A Quick, Quality Bite to Eat

Johnny’s Opens Latin-Influenced Takeout Shop

Posted May 9, 2007 at 5:21pm

Banish all thoughts of food-court fare. Put down the pale, limp tomato from that deli salad bar. And slowly back away from the soul-sucking cup o’ ramen noodles. Hungry employees on Capitol Hill have a delicious new option for a quick lunch in Taqueria Nacionale.

The takeout taco shop opened last week in the tucked-away storefront formerly occupied by La Colline Express, just behind the patio at Johnny’s Half Shell. The team behind the new spot is led by chef/owner Ann Cashion and partner Johnny Fulchino, who also operate Johnny’s. (The two kitchens actually connect.) “Ann’s wanted to open a taqueria for years,” said chef Wayne Combs, who has known Cashion for two decades and is now running the taqueria.

The taqueria is not a huge departure for Cashion. She helped develop the original menu for Austin Grill nearly 20 years ago, and she was the founding chef at Penn Quarter’s Jaleo.

That Latin influence is apparent in the refreshing aguas frescas, traditional fruit drinks served out of large glass jars. The watermelon drink tastes like an entire sugary fruit has been concentrated into a cup, and cantaloupe is pleasantly thick with pulp. And don’t miss the traditional horchata, made from chufa, a nut-like tuber that has been soaked and mixed with water, sugar and cinnamon. The creamy concoction looks like milk but contains no dairy. Combs said it’s likely that additional flavors, like tamarind, will make appearances in the future.

But the tacos, priced from $1.75 to $2.50, are the main attraction. Two or three tacos make for a good serving, depending on how hungry you are. The fish taco wraps lightly breaded wild pollock with a tangle of crunchy cabbage and a squeeze of a creamy sauce spiced with red salsa. Shredded pork has a tinge of citrus flavor thanks to a dip in a marinade made with oranges. After being braised, the meat is finished on a griddle with scallions, onions, cilantro and Serrano chiles. And cubed, grilled chicken is served with chopped raw onions. There’s also a beef taco and bean taco.

Don’t overlook the sides, including creamy guacamole and vegetarian pinto beans (rich refried beans and rice also are options). The standout among the accompaniments are the hefty yucca fries, salty and crisp and nicely paired with a tangy sauce made with green salsa, vinegar and mayonnaise. The taqueria also offers three salsas — red, green and chile — at a self-serve station.

If you’re not a fan of tacos, a regular lineup of daily American specials — or “platos tipico Americano” — mixes things up. The week starts with a made-to-order burger with pimento cheese and fries, followed by a brisket sandwich with coleslaw on Tuesdays, chicken pot pie on Wednesdays, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy on Thursdays, and jambalaya with shrimp, chicken and andouille sausage to finish out the week. Prices for the specials run from $5.50 to about $7.

Breakfast is served from 7 to 10 a.m., offering breakfast tacos, waffles, pastries and an American breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, grits and a biscuit.

Simple desserts like pastries and brownies are displayed in a glass case, and a special dessert from Johnny’s occasionally will be featured, Combs said.

The food is a vast improvement over the lunch options dished out by the previous occupant, as is the decor, with the nondescript interior of La Colline Express but a distant memory. If it’s possible to infuse such a tiny space with style and visual interest, the owners have succeeded with antiqued furniture, a colorful beaded chandelier and rustic exposed wood beams overhead. Cracked plaster on the walls gives the takeout-only space a timeworn illusion.

Hill workers seem happy to have the new lunch option, though there have been kinks. As word trickled out and lines grew during Taqueria Nacionale’s first few days in business, some menu items were running short. “No guacamole again?” a customer in line groaned. But it’s early in the game, and the taqueria is off to a strong start.

Look for the menu to evolve over time as well, Combs said. “We want to keep it as original as possible.”