Food & Drink

The Best Authentic Latin Restaurants in DC

Published On 10/11/2016 Published On 10/11/2016
DC latin restaurants
Taqueria Habanero | JOSE LOPEZ-SANCHEZ/THRILLIST
Courtesy of El Tamarindo

El Tamarindo

Adams Morgan

"El Tam," as it’s known among its fans, has been making quality Mexican and Salvadoran food in Washington, DC since about 1982. Recently renovated, it's one of the two spots on this list that has really late-night offerings; we’ve seen people digging into pupusas and chips topped high with guacamole as late as 5am. Even more magically, the quality of the food doesn’t falter a bit during the graveyard shift. Come in for a hearty meal, but stay for one of the super-tart (and super-refreshing) house margaritas.

JOSE LOPEZ-SANCHEZ/THRILLIST

Fast Gourmet

14th St Corridor

A restaurant in a gas station, you say? Put those worries aside, because this place is worth a joyride for the excellent food. Offering a menu comprised of primarily Argentinian, Colombian, and Uruguayan culinary influences, as well as a smattering of menu items from around the world, Fast Gourmet makes some of the best late-night food in DC -- though you’re welcome to enjoy it for lunch as well, as it opens at 11am on weekdays.

While the Chivito sandwich has been written about by pretty much every publication in town, we’re big fans of the Milanesa -- available plated or as a sandwich, with chicken or beef. Make sure to order a side of eggplant fries with jalapeño ranch for a taste of authentic Latin American street food. Rumor has it that it'll be building a barbecue pit in coming months, and expanding the menu to include authentic South American asado. Fact: our mouths are watering at the prospect of some 3am choripan.

Gloria's Pupuseria

Columbia Heights

Some restaurants become synonymous with one dish: the thing they do so well, so extraordinarily better than any of their other dishes or competitors, that it seems kind of silly to go there for anything else. Gloria’s Pupuseria says it all in the name. While it does serve a wide range of dishes, its version of the pupusa -- a traditional Salvadoran thick corn tortilla filled with any combination of meat, cheese, beans, and curtido slaw -- stands above the rest. We particularly enjoy the pupusa revuelta, which blends together cheese, crackling pork, and refried beans. Heads up: Gloria’s is cash-only, and no-frills, but if you’re looking for the best pupusas in town, you’ve found them.

JOSE LOPEZ-SANCHEZ/THRILLIST

Judy's Restaurant

14th St Corridor

You’ve probably walked by Judy’s countless times on your way up and down 14th St without really noticing it; we’re not judging, because we did the same thing. Despite its faded, unassuming exterior and wrought-iron bars -- vestiges of the neighborhood’s recent past -- this Salvadoran and Mexican eatery has been putting out affordable, excellent food for a couple decades.

Dimly lit and always playing fútbol on TV for the regulars, Judy's makes you feel as though you've been transported to a local eatery somewhere in Central America. But all are welcome here: the staff is extremely attentive, the menu is varied, and the drinks are stiff. We particularly enjoy the chicken fajitas, served sizzling-hot, with fresh homemade tortillas, as well as the heartier brunch offerings: a perfectly cooked, slightly charred strip steak with fried eggs, rice, and refried beans known as Bistec al Caballo.

La Fonda Paisa

Silver Spring

Though this place calls itself a Colombian bakery, the broad offering of authentic, delicious dishes really qualifies it as a restaurant. La Fonda Paisa is one of the few representatives of true Colombian food in the area, and though you’ve got to head out to Silver Spring for these treats, this place is worth a pit stop if you’re on your way to the Fillmore or Merriweather Post Pavilion. As the name indicates, you’re going to find dishes from the paisa region, at the foot of the Andes mountains in northwest Colombia.

The vibe is informal and casual, and feels more like a bodega or deli; you place your order at a counter and get a printed ticket number. We suggest having an open mind to try the daily specials -- all reasonably priced, extremely fresh, and incredibly flavorful. Try the bandeja paisa, a hearty meal consisting of white rice, red beans, black pudding (read: blood sausage), and a hulking slab of grilled or roasted meat -- we had it with the pork, and it was excellent.

