Jesus H. Christ I was so inspired to write this review on the metro this evening and now I'm not the least bit interested. We shall carry on.
El Centro D.F. (let's cut the D.F. from here on out, okay?) lives HERE on the internet and at 1819 14th Street NW - near the Black Cat.
It's Mexican food... or more precisely, the famous Richard Sandoval's take on Mexican food. Is it authentic? No. There's no such thing as "authentic" when it comes to Mexican food. Believe me, I'm from the border and can tell you that "Mexican food" really is just a core idea of how to use the few things people in northern Mexico had at their disposal.
The essence of Mexican food is its simplicity - no complicated lists of hard to find ingredients and very simple ways in which to prepare the food. It's cheap, easy and most importantly - pretty good for what it really is.
"High end Mexican" food really makes me laugh. It's as if the owners of Rosa Mexicana think that Mexicans go out on their birthday and eat really tiny, expensive versions of their normal cuisine. The truth is that just like in America, Mexicans eat steak and lobster when they want to get fancy. They also love fine Americanized Italian cuisine. What we know as "Mexican food" is comfort food for them. Paying out that ass for a tiny taco because you don't understand the culture is stupid.
So, when I saw El Centro's menu and the prices - I was excited. For once a quality name was doing Mexican and it wasn't $25 a plate. I would not be disappointed.
I got to the place early because that's what I do. I was meeting my wife and some friends and wanted to scope the place out minus their bullshit. It was the best move I've made in a while.
When you enter the place you feel like you are entering the set of a movie where a Mexican cantina scene is about to be filmed. Rough looking (but heavily shellacked) tall tables, exposed brick walls backed by a walk up kitchen and darkened traditional height tables greet your eyes from the bright high ceiling entrance. A staircase on your right flies upstairs to a rooftop bar that we'll explore last (terrible sentence - I hate that I wrote that).
Part of the exposed, walk up kitchen's charm is the small L-shaped bar opposite of the front door tucked away behind all the stainless steel kitchen stuff. From this vantage point you can watch everything being made as it is ordered. And that's cool. That's brave. That's crazy. That's the reason you should love this place - they're not afraid to make their food in front of you.
I sat with a Negro Modelo (remembering when I drank them in Juarez for $.25 a pop and hating that I now pay $6 for the privilege of drinking Mexico's shot at the original Michelob) at the little bar watching the men in the kitchen do their thing. I highly recommend doing exactly this when you go.
They make most everything on the fly. Chicken breasts are constantly being seared in sauce pans and set aside to keep up with the high demand and longer prep time. Warm tortillas of the corn and flour variety reside in a sealed steam chamber-thingy and are never waiting long before they become the three sides to a taco or the death blanket of a tasty enchilada. You will no doubt watch them make something you will decide you have to eat. It's ten times better than surfing a menu and having your imagination do the reality of each dish no justice.
By the time the rest of my party showed up I was pretty sure I knew exactly what I wanted. It's called "Chicken Zarape" and it's one of the best dishes I've ever had.
Chicken Zarape is rice on one side, refried beans on the other with a chicken breast in the middle. Of course, it's not exactly that simple of a dish, but it's not all that much more complicated than that either. Remember, this is Mexican food, not rocket science.
The moist, tender chicken is treated with a chipotle sauce, cheese, bacon and pico degallo. The white rice is first placed in a pan, bathed in cream and then dusted with a little of this and a little of that (I couldn't tell exactly what was being added from my vantage point) while it's heated to serving temperature. It's probably the best rice I've ever had in my life. I could eat it alone three times a day and die happy. And I noticed that others enjoyed it as much I did because they were ordering the same dish with rice flanking the chicken on both sides in place of the refried beans. And it's not because the beans aren't good - they are. The rice is just that damn good you're forced to forgo the frijoles.
My only complaint - the chicken breast wasn't completely trimmed and I was forced to spit a bite out into a napkin, which I hate doing with a passion. It's gross. If I see someone else at the table do it, I'm done eating. I can only assume it affects others the same way. The general rule with chicken is that if the diner needs to trim the meat from the bone and connective tissue - don't cover it with a sauce so that you can't see what you are doing. If it's covered in sauce - it better be 100 percent meat.
The rest of the table had tacos with various fillings. All were good. Nobody had a complaint. I wish I had more of a sexy rundown on the tacos for you, but they're tacos - there's not a lot to get into there. If what you put in the center is prepared well, it's a good taco.
The Chicken Enchilada Divorciadas looked amazing as I watched them prepare them in the kitchen. It's two enchiladas filled with chopped and slopped chicken (dipped in a sauce) and covered with two kinds of sauces that make it one kind of awesome. This will be the next thing I order there.
Now for all the other stuff...
They claim to make the guacamole table side. That's not quite true and that's fantastic. There is nothing more useless than Rosa Mexicana's table side guacamole charade. At the end of the day it tastes the same, but you get charged more for getting to watch. That's stupid.
At El Centro they literally mix the guacamole at your table as it is being delivered. You're in control of the heat - mild, hot and hotter are you choices. The difference between them is simply how much pico degallo they add. It's good stuff and you can customize it to the different tastes at your table. Although at almost $10 a pop you'll be saying "holy guacamole" when the bill comes.
The place is popular - walking in for dinner means a wait. Although, they're pretty good at fitting you in. By "fitting you in" I mean literally "fitting you in." The have several long high top tables that seat around eight. If you're dining six, they'll put two people you don't know at your table. It's weird.
The bathrooms are unisex and both are one holers. This sucks for women (lots and lots of seat pee). This isn't great for men. It's an old building and I guess they make do with what they have. Hold it if you can.
I was luckily not told about the rooftop deck and bar when I arrived early. Had the hostess sent me up there I would have never seen the awesome inner workings of their kitchen. However, it's a nice bar and deck area. I'm not sure they serve food up there, but it's worth going up there to have an over-priced Mexican beer and pretend you're culturally aware for a bit.
The Tequila menu is filled with disgusting ripoffs and you should avoid it at all cost. To be fair - all Tequila north of Mexico is a ripoff.
The truth about Tequila is not something you want to hear, but you should arm yourself with this knowledge so you don't look like an asshole in front of someone like me.
In Mexico there are a severely limited number of places where Tequila is actually made. In fact - there are way more brands of Tequila on the market than there are distilleries that make the stuff. This means a lot of the different brands are actually the same exact thing. Maybe they tweak something here and there after it has been distilled and before it gets put in the bottle, but it's all basically the same crap. Go to Puerta Vallarta and take a tour - you'll never think of Tequila the same afterward.
The funniest thing is that any asshole with some money can have his or her own brand of Tequila. People in Los Angeles have been doing this for years. Order your custom bottle and label and have them shipped to one of the few distilleries in Mexico and they'll fill them up and ship them back and you're in business. All you have to do is win the marketing game from there. The explosion of brands since 2000 is evidence of this practice and we all fell for it. Everybody is selling the same thing in a different package and we're running around like we think we can tell the difference! Dumb.
Don't let that get you down, though. Most people in Mexico don't swill Tequila while enjoying tacos, so you're not losing out on the representation of the real experience.
Do go eat at El Centro. Sit with people you don't know, drink expensive shitty Mexican beer and enjoy some really really good food.
Sorry this sucked, but I was really not feeling it...