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El Centro, D.F., 14th and Swann Streets in 14UP, and Wisconsin Avenue and Prospect Street in Georgetown

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With an opening planned for late this week, El Centro D.F. looks to be another fun addition to the 14th Street lineup. Each of the three levels will offer a different experience - slightly more formal dining/drinking in the underground tequileria, more casual eat-in or carry-out in the main level taqueria, and two bars for drinking on the rooftop. (Rooftop bars seems to be this year's "cupcake".)

I'm looking forward to yet another good reason to head down to 14th Street! It sure has come a long way from what it was 15-20 years ago.

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There's definitely a buzz about this place already...it was packed Saturday night,with a half dozen parties waiting outside and in the lobby area for tables. Nevertheless, the staff seated my wife, 6-month old, and me in about 20 minutes, and was friendly and accommodating to us throughout. I thought the waiter's rehearsed spiel was a bit annoying -- "Have you two ever been to a Richard Sandoval restaurant before? Oh yes? Well then you know his commitment to fresh seasonal ingredients prepared freshly in house...blah blah blah" I could have done without that.

With the caveat that the place has been open less than a week, I will say that our food was all pretty good to very good, and I will definitely be back to try other things. But for a place that advertises itself as serving authentic Mexican comfort food, the menu really doesn't take any risks, which I found kind of disappointing. There's no huitlacoche or grasshopper tacos or ... I don't know what else, I'm no expert in Mexican food, but it all seemed pretty standard to me. Hopefully as they get going they'll get some confidence to broaden the menu a bit.

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"Have you two ever been to a Richard Sandoval restaurant before? Oh...blah blah blah" I could have done without that.

In a better world, Roseanne (or the Cash/Carter estate) would be the ones getting a dollar every time the name "Sandoval" was used.

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We lucked into two seats Saturday right after the derby without a reservation. The guacamole was great - we asked for "spicy" and El Centro is not afraid of the heat. Better than the versions at Cafe Atlantico and Oyamel. I wasn't feeling adventurous so I had the queso enchiladas. The salsa verde was fresh and tart, providing a nice contrast to the cheese. I tasted +1's chie relleno, which was delicious. She did say she thought it was light on the beef, but otherwise very much enjoyed it.

There's a tricky bottle neck by the hostess stand - servers are bringing out trays of food right where the servers are leading guests to tables. I watched servers trying to get past guests and thought "this is a disaster waiting to happen." If you go, please watch out for the servers until you are safely seated!

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We lucked into two seats Saturday right after the derby without a reservation. The guacamole was great - we asked for "spicy" and El Centro is not afraid of the heat. Better than the versions at Cafe Atlantico and Oyamel. I wasn't feeling adventurous so I had the queso enchiladas. The salsa verde was fresh and tart, providing a nice contrast to the cheese. I tasted +1's chie relleno, which was delicious. She did say she thought it was light on the beef, but otherwise very much enjoyed it.

There's a tricky bottle neck by the hostess stand - servers are bringing out trays of food right where the servers are leading guests to tables. I watched servers trying to get past guests and thought "this is a disaster waiting to happen." If you go, please watch out for the servers until you are safely seated!

I had the tongue tacos Saturday night. They were very good. The beans and the rice were bland

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Twenty some years ago, fresh out of college and already spending too much money on dining out, I found that my new boss was a gourmet (we didn't say "foodie" back then). So I asked where I could get really really really spicy food. He thought about it awhile and replied "Amsterdam."

"Amsterdam?!"

He went on to explain that the hottest food in the world was from Indonesia, but that it was much better to go to Amsterdam than Indonesia to eat it.

"Are you going to give me a raise?"

"No."

"Then I'm not going to Amsterdam any time soon. What's the spiciest food in the DC area?

He thought some more, and replied "Go to Doña Flor*, get the black bean soup, and ask for the yellow sauce to go with it."

That yellow sauce was not only the hottest food I had ever eaten, it remained the hottest food I had ever eaten** until my recent dinner at El Centro, where the pork carnitas tacos are served with an orange habañero sauce. It had a two-tine limit: don't dip more than two tines of your fork in unless you want to kill yourself.

The pork carnitas tacos were a tad greasy but very flavorful. The al pastor was a little dry and not very flavorful. The guacamole was fine. The picadillo empanadas were deliciously crispy on the outside and very flavorful inside.

But that sauce. Yow!

*in the late 80s-early 90s, this was a very good Brazilian (actually Bahian) restaurant. There was nothing else like it in DC and there hasn't been since.

