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La Sirenita, Cantina-Style Mexican in Little Mexico, Riverdale


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The Poet of Little Mexico, Todd Kliman, "discovered" this place (sort-of like Columbus discovering America), and insisted they had the best tacos in the area.

He's right. This gem is serving Mexican food, hidden smack dab in the middle of a Mexican-American neighborhood, with Mexican-Americans in the kitchen, and Mexican-Americans as customers. It'll take you strongly out of your comfort zone at first, but when you settle into the menu, with gentle pricing, pictures accompanying the English-language descriptions on the wall, and good cans of Mexican beer, you're going to wonder how it is you've never heard of this culturally rich enclave, and you're going to dream about the tacos: seven kinds including chorizo, oxtail, goat, tongue, three kinds of beef (the spicy beef is particularly good), each costing only two dollars.

And you're never going to want to go to Oyamel again.

Rocks.

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Way back when the Washington Post Food Section didn't suck, oh, let's say August 4, 2004, they devoted almost an entire section to Riverdale's "Little Mexico." Walter Nicholls article mentioned La Sirenita, saying:

"More than 40 entrees are individually pictured in the colorful dining room festooned with filigree paper pennants. Highlights include the shrimp cocktail, tacos of chicken, beef or goat, chicken quesadillas, and flan or fresh berries and cream for dessert. Mexican beer available."

Additionally, in the article text it said:

Blocks away at La Sirenita restaurant, festooned green and white filigree paper pennants create a pary-in-progress atmosphere. But what's a party without entertainment? A few weeks ago on a Thursday evening, a young guy pulled the plug on the jukebox, grabbed his guitar and let loose with a Mexican-styled version of the early 1960's Highwaymen hit "Cotton Fields," complete with a whistle chorus.

La Sirenita's shrimp cocktail turns out to be a snappy, fresh-tasting, gazpacho with plump, medium-sized shrimp and sliced avocado, served in a tall ice cream sundae glass. Deep-fried quail comes with an assertive green chili sauce. And while the typical cheese quesadilla in the Washington area is a flat, grilled tortilla that sort of resembles a white cheese sandwhich, here it's more of a fried, folded affair -- the cheese tangy, the tortilla crisp, the whole business drizzled with a cream that's tart and sour.

It was one of several places on this strip just above Bladensburg. Other restaurants mentioned include:

Alamo, El Bucanas Cafe, El Tapatio, Pollo Fiesta, Taco Rico and Taqueria Tres Reyes.

Additionally, the article belted out a listing of bakeries and markets, ingredients to look for, taco trucks and more along this one mile stretch of road.

I don't know the area, and wouldn't be that good at organizing it (but would help), but I for sure would be all over an upcoming one-mile walking tour/tacofest with other Rockwellians (Rockwellers? Rockwellites?) The article has a map flagging all the highlights. We can walk around wearing fanny packs and sombreros like we just got off the plane in Cancun. Well, maybe not that.

Would anyone else be interested in trekking through there?

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Walter Nicholls on Little Mexico here.

Todd's column came out three months beforehand. Here's an excerpt from it, reproduced with his permission (by the way, this is one of three columns that won Todd this year's James Beard Award for Journalism):

La Sirenita is almost as notable for what it doesn’t have as what it does. The dining room, with its red-white-and-green flags flapping above plastic-covered tables, is virtually gringoless. Women, unless they’re doing the serving or the cooking, are scarce. This is a decidedly male preserve, with a heavy representation of construction workers and laborers who come by when they’re done with their day, to be served heaping plates full of attentive country cooking.

A third notable absence is cheese, or, more precisely, the thick and gooey blanket of Colby and Jack that is thrown, willy-nilly, over so many of the dishes that dare call themselves Mexican. At La Sirenita, you’ll find instead a light dusting of the crumbly, white queso fresco, followed by a zigzag of Mexican crema, which adds a finishing touch to the terrific quesadilla. It’s not the clotted, pressed tortilla package that we’ve become accustomed to but a soft, deep-fried turnover; it ranks only slightly below the monstrous, dosa-like creation that can be found at the nearby Taquería Tres Reyes, with its modest, and pronouncedly sour, queso filling.

The menu at La Sirenita can be thought of as offering two distinct possibilities for eating: a chance to bone up on the sort of traditional delicacies we’ve traditionally had to go without, and an opportunity to see the commonplace made remarkable. Among the former: fried quail in a bright, tangy verde sauce laced with slices of onion; huarache, a masa cake topped with beans and either beef or chicken; and a gutsy, porky posole. The chilaquiles are a hungry man’s casserole: an interlocking layer of torn, homemade corn tortillas topped with a green or red sauce, a fried egg, and a Milanese-style chicken cutlet that would make for a tasty entree all by itself.

