/ The DC Traveler
Washington DC — By Jon Rochetti on May 18, 2010 at 8:10 am
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Restaurant Review – Upscale Mexican Street Food at Oyamel

Restaurant Oyamel Cocina Mexicana updates and refines the classic tastes of Mexican street food and small plates with modernized home-style cooking that spans the history of Mexico.  Named after the mountainous fir tree that is home to Mexico’s Monarch butterflies before they start their annual 3,000 mile epic migration north every spring, Oyamel Cocina Mexicana, is located in the Penn Quarter neighborhood of Washington DC.

Oymal in Washington DC interior

The bright orange and gold dining room is open and airy with a collection of metal butterflies flying overhead.  The bar is comfortable, but often crowded due to the restaurant’s popularity and can be a bit loud. Tables for dinner usually require a wait or an advanced reservations.  But the wait is worth it.

Any trip to Oyamel needs to start with one of their signature margaritas, and a large helping of their chunky guacamole ($13.00) made tableside with green tomatillos, Serrano chilies, and a bit of crumbled queso fresco cheese. The server will ask you to specify the how spicy or mild you prefer the dish flavored with the chilies.

I’ve sampled Oyamel margaritas ($11.00) served not in a traditional salt-rimmed glass, but topped with “salt air,” a special salty foam concoction blended by mixing lime juice, salt and soy lecithin.  The other specialty cocktails and margaritas include ingredients that reflect the produce of Mexico, such as passion fruit, watermelon and mango juice, vanilla and agave nectar.

But when it comes to the food, I’d recommend dining with friends so you can sample as many of their yummy small dishes as possible.

Their tacos ($3.50 – $5.00) start with hand-made corn tortillas and have 9 different fillings ranging from chicken and barbecued pork to beef tongue and sautéed chapulines Oyamel guacamole(grasshoppers.)  And yes, the grasshopper tacos are excellent, made with shallots, tequila and guacamole.  The chili marinated Shenandoah Valley goat taco was both sweet and spicy.

Oyamel offers 4 soups ($8.00), including a creamy black bean soup and a spicy butternut squash soup with hints of cinnamon, habanero chilies and marigolds.

The antojitos, or little plates from the streets ($4.00 – $11.00) number too many to get honestly your head around.  At least 30 offering start with salads such as the delicious classic Caesar salad ($9.00) served deconstructed, to a baby cactus with a lime dressing.  Seafood and meats ranging from Veracruz-style red snapper to skirt steak with grilled cactus.  I enjoyed the big seared scallops with a rich pasilla chile and pumpkin sauce.

For a taste of vegetables, try the fried potatoes with a classic mole poblano sauce, the  grilled fresh cactus paddles with salsa or any of the queso cheese plates.

The bar boasts a collection of 65 fine tequilas – Blancos (white), Reposado (aged or rested) wood barrel aged Añejo and mezcales, ranging from $8.00 to $35.00 per 1.5 oz. pour.  They also offer Dos Equis Amber (a personal favorite) and Larger on draft, plus other Mexican and domestic beers on tap and by the bottle.

The bartenders and servers are helpful, friendly and can assist you in making  decisions with good recommendations, especially if you want to try something out of the ordinary.

Lastly, the dessert menu ($7.00 each) is worth reviewing, especially for anything chocolate, especially the warm chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream or the Café de Olla milk chocolate custard, with Kahlua liqueur gelatin and spiced brown sugar syrup with crumbled cookies served with star anise ice cream.

The Executive Chef and co-owner of Oyamel is José Andres, who is also the host of the PBS television series Made in Spain, a culinary journey of Spain and Spanish foods. He’s also authored several Spanish cuisine cookbooks.  In Washington DC, He’s also the culinary engine behind several popular Washington DC restaurants, including Cafe Atlántico, Minibar, Zaytinya, and Jaleo.   On my last visit to Oyamel, José was onsite.

Oyamel has been voted as one of Washington DC’s top 100 restaurants by Washingtonian magazine in both 2008 and 2009, and the interesting food reflects it’s popularity as a DC favorite.

Oyamel Cocina Mexicana

401 7th Street, NW at D Street, NW

Washington DC  (map)

Hours – Opens daily at 11:30 a.m. Closes at 10:00 p.m. on Sun. & Mon., 11:30 p.m. Tues. – Thur. and midnight on Fri. & Sat.  Brunch served on weekends until 3:00.

Reservations – Online through their website or Open Table or by phone at 202-628-1005.

Nearest Metro Subway Station – Archives/Navy Memorial, Green & Yellow lines, then a 1-block walk, or use the DC Circulator bus.

Parking – Limited metered street parking and area paid garage parking is available.

Images –Interior photo – Courtesy of Oyamel – Darko Zagar, yosoynuts @flickr (guacamole)

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