mi Cocina (5471 Wisconsin, Chevy Chase “The Collection”) soon after it opened in June, and our experience was remarkably similar to Tom’s First Bite.

In sum: sterile corporate feel, uncomfortable seating, overly attentive staff — although the manager clearly was aware of the staff issues and maybe they’ve worked those out over the following weeks.  Good soup (Tom had the posole, Mrs. Me had the tortilla soup), and good mole on the enchiladas de pollo con mole.  Decent if one-dimensional salsa. But the rice and beans were disappointingly average; Sietsema found them salty but I thought they were just bland.  Uncle Julio’s remains undisputed* local champion on the crucial rice/beans front.

* don’t even think about it

Like Tom, we also enjoyed one of the expensive margaritas, although other friends who ate at MiCo on a different day said theirs was terrible, in a bad-sour-mix way, so I guess timing is everything.   We’ll give them another try — Mrs. Me got me a gift certificate that needs using, so if nothing else we can order a jug of mole and a tureen of soup.  We will hope that the staff quality and food/drink consistency has improved a few months in, as those things often do.

Cactus Cantina

I used to think Cactus Cantina (3300 Wisconsin) was overrated, but I may have to rethink based on a recent visit. I still won’t say it is great, and overall I prefer Uncle Julio’s in Bethesda for Tex-Mex (and maybe also the recently-reviewed Samantha’s to the extent that qualifies as Tex-Mex), but CC seems better than it used to be.  Changes in the kitchen?  I hadn’t eaten there for years, so who knows.

Enchiladas are actually quite good, better than Julio’s, with a good ratio of filling-cheese-tortilla-sauce, and the cheese and shredded beef have decent flavor. Rice/beans are okay.  Crisp, salty tortilla chips deserve better than the thin, bland salsa they (and we) get.  Really, most everything is fine at Cactus Cantina: tacos, fajitas, margaritas.  All fine.  Service was fine too, if a bit slow (you’d think they would want you to be able to pay at the end, but the bill took a while to materialize).

CC is inconvenient for us, especially compared to Uncle Julio’s which is near Mrs. Me’s workplace, but I certainly wouldn’t complain if I found myself back there.  Although District 2 Bar & Grille is right across the street, and though we only had a drink there, not food, that’s probably where I would vote to eat if I found myself hungry in that neck of the woods.  District 2 looked good, had a nice vibe, friendly staff, deserves a visit someday.

La Rumba

The Culinary Artist Formerly Known as El Boqueron (2311 Price, next to Limerick Pub) is now La Rumba, as of a couple of months ago, but the interior hasn’t changed and perhaps neither has the food. The menu still says “El Boqueron” anyway.  They advertise “Tex Mex and Latino” cuisine; I would stick with the Latino (seems to be kind of a Salvadoran-Peruvian hybrid) and skip the Tex Mex.  Cheese enchiladas are too cheesy* and red sauce is nowhere to be found. Rice’n’beans are okay, above-average for DC-area Tex Mex but below-average for realz, and not close to Uncle Julio’s Rio Grande (how can Bethesda have the least worst Tex Mex in greater DC? It seems very very wrong, but it’s the truth).

* Too cheesy is a rare complaint from me and almost impossible to achieve, but in this case the ratio of cheese-to-tortilla was at least 12:1, or worse. My arteries quivered just looking at the plate.

But!  Pupusas are fabulous, light and fluffy, good corn flavor, filling a perfect molten balance of (in my case) chorizo and cheese. A bit greasy, but hard to avoid grease when frying cheese-filled-dough. Delicious, every bit as good as reigning local pupusa leader Intipuqueño (2504 Ennalls).  Chips and salsa are also above average thanks to crisp (though I suspect not house-made) tortilla chips and flavorful salsa in the watery-with-chunks style, mostly tomato and onion but also bits of jalapeño and cilantro, mild with just a bit of fire but plenty of verve. Lomo saltado is also recommended; need to further explore the specialties menu section.