**including an Indonesian restaurant in Arnhem

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I went to El Centro last night with 3 friends and have sort of mixed feelings about the place. We met up on the roof deck for a HH drink, and I have to say that is quite a nice space up there. It was a bit hot/humid yesterday, but on a nice day it would be a great place to meet some friends. Their HH specials also involve $4 margaritas and wine, and that ain't bad.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, when we went down to get our table for dinner, we were lead into their "Tequilaria" on the lower level with no windows and hardly any lighting. I am not that old and have great eyesight and I had trouble reading the menu when we first got downstairs. I can only imagine how hard it would be for others. As our waiter checked our IDs (even though we already had drinks in our hand from upstairs), he had to lift the candle on the table close to the license to read the date. A bit ridiculous if you ask me. I'm sure there are some people who are a fan of that atmosphere, but it certainly deters me from wanting to return.

If the food had been amazing I think I could overlook the atmosphere, but I felt it was merely average. Nothing was bad necessarily, but nothing really stood out as interesting enough to tempt me back.

We started with the recommended Guacamole, prepared tableside (avocado, tomato, onion, cilantro, chile serrano - $9.95). The "tableside preparation" was a bit of a joke since it was basically the waiter bringing the molcajete to the table with all the ingredients in it already, and smashing it up a bit with two forks. We never saw what was actually in the bowl or what went into the prep. It tasted good and fresh though, and the chips were also crisp and fresh. My other slight complaint is on the heat level, in that there was none. We were asked whether we preferred mild, medium, or spicy, and deferred to a couple of the girls by getting medium. I didn't taste any chiles or heat in it at all. And then when our main dishes were brought out, the waiter removed the remaining guac and chips from our table before we could stop him. Oy.

Two of us had the Baja Tacos (grilled tilapia, Mexican slaw, tomato, corn, avocado, chipotle aioli with Mexican rice and beans - $13.95). This is certainly a healthy serving with 3 tacos and a small bowl of rice and beans, but again, I came away thinking it was kind of boring. It certainly needed more spice, heat, flavor, or something. Maybe I'm spoiled by other fish tacos I've had around town (seriously, Lola's on Barrack's Row serves some of my favorites!) with blackened or seasoned fish, but these were just bland. I didn't get any flavor of chipotle from the aioli and maybe should've just asked for some hot sauce or salsa to supplement. Everything was fresh, but just not enough kick to or crunch to distinguish any of the ingredients from the others.

Two of the girls had Jalisco Shrimp and Crab Enchiladas (oaxaca cheese, corn, crema fresca, plantain, cilantro rice - $15.95). They said they were good, but very rich (each ended up taking one of the enchiladas home). I didn't have a bite, so I can't comment on the flavor.

I would consider coming back for the brunch I think when I could sample a number of small plates and find some more interesting or flavorful things on the menu (I loved Masa 14's brunch and think this one could be interesting in a similar way), and would hit up the roof deck for drinks again, but I don't see myself hurrying back to the basement dungeon for average Mexican food.

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Jason was craving Mexican food last weekend, so we decided to try El Centro's brunch.  Just before noon, we snagged two seats easily at the bar toward the back of the ground floor.  The bartendress was friendly, attentive, knowledgeable, and fun - well done!  We decided to go with the unlimited brunch, which allows you access to everything on the regular brunch menu, just in smaller quantities (but you can order multiples, because, duh, it's unlimited).  It is $35, and it also includes unlimited bloody Marys, mimosas, micheladas, or agua fresca cocktails.  I really like these unlimited brunches, not because I am going to eat my body weight in enchiladas, but because it allows me to try a lot of things on the menu so I know what I like (or don't like) if/when I return.

Highlights, in addition to the service, were the guacamole, the shrimp enchiladas, a chorizo/potato torta sandwich, the chicken tinga tacos, and the enfrijoladas (scrambled eggs with a bean sauce and chorizo).  Just okay were the flautas, the Mexican Benedict, the lengua tacos (just needed a bit more salt to move them to the highlights list), and the desserts (churros and plantains).  I also really enjoyed the hibiscus agua fresca, and Jason liked the michelada a lot.

I have heard great things about the rooftop, but the interior space was nothing to write home about.  I will say, it was fun to sit at the bar and have a view into the kitchen - the cooks were busting out some serious brunch, and they didn't even look like they were breaking a sweat.  Everything came out hot and fast, so they obviously have it down to a science.  Based on our experience, we would definitely go back.