MARIA J. LOPEZ-SANCHEZ/THRILLIST

Los Hermanos

Columbia Heights

One of the most endearing aspects of an authentic ethnic restaurant is that it oftentimes doubles as an informal cultural center. These eateries become oases where people can find some respite, enjoying a shared affinity for acquired tastes and flavors; the opportunity to enjoy the music from the old country blaring over the speakers; a chance to break bread over home comforts with total strangers that you’ve somehow known your whole life.

There’s always some bachata playing, a baseball game on the TV, and a group of older men and women playing dominoes in the corner at Los Hermanos, a Dominican joint tucked away near the intersection of 14th and Park Streets NW. The buffet varies daily, but you’ll always find a couple staples on hand: plantains, served both green and maduros; hunks of perfectly fried crackling pork, glistening and with extra crispy skin known as chicharrón; and the star of the show, La Bandera, or "The Flag."

This dish is the Dominican Republic’s pride and joy, and we can see why -- Dominican-style red bean stew is ladled over mounds of steaming white long grain rice, forming the base of this meal. Typically accompanied by baked chicken, grilled beef, or stewed pork chops, it’s topped off with a green salad, avocados, and twice-fried, crunchy green plantain slices. It’s one hell of a meal, and we love the way Los Hermanos serves it. Enjoy a raspberry soda to wash it all down, and cheer on yet another Dominican grand slam.

MARIA J. LOPEZ-SANCHEZ/THRILLIST

Nazca Mochica

Dupont

One of the few more upscale restaurants on this list, Nazca Mochica treats Peruvian food as fine art. With a dedicated cocktail menu built around pisco, Peru's national grape liquor, all of the drinks are mixed to pair well with the acidity, smokiness, and citrus profile of the country's cuisine.

The house ceviche -- which features a wonderful marriage of textures, flavors, and acidity -- is a true showstopper. Nazca Mochica imports many of the key ingredients, including the blend of peppers, directly from Peru, and all the dishes feature a fine, delicate balance of the subtle, complex dimensions. The kobe anticucho is perfectly tender, with a lingering spiciness and peppery profile that dances on your tongue with each bite, all thanks to the house-made huancaina sauce, a recipe that tastes as if it was passed down lovingly from one generation to the next. We think it’s truly worth the (relative) splurge.

JOSE LOPEZ-SANCHEZ/THRILLIST

Pica Taco

14th St Corridor

Pica Taco makes us happy. An unassuming hole-in-the-wall spot near the corner of Florida Ave and 14th St, this space is always bustling with energy and producing delicious smells that waft onto the street. Infamous for its Toro Burrito Challenge -- a 4lb behemoth that’s free if you can finish it in under 45 minutes -- Pica has a lot of other things on offer that will stick to your ribs. The nachos are made with real cheese and have a nice, crispy broil; the taco platters are a hell of a deal for under $10; and the al pastor is excellent in any vessel or context, the perfect pairing of pork fattiness and the sweet, smoky tartness from perfectly roasted pineapples, onions, and cilantro. Above all, though we love Pica Taco for so many reasons, the No.1 thing that keeps us coming back is the house-made white sauce. Request it. Smother it on everything. Take a bottle home -- you’ll thank us later.

El Rinconcito Cafe

Mount Vernon Square

El Rinconcito is aptly named, a sliver of a space on what is now one of the busiest parts of town. Obviously an open secret, every table tends to be packed with happy-looking patrons during the lunch rush hour. Yet another Salvadoran-Mexican eatery serving reasonably priced, delicious, and fresh food to a diverse crowd of Washingtonians, this joint offers up excellent classics like the flavorful shredded beef and eggs -- the meat is so juicy, and disintegrates in your mouth with ease. We recommend coming in at off hours, if at all possible; otherwise, you might find yourself waiting a long time for a seat.

Rumba Cafe

Rumba Cafe

Adams Morgan

Rumba Cafe does a little bit of everything, taking inspiration for its dishes from Latin America as a region instead of focusing on any one country’s cuisine. Somewhat surprisingly, they nail it -- chef Angel Gustavo Huapalla’s restaurant has been going strong for close to 20 years at this point. We enjoy the asados from his native Argentina, but our favorite was the seafood paella: a classic coastal dish, Rumba Cafe’s version was brimming with scallops, squid, shrimp, and mussels, all swimming in a peppery tomato broth and yellow rice. It's a standout rendition of one of the legacy dishes shared by most Latin American countries.