It’s the familiar classics, though, that offer the strongest rebuke to Washington’s generic happy-hour fare, as well as to the callow if appealing Mexican cooking typified by Chipotle and Baja Fresh. The chile relleno ­a smoky, wonderfully firm poblano encased within a light batter and bedded atop a red sauce that intensifies the spiciness of the pepper without bringing any additional heat­ has more depth of flavor, more lasting soul, than an entire punch card’s worth of visits to the McDonald’s-owned Chipotle could ever hope to deliver. The mole, which enrobes a less-than-juicy chicken and nearly compensates for it, is dark, complex, and lightly chocolatey, and tastes of a long, slow day on the stove. Order guacamole and the waitress asks, “How hot would you like it?” One of the few disappointments is the tamales, tasty but a little dry.

The tacos are about as good as it gets. Two bucks fetches a gloriously messy meal that the two-ply corn wrappers alone cannot hope to hold. No tomatoes, no lettuce, no cheese­ just a sprinkling of diced onion and several slices of radish, as well as a wedge of lime (as if the well-seasoned varieties of meat­there are eight kinds in all, including chorizo, stewed goat, tongue, and, my favorite, salty beef­ needed the acidic wake-up).

Two other dishes on the menu­ - champong and kang pungi -­ were a mystery to me until the intercession of a translator provided the answer. They’re not Mexican; they’re Korean. Turns out the space once housed a Korean restaurant, and one of the cooks, who stayed on when the place changed over, kept two of the more popular dishes. The champong, especially, is a big hit, reminiscent as it is of the traditional Mexican sopa de mariscos. I saw bowl after bowl of shrimp-and-shellfish noodle soup being slurped down on every one of my visits.

El Tapatío, past some streetside vendors and two right turns away, makes a neat companion to La Sirenita, offering the chance for comparison among relative equals. The restaurant offers a different kind of Cali vibe, reminiscent of those glorified dives that are as much a fixture of the L.A. landscape as traffic and smog: a neonified pink-and-purple color scheme, a jukebox blaring propulsive Mexican pop, and terrific food that feels both lovingly and effortlessly prepared.

The version of chilaquiles here is lighter than La Sirenita’s, topped not by a fried egg but by a one-two of queso and crema. I prefer, by the slightest of margins, the tacos at La Sirenita, though the superb taco al birria, with its chopped, beer-flavored brisket (a recycling of the larger, heavier entree), is not available there. And El Tapatío’s tortillas are clearly superior: The grainy, faintly nubby wrappers, with their slight variations in shape­an authenticating stamp of the handmade­ taste of corn and lime. This factor accounts, in part, for the strength of the enchiladas, which manage to be simultaneously light and substantive, a worthy vehicle for the chili sauces (a tart, piquant green, a robust red, and a soupy, sweet mole) that anoint them.

The entree plates are comforting­ smothered steaks, shrimp in a tomato sauce, fajitas­ but I find myself yearning for simpler stuff, such as the terrific tortas. The yeasty, house-baked rolls are toasted, smeared with mayo, topped with shredded lettuce, and then loaded up with soft, succulent cuts of breaded and fried pork or chicken. Wash one down with a cold can of Negro Modela, served with a wedge of lemon, or Styrofoam cup of cantaloupe juice, and prepare to order up another round. This is family-style dining, and the Navarro family wants you to feel at home. (That their daughter, the waitress, has a tendency to drift, or occasionally disappear, only adds to the casual, unhurried air about the place. No big deal.) Sit back and let the music wash over you, the smell of fried corn wafting from the kitchen fill your nostrils. If you close your eyes and concentrate hard enough, the city, with its long, unfortunate history of quasi-Mexican food, seems a whole coast away.

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Todd's column came out three months beforehand.  Here's an excerpt from it, reproduced with his permission (by the way, this is one of three columns that won Todd this year's James Beard Award for Journalism):

Wasn't aware of this excellent article. Thanks for posting it.
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It's surprising to me that Little Mexico remains such a mystery to people.

I have to think that a large part of that is the irrational fear for many people of venturing out to Prince George's. And then, having taken that big, brave step -- venturing into a place called Little Mexico, where English is not the dominant language and the atmosphere of the restaurants is not designed to put the paleface venturer at ease.

I suspect that, were Little Mexico in Virginia, you would see many more gringos than I did on my most recent tour. Which is to say: you would see gringos. Personally, I am drawn to this section like a moth to a porchlight. La Sirenita's tacos are among the glories of this area. But there is a wealth of exciting eating to be done here, from the restaurants (posole, fried quail, huarache, sopes, chilaquiles) and taquerias to the shaved ice carts, the taco trucks and -- last but not least -- the two outlets of the bakery, Flor de Puebla. Their rolls -- tortas -- are so light they seem almost insubstantial. And I love the cream-filled sugar donuts -- wonderful stuff.

If you love eating -- not the bourgeois satisfactions of going out to eat, but the eating itself -- then you will love Little Mexico.

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If you love eating -- not the bourgeois satisfactions of going out to eat, but the eating itself -- then you will love Little Mexico.

But Todd, there aren't any Mexican ladies being exploited, erm, put on display making tortillas when you walk in the door.