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I had dinner with a friend at the Georgetown location on Thursday. We found it quite disappointing. We ordered the mahi mahi tacos and baja fish tacos. While there was enough fish in each one, the add-ons were boring, except for the chipotle aioli which was way overpowering for the fish. The most frustrating thing was that the corn tortillas basically shredded when trying to pick up the tacos. Only option was to eat with a knife/fork, which is not really what we had expected. The rice was dry and the vegetables in it looked like the pea/corn/carrot frozen mix. Service was also mediocre, but that could have been that most of the (male) staff was quite distracted by a large table of very scantily clad young women - I only hope that the choice of attire that evening was for a sorority event because if not some parents should be concerned! 

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I had dinner with a friend at the Georgetown location on Thursday. We found it quite disappointing. 

Sigh. Why doesn't this surprise me? :(

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Eatruneat and I went last night because I kept pestering her that I wanted to try the beef cheek taquitos that are on their Guadalajara inspired menu.  I read the review on Brightest Young Things  and the combination of face meat and a spicy bean paste was too good to resist.  Let it be known that I love face meat.  The yellow tail jaw at Izakaya Seki might be my favorite thing on the menu.  Anyway, eatruneat and I sloshed our way through the torrential downpour yesterday evening, which turned out to be a blessing as there were fewer people on 14th street, to score what we thought would be an interesting meal.

We started off with the a fore mentioned taquitos and the chicken tinga tomales.  The taqutios were bland, and I mean bland.  The only discernible flavor came from the spicy bean paste that resides under the three taquitos.  I was very disappointed.  Eatruneat offered me a bite of her tamales in exchange for one of my taquitos and I happily parted with it.  The tamale itself was quite good.  The chicken was tender and it had a had a really nice texture.  My only complaint would be that the sauce that covered the tamale was overly sweet.  It tasted like they ran out of tamale sauce so one of the line cooks cracked open a jar of Ragu and poured it over the tamales.

For the main course we both went with tacos.  I had the hanger steak and eatruneat had the lamb skirt steak.  She didn't agree with me about her's, but for me the predominant flavor in mine was the tortilla.  No steak, no cheese, nothing. Side note, when they say crispy cheese that means they burn it to the sides of the tortilla.  The lamb was slightly better.  The avocado paired nicely with lamb and did a great job of hiding the overwhelming tortilla flavor.

Oh, the chips and salsa were great as was the service!  

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MichaelBDC: I wrote that BYT piece, and agree with absolutely everything you wrote above. I was underwhelmed with everything but the chips and salsa and the service... Good review!

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We went to the U Street location on Friday night, our companions had been there before and really liked it .  We ate down in the tequileria which you get to be being lead thru the upstairs restaurant down the stairs and thru where the security staff takes their breaks with a server that is impatient if you are slow on the steps.

Drinks:

The tequilla / mescal list was a major selling list on why we went there - but two or three times the server took the order and then came back 5 mintues later saying they didn't have that item and to pick something else (Though once when he brought the backup choice he said they found some if we still wanted.   Another server came by later and said argument with supplier and some haven't been available for 3 months - THEN MAKE A NOTE ON THE MENU, or tell the servers.

Margarita was average, Red and Smokey was 'still wonderful like last time', and the house infused tequilllas were fair to bad (and the waiter said that he didn't realize I was ordering the smaller 3 for 21 version so when I ordered three at once I was charged $9 each and wouldn't change the tab. )

Appetizer and wait

We startppers added - ed with the Chapulines Guacamole that was mashed tableside and he verified we wanted the grasshoppers added (Why would we pay extra for the same dish with them if we didn't ?)  Then we had the long wait - the table of 8 that was seated after we had put in our food order got served, the table that was seated as they were getting served got served we stopped our server 3-4 times 'oh coming right out'

Food:

I had the Pipian Pork Belly Tacos which was the best dish of the table - though when I ordered as I am not familar with pipian sauce I asked if it was very spicy as I am spice wimp and prefer mild, and was assured this was not spicy - it was not , but it is served with jallapeno peppers on the tacos,  an observent waiter woul dhave mentioned that.  Others had the Chile Relleno, Braised Short Ribs in Mezcal Mole and not sure what other was - none of them were especially good - we tried them all and everyone agreed that mine was best (It was quite good).

For some stupid reason (much tequilla?) we decided to have dessert even though the food wasn't that great.  If the 'Banana Tres Leches' had been called bread pudding it would have been good, but it wasn't tres Leches.  The Caramel Flan was average.

Over all no reason to go back.

Grandma:  NOPE - to many stairs, dimly lit, and tacos fall apart so she would have trouble eating them.

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18 minutes ago, DanielK said:

Click the link again for the story update - bouncer has been fired, policy changed, training ensues.