La Rumba has a bar — not sure I’d call it full, it isn’t that big, but they have the basics — and this could be a fun place to have a couple of pupusas and a couple beverages. Service can be a little slow but very friendly.  And prices are muy bajo, $1.75 for the pupusas and virtually all entrees are under $10. Some great value here.

How Food News Travels

There is, evidently, a phenomenal Mexican restaurant called R&R Taqueria located in an Elkridge, Maryland gas station. I have never been there (clearly need to go!) but HowChow has been blogging about it for at least a couple of years. Suddenly, though, just this week, Todd Kliman is chatting about it at Washingtonian, and Tyler Cowen on his blog. Why the new cluster of attention? I suspect everyone read about it in the Wall Street Journal, which got wind of R&R and included it late last month in an article on gas station taquerias, what they cleverly call Texaco-Mex. It’s an interesting culinary trend, but the news flow also interests me, starting with a local blogger, then suddenly some national attention and whooooo everyone is in the game.  Wonder how WSJ found out?  Do they read HowChow?  (They should, it’s a great local food blog)

Wheaton has no Texaco-Mex but we do have a gas station African restaurant, Global Cafe, in the Exxon at Georgia/University; their food is okay but not WSJ-coverage-quality.  But you can get takeout from Global Cafe — does that make it Exxon-Mobile food? Heh heh.

In other news:

  • Patch has been hiding its restaurant reviews — how about some home-page love!? — but have been doing a nice job lately with their Bites Nearby column, most recently on Garrett Park’s Black Market Bistro and Kensington’s Continental Pizza.
  • Just Up The Pike discusses ensuring public access in the planned Wheaton Town Square.
  • Gazette reports on possible DC-style 5-cent bag tax (paper AND plastic, ma’am) in MoCo.


Tex-Mex By Any Other Name Would Taste As Bland

We ventured to the wild MoCo frontier for lunch today — that’s right, I’m talking about Olney.  Specifically, Cavo’s Tex-Mex (4007 Norbeck), which was called Tabasco until a month or two ago. Online reviews had been generally positive, and we were hoping for above-average Tex-Mex, by DC area standards anyway. Their marquee proclaims “New name…same owners” but the unanswered question is, same chef and kitchen crew? I am guessing maybe there has been a change in the kitchen, because for us, Cavo’s did not even remotely live up to the billing it has gotten on the intertubes.

The chips were crisp fresh warm and good, and the salsa was also warm — reviewers have often lauded the warm salsa, but all we could taste was the warm; there was very little kick, and no discernable salt, cilantro, or any other particular flavor. I guess it’s a matter of taste, but I prefer my salsa at room temperature, or slightly below. The lack of spice was an omen: every dish we ordered was undersalted and bland (and I rarely complain about undersalting).

Various online reviews have also talked up the fajitas, but none of us got fajitas, which may have been our fatal error, because a nearby table did get them and they sounded (loud sizzling on the plate) and smelled great. Tacos were okay, and Mrs. Me liked her burrito in verde sauce well enough. I attemped to order a beef/cheese enchilada combo, but was delivered a chicken enchilada and a beef taco. I didn’t send them back because I didn’t feel like waiting, and also because it wasn’t that big a deal, as for me the enchiladas are primarily a vehicle for the rice and beans.

Refried beans and rice are crucial Tex-Mex platter components and are the central gauge by which I measure a Tex-Mex restaurant; I am continually surprised at the percentage of places that get rice and beans wrong.  Cavo’s were an epic fail: the rice was the kind of rice my grandmother would have loved, medium-grain, perfect ovals, studded with (almost certainly from a bag o’ frozen veggies) peas and beans and diced carrots, completely flavorless, and dyed a startling bright yellow — must have been either food coloring or cheap turmeric powder, because assuredly no saffron was harmed in the making of my rice. Just last night a friend made excellent paella for a dinner party, and the difference between her flavorful saffron rice and Cava’s rice was noche y dia.

