Clover Restaurant Group recently opened a new Tortilla Coast location in Logan Circle.
Having devoted their first quarter-century exclusively to filling rumbling Congressional bellies with oversized helpings of bean-laced burritos and face-puckering, Technicolor frozen margaritas, the new team behind Tortilla Coast decided to try something different at its Logan Circle spinoff.
The resulting restaurant carries the same name, a branding no-brainer on the part of Clover Restaurant Group, but it traffics in more authentically Mexican cuisine than the Tex-Mexy flagship.
The Capitol Hill location remains the purview of cash-strapped interns, courting the penniless peons who prop up the adjoining legislative body with budget-friendly deals ranging from the legendary all-you-can-eat “fajita orgy” (gone, but certainly not forgotten) to long-lunch inducing $19.95 pitchers of margaritas (available until 3 p.m. Monday-Friday).
Logan Circle is, by design, much more grown-up but still perfectly approachable. Salt-rimmed margaritas remain in fashion, but the bar here also pours almost 100 tequilas, shakes up spirited drinks and hoptails (stick with the citrusy chelita; the sangrita is a muddled mess) and mixes nonalcoholic coolers (blood orange soda, prickly pear lemonade).
The biggest departure is the food.
CRG Managing Director Katie Tyson said the group polled Logan Circle residents in anticipation of launching the restaurant, and the majority returned with a plea for traditional Mexican cooking. CRG has tasked Executive Chef Daniel Farber, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who intermittently honed his craft within restaurateur Geoff Tracy’s blossoming hospitality empire, with coaxing the widely craved south-of-the-border-style cuisine from seasonally inspired spoils.
No small feat — and one certainly not devoid of missteps.
First off, kudos to Farber et al. for taking control of their capsaicin cache. Whereas Cap Hill denizens must make do with cookie-cutter hot sauces cranked out by wholesaler Hot Sauce Harry’s, Logan Circle peeps may feast on a clutch of house-made heaters, including a smoked-to-perfection chipotle number and an invigorating habanero sauce — “I cry every time I eat it and ask myself, ‘Why didn’t I take it off?’” one masochistic server admitted. (You and me both, darlin’, though mine were tears of joy.)
Tacos de rajas are a vegetarian’s best friend, layering strips of roasted poblano and sweet red peppers with caramelized onions, fast-melting Chihuahua cheese and a dollop of sour cream.
Pulled-chicken-stuffed taquitos get high marks for their gourmet fixings (pickled onions, house-made hot sauce) but taste no better than their fished-out-of-the-grocery-store-freezer counterparts.
Torta ahogada summons braised pork bolstered by black-bean-studded mayo, the most appetizing innovation I encountered, with supporting nods going to pickled onions (wonderfully tangy) and chile de arbol sauce (magnifico).
Fish and fruit forge an edible stop light of reddish ahi tuna, tart yellow mango and verdant cubes of buttery avocado, which rises up from a field of mixed greens dampened with cilantro-soy dressing.
Cheese-drenched enchiladas look great and deliver where it counts (tender wrap, juicy filling) but were sabotaged by cloyingly sweet tomatillo sauce.
At first blush, the multilayered budin Azteca sounds like a glorified plate of nachos or some sort of bastardized lasagna. But the artful execution makes this monument-to-meal assembly worth revisiting, interspersing crispy corn tortillas with savory shredded chicken, meaty sauteed mushrooms, crumbly Chihuahua cheese, lemony cilantro and pulse-quickening poblano cream sauce.
The grub on Capitol Hill is far less ambitious but rockets out in near-record time.
The assorted quesos combine molten cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese with different combinations of receptor-rattling ingredients, including tomatoes, onions, cilantro, jalapeños, ground beef (quite tasty) and guacamole (OK).
Mildly seasoned ground beef, shredded lettuce and a hail of sharp cheddar hitch a ride on a floppy flour tortilla in one forgettable soft taco plate. The ahi tuna version sports better accoutrements (guacamole, corn, black beans, pickled slaw) but hardly seems worth the 50 percent price increase.
The twin cubes of sparingly seared fish were plenty tender, and the pickled slaw was refreshingly aggressive. Still, I would have much preferred sinking my teeth into blackened tilapia, fried cod or grilled mahi-mahi than the trendy tuna.
The skillet full of succulent steak fajitas went a long way toward restoring our faith, wooing us with smoke-tinged meat, scorched vegetables and soupy black beans that complemented each other to the utmost within the warm tortillas.
And what can we say about the free-flowing frozen margaritas other than: Can somebody please oil that constantly whirring/desperately wheezing contraption at the far end of the bar?
The sangria-tequila mashup remains our favorite afternoon delight — its slushy, tangy base a font of tequila-fueled regret, while the finishing shot of fruity sangria deludes us into believing each long, lustrous sip might be delivering those antioxidants touted in all the medical journals.