Tacos El Chilango

U St Corridor

Starting off as a food truck, El Chilango continues to bring its taco goodness to the brick-and-mortar location right off the U St Corridor. If you’re looking for much beyond tacos, you’re out of luck; these guys keep the menu lean and focused. The lengua taco is perfectly cooked and textured, and there’s a beautiful simplicity to the cheese and avocado taco, which is exactly what it sounds like. El Chilango serves tasty house-made horchatas and aguas frescas, the perfect pairings to wash down three (or four or five) of their delicious tacos, which can be slightly on the smaller side -- but are packed with flavor.

JOSE LOPEZ-SANCHEZ/THRILLIST

Taqueria Habanero

Petworth

Taqueria Habanero’s mushroom quesadilla is probably one of the best dishes we have eaten in the District -- complex, nutty, and almost reminiscent of truffles, an incredible feat for a place where the average dish price is under $10. The tortilla was lightly fried and never overwhelming with grease, and the fresh cotija cheese and tomatoes added a cooling, creamy texture balance. The octopus taco, featuring chipotle aioli and mango salsa -- a recent taco of the day -- is tender, with amazing smoky flavor and served on fresh flour tortillas that truly stand out from the pack.

The owners, husband-and-wife duo Dionicio Montero and Mirna Alvarado, worked with José Andrés for close to 20 years before opening up their humble eatery in 2014, and the haute cuisine abilities and attention to detail show up in every dish. We’ve never seen this place at anything but capacity occupation, for obvious reasons: this is outstanding food at affordable prices.

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1. El Tamarindo 1785 Florida Ave NW, Washington, 20009 (Adams Morgan)

El Tamarindo has been serving the Adams Morgan neighborhood since 1982, a hold-out of Mexican-Salvadorian authenticity for 30-odd years in what has become a hotspot for new bars and boutiques. Their longevity probably has something to do with their pupusas (handmade corn tortillas stuffed with any combination of cheese, pork, spinach, beans, jalapeños, chicken), served until 5am on the weekends and until 2am otherwise. The big idea is pupusas as a mode of warding off hangovers. Apparently it’s working, and if you don’t believe it, have too many Oaxaca Mules (mezcal, ginger beer, lime) and get back to us. Other specialties include chunks of garlic-butter chicken in a creamy cilantro sauce, chimichangas and soft tacos. Family-run, opened by Jose Reyes and his wife, and now managed by their daughter, you’ll see the family in there every day. Start coming, and they’ll know you by name. They’re not going anywhere.

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2. Fast Gourmet 1400 W St NW, Washington, DC 20009 (U Street)

Sometimes lunchtime glory can be found in the most unexpected of places, and in Fast Gourmet's case, that's alongside a grungy gas station. Instead of cigarettes and lottery tickets, you'll find a counter serving Latin-influenced "urban street food," which means sandwiches like the Milanesa with New York strip, golden empanadas, and pulled pork with pineapple and lemongrass slaw. All the sandwiches come with a side of fries, and the only thing you have to pump is your ketchup.

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3. Gloria's Pupuseria 3411 14th St NW, Washington, 20010 (Columbia Heights)

Gloria’s small Salvadorian outpost in Columbia Heights looks something like a mix between a truck-stop cafe and a nursing home dining hall: white and turquoise walls and pale pink columns, black-and-white checkered tile accents, exposed ventilation shaft, fluorescent light, a floor that looks better suited for a high-school hallway. But you didn’t come here in search of inspiring design, you came here to eat. And made-to-order pupusas you shall eat: here, the cheesy, pork-filled corn pockets are hot, crisp and accompanied by black beans, avocado, pickled cabbage and red salsa. Take them to-go in styrofoam or tuck in at one of the tables with patterned tablecloths. Either way, bring cash.

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4. Judy Restaurant 2212 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009

Once a pool hall before it was a grocery store, Judy's is now a go-to for Salvadorian-Mexican dishes, with televisions glowing over patrons pining for cheap pupusas. The $2 corn pockets can be made revuelto (a mix of cheese, pork and beans), or with just queso, beans or loroco (a sautéed Central American vine with edible flowers). Quesadillas, tamales and dippable fried yuca plates round out a larger menu of traditional plates. Upstairs, pool is played as bartenders speak both Spanish and English while taking margarita orders during happy hour, popular with newcomers and longstanding neighborhood residents.