Or is that just part of the architectural design of some places?

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It's surprising to me that Little Mexico remains such a mystery to people.

I have to think that a large part of that is the irrational fear for many people of venturing out to Prince George's. And then, having taken that big, brave step -- venturing into a place called Little Mexico, where English is not the dominant language and the atmosphere of the restaurants is not designed to put the paleface venturer at ease.

I suspect that, were Little Mexico in Virginia, you would see many more gringos than I did on my most recent tour. Which is to say: you would see gringos. Personally, I am drawn to this section like a moth to a porchlight. La Sirenita's tacos are among the glories of this area. But there is a wealth of exciting eating to be done here, from the restaurants (posole, fried quail, huarache, sopes, chilaquiles) and taquerias to the shaved ice carts, the taco trucks and -- last but not least -- the two outlets of the bakery, Flor de Puebla. Their rolls -- tortas -- are so light they seem almost insubstantial. And I love the cream-filled sugar donuts -- wonderful stuff.

If you love eating -- not the bourgeois satisfactions of going out to eat, but the eating itself -- then you will love Little Mexico.

I think we need to do a little DR.com field trip...

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I have eaten at La Sirenita and El Tapatio, and I agree that they are the most authentic cantina-style Mexican restaurants in this area, but that's not saying much. As a Southern California native, I find that these two places are like hundreds of ordinary little neighborhood cafes around L.A., and while they have a certain charm, I don't think they deserve the superlatives that Todd Kliman bestows on them. I found the salsas lackluster, the meats gristly or overcooked and dry. I just came back from visiting family in L.A., and dropped in to one of my favorite places in West L.A.--Guelaguetza, which serves Oaxacan food--not the generic Mexican of the local Hyattsville places. On the menu at Guelaguetza dishes with at least five different moles are offered. I had an empanada de barbacoa de chivo--a huge enchilada, really, with a homemade tortilla made with fresh masa stuffed with stewed goat in a mole colaradito of amazing depth, complexity and spiciness. Last time I went there I had enchiladas with chicken, mushrooms, squash blossoms and yellow mole, and handmade tortillas. This is not a fancy-schmantzy place. It is full of Mexican families and working people, along with lots of gringos. Banana leaf-wrapped tamales with chicken and mole negro, memelas con chorizo o cecina. I have to say that just about everything on the menu there blows La Sirenita out of the water. Don Rocks wonders why there is no one slapping out fresh tortillas as you come in the door at La Sirenita. This is a very important question. Because the biggest reason that these local places disappoint is because they do not make their own tortillas with fresh masa. They use factory made tortillas, which are dirt cheap, like all the other ingredients they use. Really good, regional Mexican food is labor intensive and requires ingredients that may be a challenge to procure. Also, tacos are snack food, and while they can be delicious snack food, to consider them a serious Mexican meal is analogous to going to a good American restaurant and savoring a main course of potato chips and onion dip. I'm afraid we are still waiting for a truly wonderful Mexican restaurant here in the DC area.

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I had a quick snack at a little storefront Oaxacan tacqueria in Mar Vista while I was in L.A. While they didn't serve ventworm nuts, they did offer tacos de chapulinas--crispy grasshoppers. I decided I'd have one of those next time. But the taco de cecina--thin, grilled marinated pork--was delicious.

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I have eaten at La Sirenita and El Tapatio, and I agree that they are the most authentic cantina-style Mexican restaurants in this area, but that's not saying much. As a Southern California native, I find that these two places are like hundreds of ordinary little neighborhood cafes around L.A., and while they have a certain charm, I don't think they deserve the superlatives that Todd Kliman bestows on them. I found the salsas lackluster, the meats gristly or overcooked and dry. I just came back from visiting family in L.A., and dropped in to one of my favorite places in West L.A.--Guelaguetza, which serves Oaxacan food--not the generic Mexican of the local Hyattsville places. On the menu at Guelaguetza dishes with at least five different moles are offered. I had an empanada de barbacoa de chivo--a huge enchilada, really, with a homemade tortilla made with fresh masa stuffed with stewed goat in a mole colaradito of amazing depth, complexity and spiciness. Last time I went there I had enchiladas with chicken, mushrooms, squash blossoms and yellow mole, and handmade tortillas. This is not a fancy-schmantzy place. It is full of Mexican families and working people, along with lots of gringos. Banana leaf-wrapped tamales with chicken and mole negro, memelas con chorizo o cecina. I have to say that just about everything on the menu there blows La Sirenita out of the water. Don Rocks wonders why there is no one slapping out fresh tortillas as you come in the door at La Sirenita. This is a very important question. Because the biggest reason that these local places disappoint is because they do not make their own tortillas with fresh masa. They use factory made tortillas, which are dirt cheap, like all the other ingredients they use. Really good, regional Mexican food is labor intensive and requires ingredients that may be a challenge to procure. Also, tacos are snack food, and while they can be delicious snack food, to consider them a serious Mexican meal is analogous to going to a good American restaurant and savoring a main course of potato chips and onion dip. I'm afraid we are still waiting for a truly wonderful Mexican restaurant here in the DC area.

