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.
El Rincon Espanol resembles the courtyard of a Spanish villa, with huge arched windows shedding rays on tile floors, hanging greenery, and framed prints of bullfighters. Whether seated at a wooden table around a pitcher of sangria or at the marble-topped bar with a margarita, guests can dig into Spanish and Latin American dishes such as sizzling paellas and Peruvian-style flank steak. The enormous menu holds options at just about every level of fanciness, from a plate of nachos supreme all the way up to the lobster thermidor, stuffed with shrimp, scallops, and crab. And then there are the tapas: 100 small plates of poultry, grilled meats, seafood, and veggies. Upstairs, the restaurant beckons revelers with weekly live entertainment. Named "The Cave" for its low lighting and status as a popular after-work hangout for spelunkers, the space hosts disco dance nights and, occasionally, live Salvadorian music.
Though you can order a simple chicken or beef taco at Super Tacos & Bakery?they lovingly refer to the taco as the "gringo"?to do so would be wasting the chefs' talents. Instead, let your grill master fill up the hand-sized tortillas with something more exotic, perhaps beef tongue or seasoned fried pork, then heighten the savory flavors with the traditional toppings of cilantro, onions, and a squeeze of lime juice. The chefs also create Mexican tortas, pairing together toppings such as ham, pineapple, and queso blanco, as well as banana-leaf tamales that incorporate the classic fillings of Oaxaca, El Salvador, and Honduras. To cut the savory explosion, the bakery crafts traditional desserts of Mexico, including the authentic breads, tres leches, flan, and horchata Jacuzzis typical of the region.