Penn Quarter is in the midst of a major restaurant renaissance. New dining options open every month. And with all these new spots to visit, it’s easy to forget the older restaurants, the ones that first gave the area credibility.
One such restaurant is Oyamel Cocina Mexicana, located on the corner of 7th and D Street NW. Its presence is announced by a bright sign, with big, looping orange cursive letters spelling out the spot’s name.
The restaurant didn’t always reside in one of D.C.’s most rapidly growing neighborhoods. It was originally a suburban dweller, located in Crystal City for three years before, in 2007, venturing into the district.
Oyamel covers the breadth of the entire country of Mexico, with the edgy design of the space intended to reflect the bustle and liveliness of Mexico City, while its cuisine and cocktails take cues from all Mexican cooking. And although there are plenty of Mexican restaurants , three elements of a meal at Oyamel truly set it apart from the competition.
The first comes at the very beginning, as part of the appetizer round. Regulars know the secret is to order the guacamole, which is crafted table-side. Servers scoop plump avocados into large, black stone bowls and then mash them in front of your eyes, blending the mushy fruit into tasty treat containing lime juice, Serrano chilies, tomatillos and queso fresco.
The bowls are large, but never last long.
For your entree, be sure not skip the nine different tacos on the menu. Each comes as a single taco, and they are all priced between $3.50-$4.50. The fillings can be simple, like shredded chicken, but it’s the unique ones, which cater to far out tastes, that are the best on the menu. These fillings are as diverse as they are obscure: confit of baby pig; blends of goat, veal and lamb; and braised beef tongue.
Then there’s the taco that’s only for the bravest of souls. The Chupalines is a taco stuffed with grasshopper. Yes, the little green insect that jumps from plant to plant is a specialty in the Oaxacan region of Mexico, one of the southernmost areas of the country.
All the tacos can be consumed in one or two bites, allowing dinners to sample as many as they feel fit.
Of course, all these tasty bites need something to be washed down with something, and Oyamel shines in the beverage department.
More than almost any Mexican restaurant in the area, the staff knows its tequila. For the past two weeks, the restaurant has been holding its annual tequila and mezcal festival. For it, the owners bring in agave growers and tequila makers to teach diners about the intricacies involved in a beverage that’s too often associated with overindulgent college partying.
The last of these sessions is this Thursday, and there’s still time to register by calling the restaurant.
But even if you can’t make it to one of these sessions, you can still get a great imbibing experience during your visit to Oyamel. The restaurant has an extremely knowledgeable staff, all ready to show that tequila is nothing like the Jose Cuervo people are probably familiar with. No, behind it’s bar, Oyamel stocks dozens of different tequilas.
There are blancos, which are not aged and considered the freshest on the market. Then there are reposados, rested tequilas, which are aged much longer, in oak, almost like a whiskey. Then there are anejos, which are aged at least a year and considered some of the finest out there.
So if you don’t have plans this weekend, try a different dinner, one with fresh guacamole, grasshopper tacos and sips of the best tequila ever brewed.
But go easy on the tequila, you want it to be a night to remember, not one you can’t.
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