Interesting remarks, Zora.

In light of your comments about my praise for these places -- and in light of my most recent endorsement -- I think it's worth digging into the archives to excerpt a little of what I wrote a year ago:

"In Southern California, La Sirenita and El Tapatío would be generally regarded as nice places, but no different, really, from the many other worthies that blend unobtrusively into the vast ethno-culinary landscape. Here, though, they are standouts."

Which is to say, I understand your point and I hear you. But what gets me about your post is the notion that just because something is not national-class it's not worthy of attention and praise. It's a trap that far too many in D.C. and New York succumb to. Ferreting out the best, most exquisite expression of something can be a lot of fun. And it makes for great conversation, and maybe great writing, too. But eating, then, becomes chiefly about the quest to find perfection. How limiting, how dull.

I also am curious how many times you have been to these places. I say that because, for one thing, the tacos I had my last time out at La Sirenita were even better than what I'd tasted a year ago. And because what these places are serving, chiefly, is homecooking. I've had the chilaquiles at La Sirenita maybe six times now; each time, it's a little bit different. But still very good.

The population of Mexicans in Little Mexico is small, still. It hardly compares, in size and scope, to what you'd find in L.A. But something, clearly, is taking root. I think it bears watching. And I think it deserves support from those of us who love to eat and explore.

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I  Don Rocks wonders why there is no one slapping out fresh tortillas as you come in the door at La Sirenita.

Uhh, I'm pretty sure it was a joke referencing the plethora of "authentic" places where they do, you know, the show. Todd any chance of a frozen swirl margaraita in little Mexico? :lol:

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Interesting remarks, Zora.

In light of your comments about my praise for these places -- and in light of my most recent endorsement -- I think it's worth digging into the archives to excerpt a little of what I wrote a year ago:

"In Southern California, La Sirenita and El Tapatío would be generally regarded as nice places, but no different, really, from the many other worthies that blend unobtrusively into the vast ethno-culinary landscape. Here, though, they are standouts."

Which is to say, I understand your point and I hear you. But what gets me about your post is the notion that just because something is not national-class it's not worthy of attention and praise. It's a trap that far too many in D.C. and New York succumb to. Ferreting out the best, most exquisite expression of something can be a lot of fun. And it makes for great conversation, and maybe great writing, too. But eating, then, becomes chiefly about the quest to find perfection. How limiting, how dull.

I also am curious how many times you have been to these places. I say that because, for one thing, the tacos I had my last time out at La Sirenita were even better than what I'd tasted a year ago. And because what these places are serving, chiefly, is homecooking. I've had the chilaquiles at La Sirenita maybe six times now; each time, it's a little bit different. But still very good.

The population of Mexicans in Little Mexico is small, still. It hardly compares, in size and scope, to what you'd find in L.A. But something, clearly, is taking root. I think it bears watching. And I think it deserves support from those of us who love to eat and explore.

Todd, the answer your question about how many times I have eaten at La Sirenita is: once. With my family and some friends, so that I was able to taste several different things. The reality is that it is a long way from my home, and I have not been moved to make the trek to return. Perhaps if it were closer to home I might. I've been to Guajillo and Tia Queta many times, even though I find both of those places are very uneven and leave much to be desired.

The other part of it is that when I moved here and found only mediocre Mexican restaurants, I got out my Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless cookbooks and started cooking Mexican food at home. And frankly, my home cooking is a lot better than La Sirenita's home cooking. I don't think that what I am looking for in a Mexican restaurant is perfection. I have liked several things I've eaten at Oyamel. I stop at El Charrito Caminante for a taco when I'm in the neighborhood, and regularly have tacos at Baja Fresh and even Chipotle. They're all okay. La Sirenita's tacos may well be better. But I do think that overpraising the ordinary, just because it is the best of a mediocre bunch, is a disservice to your readers. They're tacos. Street food. Mexico's regional cuisines are among the most complex and interesting in the world. I love to go to Chinese or Thai restaurants with people who have lived in those countries, or go to Indian restaurants that Indian friends praise, because they help to educate my palate about how to taste those cuisines, how to know what is really good. Many people I've met here have told me that they don't really like Mexican food, and no wonder. They have had very little experience of Mexican food at all, and what they've had has in all likelihood been cheesy Tex-Mex drek. La Sirenita is better than Cactus Cantina, to be sure. But there is value in discussing more specifically how the food compares with examples of the cuisine that may be found outside this geographic area, too.

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Sure, I could talk about some of those tiny, tasty Oaxacan places you can turn up all over Southern California, but so? The people i'm writing for, they're supposed to hop a plane to go eat there?

I'm supposed to seek out and write about what's good and worthy in the area, and these are good and worthy places -- the best mexican restaurants in the area. Without question.

Not to mention -- stunningly good values.

