The fragrance of sizzling spiced meats waft through the brightly hued dining room of Azteca Restaurant and Cantina, enticing diners as they sit at cozy tables and pull cornflower-blue napkins into their laps. Helmed by owners James Burick and Mario Orellana, Azteca Restaurant and Cantina titillates taste buds with generous portions of unusual yet authentic Tex-Mex eats. Diners can rev up their eating engines with the tamales de elote filled with creamy sweet corn before moving on to a beef chimichanga, a roundup of beef, beans, guacamole, and cheese in a tortilla big enough to blanket a replica of the Aztec pyramids. A sizzling plate of lobster-tail fajitas comes with chicken and beef, whereas the enchiladas monterrey provide a meat-free option resplendent with cheese and ranchero sauce.
Samantha's Restaurant melds a variety of Latin American culinary traditions into a single menu rife with fresh seafood, sizzling fajitas, and stuffed poblano peppers. Washingtonian magazine highlighted the masitas de puerco, a traditional Havana dish of bitter orange-marinated pork, as well as the "peppy mariachi soundtrack" that fosters a lively atmosphere. As appetizers of citrus-and-ginger-infused ceviche disappear like a repossessed magic kit, diners can turn their focus to mesquite-grilled fish or a refreshing cocktail from the fully stocked bar.
The challenge: eat a burrito in 45 minutes or less. But not just any burrito. A burrito that weighs four pounds. A burrito so awe-inspiring it even has a fearsome name: El Toro. One Saturday per month, Pica Taco holds a contest for any brave and hungry customer ready to take on the El Toro burrito challenge. Packed with the challenger’s choice of chicken, beef, or pork, the burrito is so huge, it must be wrapped in multiple full-size tortillas. Anyone who conquers the four-pounder gets their picture on the Wall of Champions, a $15 gift certificate, a champion t-shirt, and souvenir tostada molded in their likeness. And, of course, their burrito is on the house. But the El Torro isn’t the only thing that makes Pica Taco special. It’s also the friendly service and authentic Mexican cuisine created by owner Maria Villalta with recipes and techniques passed down to her from her mother. She also has a knack for remembering the faces and orders of repeat customers, and begins to prepare their favorite orders the moment they walk in. While regulars tend to stick with favorites like chorizo tortas or chicken enchiladas, Maria still tempts them with a changing daily special, which could be mole enchiladas or chicken flautas, depending on the day.
When Jose and Betty Reyes emigrated from El Salvador to Washington D.C. in the 1980s, they were excited to set down their roots and start a new life. One thing was missing from their new neighborhood, though: the rich flavors of traditional Central American cuisine. Rather than trying to grow a ceviche tree, the couple set out to rectify the problem by opening El Tamarindo. Thirty years later, their eatery still serves time-tested recipes with house-made sauces for breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as fresh margaritas and other cocktails. Guests savor bold flavors in traditional Salvadoran pupusas?handmade corn tortillas stuffed with a choice of toppings?or plates of bone-in chicken topped with mole sauce.
Starting with its bright green exterior, Don Lobo's Mexican Grill broadcasts festive vibes out onto M Street. Inside, red-checkered tablecloths, papel picado banners, and red, white, and green tiling on the walls reinforce the restaurant's jubilant atmosphere as visitors gather around spicy burritos and combination platters during lunch and dinner. Among the grill's most popular dishes is the camarones al ajillo, large shrimp sautéed in garlic butter, white wine, and lime juice. After meals, diners satisfy their sweet tooth by eating fried puff pastries coated in honey butter sauce instead of emptying sugar packets directly into their mouths.
To trace the recipes that chef Juan Antonio Santacruz uses to create his signature tacos, you'd have to go all the way back to the Mexico City of the 1950s. It was there and then that Juan’s parents decided to set up a family taqueria using recipes handed down from their parents, and it was in this family taqueria that Juan first learned to season and prepare authentic Mexican tacos. Today, at Tacos El Chilango, he uses those same techniques, filling double-wrapped corn tortillas with sizzling cuts of carne asada, chorizo, lengua, or slow-roasted al pastor, all topped with a generous sprinkle of onions, cilantro, and habanero salsa. Juan does cater to the needs of vegetarians as well, creating meat-free alternatives with avocado, green peppers, mushrooms, and cheese. But Juan's recipes aren't the only things that make his restaurant feel like home. The shop’s cheery interior is filled with pop-art photos of celebrities, traditional Mexican textiles, and statues of the Virgin Mary. There's also an outdoor patio that provides a sunny spot to enjoy a cool glass of horchata or remember where you forgot to apply sunscreen.