“Smell my hands,” I insisted, reaching forward from the back seat of my friend’s car on Tuesday night. They smelled like ground corn, earthy and dank in the heavy summer heat. The sides of my mouth sizzled pleasantly from residual salsa, marred by aggressive little bits of habanero hidden amidst garlic and cilantro. Three tacos for $7.00 at District Taco in Eastern Market after a glass of rosado at Sona next door. Three different proteins, some pico and cilantro, an add-it-yourself salsa bar. Complimentary seltzer. It’s fast casual and there’s beer if you want one. You carry your red basket of aluminum wrapped tacos and salsa filled portion cups to your table. Maybe you sit outside. And, without further ado, you dig in.
For authentic Pueblan tacos – cabeza de res, lengua and real fatty carnitas – there’s only one place for me and it is located, not surprisingly, in Columbia Heights. But there’s room in my life for a trendy taco or two, especially when there’s no kimchi or lamb souvlaki dangling out of it. And I enjoy a food truck-to-brick ‘n’ mortar metamorphosis story (though I’m also wary of success that spreads itself thin). Now that the hype around District Taco has subsided a bit I can enjoy it for what it does a solid job at being and what it does an even better job at not trying to be.
My friend ordered while I surveyed the salsa bar, and I suspect he may have indulged himself a tad in extra toppings. But his pairings worked, so I certainly did not mind. The Carnitas I chose came with a moist mound of tender pulled pork with plenty of flavor and not too much fat. A warm bed of rice and beans appeared on one side of the meat and a zesty pico de gallo on the other. The meat juice soaked through the first layer of grainy corn tortilla but there was another one underneath for back-up. These are not made in house but at least they choose the right ones – gritty cornmeal, moist, with enough elasticity for a firm bite. My friend picked the Al Pastor. The meat was spotted with bits of the guajillo pepper with which it was marinated before hitting the spit-roast. Chunks of fresh pineapple interlaced with the curls of pork . The combination of the fruit and pepper achieved a hot-n-sour thing that I am not particularly fond of (ever) but which I imagine is quite enjoyable for someone who doesn’t share my bias. The pork was tender, though a bit chewy for my liking and there wasn’t too much (if any) adobo seasoning to give it that classic smoky edge. We agreed on the Carne Asada for our third, though on retrospect we maybe should’ve sprang for the Barbacoa as I’ve heard many a rave review of the latter. My friend ordered this one “The American Way;” it came with shredded cheese and lettuce. In this case shredded cheese is not a bad choice. The cubes of meat were plump and easy to chew, though they lacked the smokiness I look for in beef grilled for a taco. The cheese (regular old cheddar, I believe) melted slightly over the beef, giving it a salty boost of flavor, while the lettuce provided a crunchy, fresh backbone to each bite. This is a good vehicle to try some of those salsas out on. The mild, green tomatillo was probably my favorite, with its bright citric acidity and very slight heat from jalapeño bringing nice contrast along with some hydration to the meat and tortilla. The chiltomate is the winner of the smoky department, with the charred flavor of tomatoes and chilis coming straight through the sweetness of the two vegetables. And then there’s the slightly painful mestizo with its vicious little bits of habanero that burnt my face and made me pray for salvation to the gods of dairy.
District Taco served its purpose that night, as a place to refuel during an afternoon of bar hopping. Though we were in and out of there in 15 minutes, the smells, flavors and feel of those moist little pockets of meat and spice kept me company for a while after.