Where is the disservice to my readers in telling them about something delicious and tasty?

I did not say: These are the most delicious, most tasty tacos you will find anywhere in the country.

And to call something "great" is not to say that there is none greater.

I tried to provide a little contextualization when I wrote about these places -- see above. Why? Because, having eaten widely, as you have, in Southern California -- a Mexican food lover's dream -- I wanted to provide some perspective for afficionados. I knew very well that had I been writing for an L.A. audience, i likely would not have been writing about La Sirenita and El Tapatio.

Foodies are always looking for these kinds of disclaimers from critics. It's as if there ought to be paragraph-long, all-caps warnings at the start of every review:

THIS ITALIAN RESTAURANT, WHILE QUITE GOOD AND, PERHAPS, THE BEST WE CAN DO AT THIS MOMENT IN THE CITY, CANNOT HOLD A CANDLE TO THE APPEALING LITTLE TRATTORIAS THAT YOU FIND DOTTING THE COUNTRYSIDE IN TUSCANY -- PLACES THAT WILL PROVIDE YOU WITH A GORGEOUS, KNOCKOUT VIEW THAT YOU WILL SWOON OVER THROUGHOUT YOUR MEAL AND RETURN TO AGAIN IN MEMORY, WHILE ALSO CHARGING YOU HALF AS MUCH AS THE CROOKS WHO COMMAND THIS THREE-STAR JOINT.

I think it's worth pointing out that 9th St just below U has some of the best Ethiopian food I've had in this country. I wrote about this area almost a year ago. Walter Nicholls of the Post followed with his report several months ago. Yet the crowds have not come, and there is little discussion of these places among the lovers of food in this city.

Why?

And why hasn't Little Mexico attracted the white foodies the way that the Eden Center has?

My original point in this thread was about how most people -- food people, supposedly -- still don't know about this place.

You seem to be suggesting that it's about the food. I really doubt that. Just as I doubt that it's the food that keeps white people from flocking to 9th St. I think that it comes down to a sense of security and comfort and ease -- which is what eating out so often comes down to for so many people.

Little Ethiopia is near the booming part of U, but it's still in an identifiably black part of town. Little Mexico is in Prince George's -- bad enough for a great many people. And then there's also the prospect of feeling your way through a part of town that's full of immigrants who don't speak English.

Oyamel, sure, is a lot less daunting.

But they're entirely different experiences.

I don't want to pooh-pooh the notion of convenience. Convenience counts for a lot when you're making your mind up about where you want to eat when you're out and about or when you're tired. I find it interesting, though, to observe the way certain places get decreed, in the public mind, as being worth or not worth the trip -- Northern Virginia and Upper Northwest, of course, being the locus.

It's not just a geographic locus, either -- but a cultural locus, an ideological and even philosophical locus.

But that's not my locus. And I couldn't do my job if it were.

Expectations change when people are pulled far from home, or far from where they feel most comfortable. And for you, and maybe for others, too, Little Mexico will only ever be a pilgrimage kind of a place. Which is, I think, too bad. Because it burdens it well beyond the load it can carry.

If it were closer, you might have gone more than once, and done a little exploration of some of the stores. Where, by the way, you can buy some of the Oaxacan spices (corn tassels, epazote, etc.) that I'm sure find their way into your cooking.

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Sure, I could talk about some of those tiny, tasty Oaxacan places you can turn up all over Southern California, but so? The people i'm writing for, they're supposed to hop a plane to go eat there?

I'm supposed to seek out and write about what's good and worthy in the area, and these are good and worthy places -- the best mexican restaurants in the area. Without question.

Not to mention -- stunningly good values.

Where is the disservice to my readers in telling them about something delicious and tasty?

I did not say: These are the most delicious, most tasty tacos you will find anywhere in the country.

And to call something "great" is not to say that there is none greater.

I tried to provide a little contextualization when I wrote about these places -- see above. Why? Because, having eaten widely, as you have, in Southern California -- a Mexican food lover's dream -- I wanted to provide some perspective for afficionados. I knew very well that had I been writing for an L.A. audience, i likely would not have been writing about La Sirenita and El Tapatio.

Foodies are always looking for these kinds of disclaimers from critics. It's as if there ought to be paragraph-long, all-caps warnings at the start of every review:

THIS ITALIAN RESTAURANT, WHILE QUITE GOOD AND, PERHAPS, THE BEST WE CAN DO AT THIS MOMENT IN THE CITY, CANNOT HOLD A CANDLE TO THE APPEALING LITTLE TRATTORIAS THAT YOU FIND DOTTING THE COUNTRYSIDE IN TUSCANY -- PLACES THAT WILL PROVIDE YOU WITH A GORGEOUS, KNOCKOUT VIEW THAT YOU WILL SWOON OVER THROUGHOUT YOUR MEAL AND RETURN TO AGAIN IN MEMORY, WHILE ALSO CHARGING YOU HALF AS MUCH AS THE CROOKS WHO COMMAND THIS THREE-STAR JOINT.

