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El Nopalito Grill - Tex Mex in Aspen Hill Shopping Center on Bel Pre and Layhill Road - Closed

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If you enjoy Mexican food, but not Tex-Mex, El Nopalita is a great place to go. It is located in the shopping center on Bel Pre Rd. near Layhill Rd. north of Silver Spring (Aspen Hill) The name comes from the use of the somewhat rare vegetable also known as prickly pear.

Appetizers are very good. The chile relleno (my favorite appetizer) is filled with crab meat, shrimp, and served with a creamy salsa fresca. The ceviche is unusually generous and offered on a bed of greens with its lime and chili tang. The quesadillas -- cheese, chicken or beef and grilled veggie, plus a nightly special indulgence of lobster and spinach -- are sliced and starred out on the plate with a small amount of guacamole and sour cream in the center. They are all excellent. I especially enjoyed the camarones al ajillo (sauteed shrimp with garlic, tequila and cilantro) They were not overwhelmed by the garlic, as is too common, or bitter with scorched cloves, but were aromatic and just flavored. I was glad they were served with some bread, since I didn't want to lose any of the sauce.

The tamales are true steamed cornmeal packets served in corn husks. The duck with red mole is moist and subtle, while the chicken has a very tasty tomatilla and smoked chipotle cream. It is nice to be able to find really good tamales made properly.

But Nopalita's strong point is seafood. While the simply grilled entrees, particularly the beef dishes, can be fairly ordinary, a piece of grilled sea bass topped with sauteed nopalitas and tomatoes was excellent the last time we had it. (Peeled and de-thorned, nopales taste like a cross between bell peppers and green beans, with a little okra and green tomato thrown in.) The Cancun platter, (red snapper, shrimp, clams, mussels and scallops, plus a half-lobster) is superb. The oven cooked rockfish, cooked with cilantro and slices of orange and lime is another good choice. Subtle flavors were not overwhelmed nor was it at all bland. Served piping hot in papiote, when the server cut open the foil the smell of the steam made my mouth water. There are the usual fajitas (carbon, de camaron, or vegetarianas) and soft tacos and enchiladas available, but I go for the seafood.

If I have any complaint, it is that the restaurant sometimes seems short-staffed as service is leisurely, even when the dining room is not terribly busy. However, it is friendly, well informed, and everyone seems genuinely interested in making sure you enjoy your meal. Now that we are regulars, and have our favorite server, we are always treated right and the service is first rate.

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Seafood is still their strong point, but the prices have gone up and it can be expensive. They still make the best chili relleno in the area.

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El Nopalito has become our default place to go when we are looking for a nearby dinner out. Since we have been trying to add more seafood to our diet, this is a no brainer. Saying that, what did I have last night, the grilled loin strip special with onions and mushrooms. It was huge. My wife had the crabcakes, which is the reason I'm posting. They were fantastic. Baked, not fried, not a bit of filler, huge lumps of crabmeat, each cake was the size of a tennis ball. Delicious. Since it was during the G'town game, there was nobody in the place. As usual there were several fish specials, and the special quasadia was smoked salmon, but again, I got the chili relleno, still my favorite.

We commented that this chef could open a fancy restaurant in downtown DC with just his non Mexican menu and it would be a hit. Great seafood, good steaks, and wonderful salads, what else do you need.

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It is a shame that this place is so far from me, it sounds great. This is one thing that surprises me about the DC dining scene. There are no true Mexican restaurants, (sorry Oyamel included!). I do not like any of the pleuthora of TexMex! What is even more surprising is that they are run by Salvadoreans.

On my next trip back from Baltimore, I may stop by. What are the prices like? Would it qualify for $20 Tuesdays?

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Decided tonight that everyone should have someone's opinion other than dinwiddie's on this place, so we made the trip. Maybe 20 minutes from our house, so while not a "neighborhood" place, not that far either.

"Leisurely" service is a nice way of putting it. Water and chips appeared soon after we sat down, but it was 10 minutes before anyone took drink orders, and at least 10 more before anyone took our food order (and we indicated we were ready to order food when the drink order was taken.) Drinks were not refilled unless a request was made, or should I say, made twice.

I would like to point out that they should not be allowed to put crack in the salsa. Damn, this was fine. We asked for more salsa twice, and we seemed not to be the only ones. When tomatoes come in season, this will be probably the best restaurant salsa I've ever had.

We started with a duck tamale. The tamale, served in the corn husk, was excellent, but for $6, I expect more than ONE tamale with a couple of shreds of duck breast.

The kids had burritos, which seemed pretty standard, though they served them with fries. If we return, will have to remember to ask for rice and beans on the side with the kids meals. My wife had combo (beef, chicken, shrimp) fajitas - they were fine, but nothing special. Not that you can really make fajitas special, but nothing was dried out, which I suppose is a victory based on some of the awful preparations I've had in the area. The tortillas were from a package, the guacamole was ok, and the advertised crema morphed into regular sour cream between menu and plate.