Absolutely no reason to view this as anything other than damage control after the same restaurant group did the same thing on the same block at Masa 14 two years ago, saying at the time "we are committed to our values of inclusiveness"

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11 minutes ago, brian said:

Absolutely no reason to view this as anything other than damage control after the same restaurant group did the same thing on the same block at Masa 14 two years ago, saying at the time "we are committed to our values of inclusiveness"

I've been to Masa 14 probably ten times in jeans and sneakers - I thought sure this was some "late-night" thing. Is El Centro D.F. *really* enforcing a dress code for everyday meals?!?! I mean, that's like Chipotle Grill enforcing a dress code (or maybe a corner drug store in Mississippi circa 1950?)

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2 hours ago, DonRocks said:

I've been to Masa 14 probably ten times in jeans and sneakers - I thought sure this was some "late-night" thing. Is El Centro D.F. *really* enforcing a dress code for everyday meals ?!?! I mean, that's like Chipotle Grill enforcing a dress code  (or maybe a corner drug store in Mississippi circa 1950?)

They're not enforcing a dress code, it's just something they can point to in order to have a plausible cover for discrimination at the door for their late night events. It's a depressingly common tactic across the country.

"Dress Codes Are Often Terrible and Racist, as This One from a North River Bar Shows" by Stephen Gossett on chicagoist.com

"Civil Rights Group Blasts Alleged Racist Tactics by Cordish at Fourth Street Live" by Joe Sonka on insiderlouisville.com

"Yet Again, Allegations Arise That in Some Uptown Bars, 'Dress Code' Means No Minorities" by Robert Willonsky on dallasnews.com

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2 hours ago, brian said:

Absolutely no reason to view this as anything other than damage control after the same restaurant group did the same thing on the same block at Masa 14 two years ago, saying at the time "we are committed to our values of inclusiveness"

2 hours ago, DonRocks said:

I've been to Masa 14 probably ten times in jeans and sneakers - I thought sure this was some "late-night" thing. Is El Centro D.F. *really* enforcing a dress code for everyday meals?!?! I mean, that's like Chipotle Grill enforcing a dress code (or maybe a corner drug store in Mississippi circa 1950?)

It's just late night. And I'm not suggesting it's not damage control, or taking a position on racist-or-not, just that those who read the article when it was first posted didn't see the update.

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36 minutes ago, brian said:

Absolutely no reason to view this as anything other than damage control after the same restaurant group did the same thing on the same block at Masa 14 two years ago, saying at the time "we are committed to our values of inclusiveness"

Right, but should they just not doing anything? Firing the bouncer, getting ride of the dress code entirely .. It's a start, even if it's social media driven. Better than denial, denial, denial --> shown further proof --> blame the guests trying to come in --> social media avalanche --> fire bouncer --> get rid of dress code. I appreciate that the manager moved quickly. 

I'll never go here again, though .. used to love that rooftop. 

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2 hours ago, brian said:

Absolutely no reason to view this as anything other than damage control after the same restaurant group did the same thing on the same block at Masa 14 two years ago, saying at the time "we are committed to our values of inclusiveness"

Bouncers have to be getting their direction from someone. I doubt the bouncer is unilaterally making policy on who gets in. After posting on my FB page earlier, had one person chime in that he can verify that he had experienced it as well.

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2 hours ago, brian said:

They're not enforcing a dress code, it's just something they can point to in order to have a plausible cover for discrimination at the door for their late night events. It's a depressingly common tactic across the country.

 

"Dress Codes Are Often Terrible and Racist, as This One from a North River Bar Shows" by Stephen Gossett on chicagoist.com

"Civil Rights Group Blasts Alleged Racist Tactics by Cordish at Fourth Street Live" by Joe Sonka on insiderlouisville.com

"Yet Again, Allegations Arise That in Some Uptown Bars, 'Dress Code' Means No Minorities" by Robert Willonsky on dallasnews.com

 

Jeez, I'm all for dress codes if they're applied equally, and with an even hand (e.g., "dinner jackets" at The Prime Rib (which I also remember hearing a negative story about recently, but it's the place I first thought of - and they have sport coats for those who need them). But they had *better be* applied equally to everyone; otherwise, it's curtains for the institution in these days of social media, and I'm all for discriminatory practices being called out right here.

I do think that disperse places (like Sandoval restaurants) can develop localized problems, and shouldn't be punished as a single entity unless it can be proven the problem goes up towards national headquarters. I also think people learn and grow (if I didn't, I wouldn't ever set foot in Alabama, visit Germany, etc.), although some people are doomed to die as racists, and that's just the way it is. Let me throw some humor on this sorry situation (Warning: NSFW):

 

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