I think it's worth pointing out that 9th St just below U has some of the best Ethiopian food I've had in this country. I wrote about this area almost a year ago. Walter Nicholls of the Post followed with his report several months ago. Yet the crowds have not come, and there is little discussion of these places among the lovers of food in this city.

Why?

And why hasn't Little Mexico attracted the white foodies the way that the Eden Center has?

My original point in this thread was about how most people -- food people, supposedly -- still don't know about this place.

You seem to be suggesting that it's about the food. I really doubt that. Just as I doubt that it's the food that keeps white people from flocking to 9th St. I think that it comes down to a sense of security and comfort and ease -- which is what eating out so often comes down to for so many people.

Little Ethiopia is near the booming part of U, but it's still in an identifiably black part of town. Little Mexico is in Prince George's -- bad enough for a great many people. And then there's also the prospect of feeling your way through a part of town that's full of immigrants who don't speak English.

Oyamel, sure, is a lot less daunting.

But they're entirely different experiences.

I don't want to pooh-pooh the notion of convenience. Convenience counts for a lot when you're making your mind up about where you want to eat when you're out and about or when you're tired. I find it interesting, though, to observe the way certain places get decreed, in the public mind, as being worth or not worth the trip -- Northern Virginia and Upper Northwest, of course, being the locus.

It's not just a geographic locus, either -- but a cultural locus, an ideological and even philosophical locus.

But that's not my locus. And I couldn't do my job if it were.

Expectations change when people are pulled far from home, or far from where they feel most comfortable. And for you, and maybe for others, too, Little Mexico will only ever be a pilgrimage kind of a place. Which is, I think, too bad. Because it burdens it well beyond the load it can carry.

If it were closer, you might have gone more than once, and done a little exploration of some of the stores. Where, by the way, you can buy some of the Oaxacan spices (corn tassels, epazote, etc.) that I'm sure find their way into your cooking.

Walter Nichols' article piqued my interest, and your subsequent review spurred me out of my geographic (not ethnic) comfort zone, which is: around twenty minutes or less from home. I know people who will drive 100 miles to try a crabcake they've heard about, but my life doesn't afford that kind of luxury of time very often. I met some friends from Chowhound at El Tapatio for lunch, and had great expectations, based on what you had written. You are a talented writer, Todd. I thought we finally had a place to go out to for great authentic Mexican food in the area. Granted, my life history may be different than many of your readers, but I anticipated wonderful, home-style Mexican food and the food we were served was actually just okay. It wasn't terrible by any means, but it certainly wasn't great. It doesn't have to be THE GREATEST I've ever eaten to be wonderful or really delicious. It was more authentic than Guapo's. But based on the superlatives in your review, I expected much better food than I was served. After lunch, we explored the neighborhood, went up to La Sirenita to look around, went into the grocery store, where I bought some fresh epazote, which was exciting to find. A couple of weeks later, I went to La Sirenita for dinner with some friends who live in University Park-- she grew up in California, he lived in Mexico for a few years after college. We had a nice time, but were not very impressed by the food. I'm sorry we didn't love it as much as you do. Does that mean that people shouldn't go there? Of course not. My friends may well have gone back, since they live nearby. I haven't been back because, frankly, forty-five minutes to an hour each way is too far to go for a taco, or for epazote, as much as I would like to have it on hand when I feel like making frijoles.

If we lived in a community where, let's say, Panda Express was the best of the limited options for Chinese food, I believe that a critic might point out which of the menu choices there was likable, but one would hope that the critic had enough experience of Chinese cuisine outside of that small community to put the food into a larger context. I don't see why people should not be told that most of Panda Express's food bears little resemblance to the food served in China--even if they may never get a chance to eat in China. Maybe they will travel there, or be in a city with a large Chinese population. And there may be people in that community who have been to China, or lived in places where there are wonderful Chinese restaurants. Won't they be disappointed if they walk into Panda Express, expecting great Chinese food because the local critic wasn't clear about the distinction between "great Chinese food" and "the best of what we have in our area"?

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I hardly think you can compare a La Sirenita or El Tapatio with -- come on, Panda Express?? A chain, first of all, where the owner isn't on the premises. And, furthermore, one that serves irredeemable fast food slop. Honestly, do readers really need to have a place like that contextualized for them?

I did, as I said, provide some context in the piece that ran last May for afficionados like yourself. That ought to have given you a bit of perspective.

The larger question hanging in the air here is: What is the responsibility of the critic? I understand the sort of context you're seeking -- how does this place rank not just locally but nationally and even globally? That's the kind of scorecard-keeping that foodies love. I just don't think it always matters, especially when you're recommending a place to people where the average check for two is under $40. Now -- a place where dinner for two can exceed $150? It starts to matter, sometimes a lot. And a place where you're taking out a small loan to dine? Absolutely crucial.