The menu said all dishes come with refried beans, but what arrived at the table were little pots of essentially pinto bean soup.  I asked the waiter “do you have refried beans instead?” and he said, confused, “these are refried beans.”  Sweet fancy Moses: these beans were not fried, much less refried. Saucy pinto beans can be wonderful (these looked okay but were totally bland, surprise surprise), although I have found that barbecue joints, on average, do them better than Mexican or Tex-Mex places, but a true Tex-Mex place should first and foremost know how to do refried beans and do them well. Very disappointing.

The margaritas also failed: for their primo margarita, they give you a choice of Cointreau or Grand Marnier plus one of seven or so top tequilas, which sounds great, but if you’re going to make a margarita with Cointreau and Herradura (for example), why would you use sour mix? Why?! What’s the point? It just ruins the excellence of the other ingredients.  At least it was strong, so I guess all wasn’t lost.

What was good?  The chicken enchilada was okay; the steak in the tacos was perfectly seared and juicy; I can still hear and smell the steak fajitas we should have ordered. The place was packed for lunch, and clearly has its fans, but I am sorry to say I won’t be heading back voluntarily.

Mi Rancho, Mi Mistake-o?

Our friend told us as we walked into Mi Rancho (8701 Ramsey, Silver Spring) that his experience there has been absolutely average: not particularly good, not terrible. If you live nearby (which he does), it’s not a bad place to go have a margarita or beer once in a while, he said, but certainly not worth going out of your way to visit. The bar set thusly, we proceeded to limbo under it, but just barely.

Mi Rancho is a mini-chain with other locations in Rockville and Germantown and an irritating flash-based website. The Silver Spring location is festooned with the decor you’d expect at a Tex-Mex place, and a fun-looking large semi-outdoor space that is not used during winter. I thought I smelled Chinese food when we walked in, but eventually figured out it was fajitas — not sure that was an omen or not; at least it smelled like pretty good Chinese. Chips and salsa arrived immediately: chips were fresh and tasty, salsa was kind of bland, but overall a solid start.

The menu says you can get the “Chicken Enchiladas” with either chicken or beef, but chicken is not an option for the “Beef Enchiladas” — I was tempted to discuss this seeming paradox with our server, but he didn’t look like the type to engage in that kind of conversation, so I went with a platter involving enchiladas, a taco, a tamale, to get an overall sense of the place. Others ordered soft tacos, a salad, and quesadillas. It was almost all, as our friend predicted, mediocre-to-average, and really not even worth describing. Think of the various mediocre Tex-Mex you have eaten, and this was that.

Except the rice and beans, which are my primary barometer for Tex-Mex quality assessment. The rice was bad, flavorless and dry. The beans were not refried, which is really more of an incomplete than an F, but even as pinto beans they were average at best, just as bland as everything else despite apparently including bacon in the recipe. The Mi Rancho kitchen needs a reminder that Tex-Mex is supposed to be at least a little spicy, and who knows, maybe they ran out of jalapenos, and apparently also salt. If I lived nearby, I might go back during nice weather to have a drink in their outdoor space, although the margarita pitcher at a nearby table looked suspiciously reliant on sour mix.

Did I mention the tortilla chips were quite good?  Also a well-balanced Diet Coke (not as common as one might think or expect). And we had a fun time hanging out with our friends!

It was another reminder of how difficult it is to find good Tex-Mex around here. Austin Grill is better than Mi Rancho but still nowhere near the quality of a good Texas establishment, like Chuy’s or Ninfa’s or any number of places I don’t even know about. Cactus Cantina is unimpressive, and I had the single worst margarita I have ever had in my life at the Cleveland Park Alero (margaritas aren’t that hard to make! Fresh limes, people!) (I mean, “use fresh limes,” people, not that fresh limes and people are the two key ingredients — maybe that was Alero’s problem? Now that I think about it, that drink was a soylent shade of green…).  Uncle Julio’s (aka Rio Grande Cafe) is the best Tex-Mex I know in MoCo or DC, but is a national chain. There must be some great local family-run place around here somewhere. Mustn’t there? Probably in Virginia, but that hardly counts.