Taking a cue from dinwiddie, I had the grilled rockfish. The fish was excellent, as were the rice and beans, but the couscous served on the side was clearly microwaved before being plated, having the telltale hot and cold spots. For $23 for a not-so-large piece of fish, I expect more attention to the dish.

At $60 before tax and tip for 2 adults and 2 kids to dine (just the one appetizer, no desserts, and no alcohol), El Nopalito is far from bargain dining. If it were around the corner, I would probably go occasionally, but I wouldn't drive across town for it. It was somewhat better than my neighborhood Mexican-not-Tex-Mex El Mariachi in Rockville, but probably not enough to warrant the 20 minute vs. 5 minute drive. I might even consider driving 30 minutes instead to "Little Mexico" in PG County, and having first-rate Mexican at much cheaper prices.

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I've never had couscous with a dish, so I don't know what to say about it. I ususally have the sea bass, and with the capers and olives it is excellent and if it is being offered whenever cooked in foil it is excellent. The Cancun platter is also excellent. The carne asada is not bad either, but not special. As I said, I wouldn't order the "mexican" standards here, at least not the Tex-Mex stuff like burritos and fajitas, since they are only ordinary. But the salads, the fish, and the excellent crabcakes make it my place to go. I love the chili relleno, it isn't battered and fried like so many, but rather roasted with a wonderful duo of sauces. The camarones al ajillo is good, and the quesadillas can be wonderful depending on what the special is. I normally stick with the specials, and thus spend more money, but it is close by and imho, better than Azucar or Sol de Azteca, both of which are also nearby. El Mariachi in Rockville used to be where I went when I wanted Mexican, but Nopalito is closer, and it satisfies my fish jones. (since it is difficult to find good seafood, non Chinese, in Rockville for some reason) I might also add, that since I am a regular, I tend to get very good service.

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I'm with you on the Chili Relleno. Everything about it is good, in particular the sauces and the presentation. No matter what I get there, it's always my appetizer.

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I don't know how this place stayed off my radar for so long. What we had tonight was really, really good...not fancied up, not exotic nor ambitious, but obvious care was taken in the execution of practically everything on the plate. I wish this were MY neighborhood restaurant.

Tortilla soup started us off strong, as did the much-vaunted chiles rellenos. The latter are bravely unbattered, and better for it. But the sauces accompanying it were a strong hint that this kitchen wasn't just going through the motions...the attention to sauce and soup textures was almost French.

Even the value-oriented platters ($13 and $11) showed some surprising finesse. Both tamales were light and fresh, and without a hint of the dense putty quality that plagues most restaurant tamales. The pork carnitas were among the best I've had on the east coast: tender and very juicy, but also with some crisped surfaces. The beef in both the taco and the enchilada had a nice flavor to it too, although the last couple of bites of the enchilada had just the faintest whiff of stale oil. The rice and black beans, usually ignored as an unimportant accompaniments, were again both well-made; the former entirely plump and moist grains which hadn't been overcooked, and the latter rich without being excessively thick.

I'm a sucker for tres leches and the cake in this one was again more tender and fine-grained than I'm used to seeing. I was worried about it not having absorbed enough milk when I saw the lack of a puddle around it, and the first bite was only soaked at the bottom, but that was an anomaly as the rest of the piece was perfect.

BTW, they seem to have addressed Dan's point about the value of the duck tamale, which is back to $5 and well-laden with duck.

Apart from the last bit of my beef enchilada and a slightly weak glass of marañón, everything was spot-on. Service is friendly but, as others have noted, a bit haphazard. With only five tables occupied on a Monday night, we didn't experience any long delays, at least. And that last point is a shame...El Nopalito deserves to be packed and bustling if this is what we can expect out of their kitchen. We'll definitely be back, and soon.

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Closed! I needed to replace the battery in a smoke alarm at my father's house, which is in the area, and so headed over to the CVS at the declining Plaza Del Mercado shopping center. It dawned on my as I walked from the parking lot toward the CVS that the El Nopalito signage was gone. The storefront was empty and a banner hung out front announcing La Fogata, a Peruvian restaurant. It's not a great loss, but El Nopalito did serve decent food with enough variety that a party whose members had disparate tastes could usually find something on the menu to their liking.

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 It's not a great loss, but El Nopalito did serve decent food with enough variety that a party whose members had disparate tastes could usually find something on the menu to their liking.

We ate here fairly regularly, as I live nearby, and I really do miss it.  It's been closed for a few months now.  I am in the shopping center fairly regularly and am keeping an eye out for the opening of La Fogata.  keeping my fingers crossed that it is decent.

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