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Well, Todd, I think we both have legitimate points of view and have about beaten this horse to death. You prefer to grade on a curve, and I maintain that there ought to be objective standards that earn one an "A" in this realm... You are entitled to your enthusiasms and I will continue to search for excellence in the cuisine of Mexico en mi cocina, and in restaurants.

Edited by zoramargolis
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OK -- but, really: "grading on a curve"?

It suggests a granting of indulgences -- a tacit acknowledgment of subpar work. Uh uh.

I try as best I can to judge places against the standard they set for themselves. Objective standards? You can only compare apples with apples, oranges with oranges. Should a pupuseria be held to the same exacting standards as Maestro? Of course not.

And since we've been talking all this time about expectation and fulfillment: The restaurant that ought to bear the great burden of your expectations (and the greater scrutiny that comes with those expectations) is the exhaustively researched Oyamel, not La Sirenita or El Tapatio.

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OK -- but, really: "grading on a curve"?

It suggests a granting of indulgences -- a tacit acknowledgment of subpar work. Uh uh.

I try as best I can to judge places against the standard they set for themselves. Objective standards? You can only compare apples with apples, oranges with oranges. Should a pupuseria be held to the same exacting standards as Maestro? Of course not.

And since we've been talking all this time about expectation and fulfillment: The restaurant that ought to bear the great burden of your expectations (and the greater scrutiny that comes with those expectations) is the exhaustively researched Oyamel, not La Sirenita or El Tapatio.

If one can conjecture that a place has set modest standards for itself, and meets them, one can say that they are fulfilling their mission, which is laudatory, but is that "greatness"? You suggest that it is unfair of me to compare a cantina in Hyattsville to a cantina in Los Angeles. Okay, but I don't think anyone can let go of all previous experience and judge a place only by the standards it seems to set for itself. Decent, inexpensive, good-- no argument. Great? I have eaten frijoles refritos in many, many little Mexican cafes, and often cook them at home. Same with the salsa verde and the pico de gallo and the guacamole. Does the table salsa have depth and complexity? Are the tortillas made in house? How delicious does the food taste? I cannot make that judgement without referencing other times I have eaten those dishes. I'm not talking about comparing tacos and truffles. As a reviewer, you are going out on a limb and saying, essentially: "To my taste, and in my world, this is great Mexican food." And I taste the same food and say: "To my taste and in my world, which encompasses the many experiences I have had, this is fairly good Mexican food, but not great Mexican food." So there we are. You are a restaurant critic, and in this case I don't share your opinion and I have provided the reasons why.

As far as Oyamel is concerned, I went once with a group of Chowhounds, and had tiny tastes of most of the menu. To me, the best thing about the meal was the tortillas made with fresh masa, the first I've had in a restaurant since moving here. I plan to go back soon and explore in greater depth, but it didn't knock my socks off. And I was really hoping that I was going to love it.

Edited by zoramargolis
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I've just been charged with making a BWI run this Sunday, with the promise of some free food as a reward.

Does anyone know of any local joints around the airport, or on the way back to DC? (Can be anywhere along 95, 295, 495 between silver spring and bethesda, upper-upper NW, etc.)

Don't need anything too classy, just something with character. Ethnic, BBQ, greasy spoon, doesn't matter.

Is La Sirenita too far off of your route?

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Is La Sirenita too far off of your route?

Don't forget that the Glen Burnie outpost of La Sirenita, same owners same menu, is a mere blocks from BWI! If you head here, note that their address is 702 Crain Hwy N in Glen Burnie. They seem to be mis-listed as 702 Crain Hwy S in a lot of online databases, which tripped me up the first time I went there.

Also, bring your pointing finger if you don't speak Spanish. While the staff has always been gracious, they rarely have someone on staff who speaks English.

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Is this joint open for lunch? I might venture over there today.

Don't know about the Mermaid (La Sirenita), but El Tapatio opens at 10:00 every morning. Best thing about getting in early there is that the Jukebox is set at merely a mild-roar.

If you're driving, looking for the Mermaid, my landmark is a smallish sign perpendicular to the road in red Korean lettering (previous tenant) in a little 3 shop strip (grocery at other end). My landmark for El Tapatio is the go-cart track across the street. Too bad the WPost archives doesn't include the nice map graphic that detailed the locations of the places mentioned in the article.

Todd's article about these two restaurants is what first brought my attention to his writing (and this neighborhood). Places like these keep me in Mole and Menudo* until I can hit a fav stripmall resto in bay area California - and makes me wonder why MoCo can't seem to attract any places like these or the ones mentioned in NoVa.

*Menudo in a super-size soupbowl, not on the jukebox!

Edited by Lydia R
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I dropped by La Sirenita yesterday for lunch and had a decent meal. I tried a barbacoa burrito that unfortunately had a lot of fatty hunks of beef mixed in with the otherwise nicely seasoned meat. I also had the spicy beef taco which was enjoyable. It was certainly cheap ($5.50), but I didn't feel it was worth the trip. I got a kick out of the Mexican music blasting from the jukebox though. Man, they sure love the accordian and tuba!

Perhaps I should be more adventurous next time and and also down a few cervezas for the full experience.

post-27-1132345233_thumb.jpg

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I hadn't been to La Sirenita in a couple of years, and not surprisingly, it remains an amazing value. The tacos are still $2 each, and come double-wrapped in the best tortillas (Moctec?) I've had in this area.

However, all five tacos I tried last night (lengua, cesina, chorizo, barbacoa, carnitas) contained meat that, while decent, was dry to the point where it became hard work to finish. Still, at ten dollars for this enormous platter, it's hard to complain. The tacos are served with radishes, much-needed lime, and two types of salsa (I strongly preferred the verde with nearly every taco, but I tend to like green sauce).

And the Posole ($8) was just terrific - a big bowl of rich, piping-hot, tomato-based broth full of hominy and little chunks of pork. I understand an eight-dollar bowl of soup, which is large enough for a full meal, is a major commitment, but I really urge people to order this - at least order one to take home.

Along with the posole, an order of Platanos Fritos ($3, listed under postres) countered the dryness in the tacos. These were great fried plantains, sliced, sweet, soft, slightly caramelized, and served with a little tub of sweet crema for dipping. Even after they got cold they were good. The tacos, the posole, and the plantains eaten as a unit were a championship combination.

Beers are relatively expensive here, but still only $3 for a Modelo. Two people can stuff themselves silly at La Sirenita, with beers, for just over $20 plus tax and tip.

Cheers,

Rocks.

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Ate there last night with some friends - the beers are now $3.50 and the horchata wasn't so good (but it was plentiful - a small pitcher = one serving).

The tamale I had should be skipped (dry, not very flavorful) but the three tacos - goat, chicken and chorizo - were tasty. Not dry this time. One friend enjoyed the beef hurache (sp?) and other had tongue taco and something else. The soft taco tortillas seemed fresh but I could be mistaken. Plaintains were perfect - loved the crema.

Loud jukebox that the waitress turned down without us asking. Nice friendly service and a free calendar with images of Pope and the Virgin Mary when we left. Cost cannot be beat. I'll eat there again.

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At there today and it reminded this LA boy of pretty good LA style Mexican "Delicatessens" which were plentiful in the 80's. Large menu with everything on them. Whilke in LA it wouldn't be worth a drive to go, it would be a worthwhile neighborhood joint. Here, it is the best Mexican I have had

Really good chips and salsa.

I had a coctele di Marisco mixto for $8 which, while a little disconcertingly sweet, reminded me of those at a sleazy spot on Alverado south of Sunset Blvd where the gang bangers made allowances for Gabachos at 3 in the morning. Lot s of finely chopped octopus, shrimp, clams and other stuff, a little cevice, tomato juice, lime juice served with a pile of saltines and Tapatio hot sauce and chinks of avocado. There was less onion and tomato than I am used to, more fish. Without the sugar and with more heat, it would have been killer!

Next up was pozzole. It was red but the stock needed more pork fat floating on top and more heat. Both the pork and the hominy were a little more al dente than would have been the case in East LA. All in all, with a Negra Modelo this was a $20 feast.

The servers were a couple of teen aged girls, one who personified the angst and ennui that only comes with a lack of life experience. Ahh youth.

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Lunch today pointed up the fact that the good is really good and not so good is not so good. Cevice tostadas are fine if you like more krab than marinated fish. The pork tamale has its betters in your local Giant'f freezer. But the cockteles di Cammones was superb and the Chile Rileneos very good indeed. The chiles came with soupy beans and very good rice. The guac makes the rip off of those famous places downtown so egregious that arrest warrants should be sworn out for highway robbery against the perpetrators. Next time, a large guac, a large shrimp cocktail and a plate of chile rilleneos will make the two of us fat, dumb and happy. The Lengua wouldn't be bad either. If only they had tequila and mezcal, but then who would drive us home!

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Of all days for the DR site to be down, it had to be yesterday - the day for my first of many-to-come weekly treks out to College Park on Saturdays ending around dinnertime, and me having no idea of what there is to eat in College Park or anywhere near. So I had to use other internet sources to get the clue to go to La Sirenita, and had not seen all of this thread above.

I sure am glad i found it - a fantastic friendly place with some inexpensive and delicous food (and some not-so-delicious, including the ceviche, which didn't really taste like much). Chilaquiles with fried eggs ($10), and beer, what's not to like? And a $2 bowl of roasted jalapenos. Especially with a Norteno (I think, I am not an expert) band playing at the table in the back.

If my life is any guide to why more food-lovers from other parts of town don't know about or go to this neighborhood - hell, I'd never heard that there was a "little Mexico" in DC until yesterday - it is just that getting out of NW DC, heading out of town towards the northeast, is ridiculously inconvenient and unpleasant by car. (My theory is that it was designed that way so that communist hordes rampaging in from the northeast would have a harder time getting to the capital.)

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