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5. La Fonda Paisa 7914 Georgia Ave, Silver Spring, MD 20910 (Silver Spring)

This Silver Springs Columbian bakery and food stop is a cultural exception in an urban area where the reigning Latino group is Salvadorian. The emphasis is on the Paisa region at the foot of the Andes, as the name suggests, and carb-cravens claw for almojabanas (cheesy corn-flour bread balls), buñuelos (fried dough balls powdered with sugar), pan de quesos (something like a danish) and chicharrones de Guayava (flaky sugared pastries filled with purple guava jelly), in addition to an assortment of cakes. Don't stop at the bakery, though: a bodega like lunch counter (you'll grab a numbered ticket) yields whole fried fish, arepas, tamales, empanadas, carne asadas and mixed fajitas. Don't shy away from the daily specials, even if they're unfamiliar (bandeja paisa is a winner: white rice, red beans, black pudding and roasted pork).

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6. Los Hermanos 1426 Park Rd NW, Washington, 20010 (Columbia Heights)

Homespun Caribbean food has a barebones home in Columbia Heights at Los Hermanos. Prepared meats (pulled pork called pernil, beef tripe, stewed chicken, goat) and helpings of mofongo (mounds of fried, mashed plantains molded around chicharrón pork) are piled onto plates or to-go containers, but you have to be in-the-know to ask for the true specialty: bistec encebollado, a mix of strips of lime-soaked steak tossed with a zingy salsa verde, topped with grilled onions and served with salty, crispy tostones (all the better to soak up the juices with), rice beans and a side. Dominican chefs in the back busy themselves transforming green platanos (like a larger, less sweet cousin of the banana) into the sought-after, chip-like tostones discs. The restaurant started as a small bodega in 1995, but once the owners started to cook, a business requiring 300-400lb of rice a week was born. Leave your comfort zone and order the oxtail stew or goat, but whatever you do, try the tostones. And maybe a papaya milkshake or a Morir Soñando (translates to "to die dreaming"): evaporated milk, orange juice, lime, sugar.

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7. Nazca Mochica 1633 P St NW, Washington, 20036 (Dupont Circle)

Dupont Circle’s contemporary, two-story Peruvian outpost is drawing crowds, with each floor suited for a different experience. Downstairs, a lounge and bar outfitted in lots of wood (on the polished bar, the walls, the smooth and hard curved stools, the carved geometric planters housing succulents in pools of overhead light) is about snacks and pisco-focused cocktails. Keep things standard with a pisco sour or go a little more playful with a lychee piscotini (lychee-hibiscus pisco, honey, crystallized hibiscus, lychee) or ginger-mint chilcano (mint-ginger-lemongrass pisco, lime, ginger ale, simple syrup, ginger, Angostura bitters). Upscale takes on typical street food and ceviches make nice cocktail compliments (stylishly plated grilled octopus tentacle; steamed buns with pork belly). Upstairs, in a minimalist dining room, larger plates are fired in an open kitchen helmed by chef Roberto Castre for a menu that blends traditional Peruvian mains, like lomo saltado (sautéed beef tenderloin), with plates with more of an updated intrigue, like duck confit with sweet potato glaze, sautéed corn, potatoes and “leche de tigre” (a hot, citrusy ceviche broth).

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8. Pica Taco 1629 Columbia Rd NW, Washington, 20009 (Columbia Heights)

Can you eat a four-pound burrito in 45mins or less? Your choice: beef, chicken or pork. What are you, some kind of wuss? Give it your best shot during one of the monthly Saturday contests at this energetic, orange-walled counter-service taqueria. If the prize of a $15 gift certificate, venue t-shirt and a photo on the wall of fame isn't enough incentive for you to get burrito-pregnant and/or leave on a stretcher, a menu of (normal-sized) tostadas, tacos, tamales, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, and tortas are also on offer, filled with lengua (beef tongue, mole chicken, chorizo, shrimp, barbacoa, spinach, fish or steak). Owner Maria Villalta, who you'll see on the grill in the Aztec-accented space, is a neighborhood favorite.

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9. El Rinconcito Cafe 1129 11th St NW, Washington, 20001 (Mount Vernon Sq)

With a name meaning ‘little corner cafe,’ El Rinconcito keeps things simple in the 20-seat space for their Mexican-Salvadorian staples: beige walls, a television mounted in one corner, a dropped ceiling sporting fluorescent lights. Nothing special, but the food is authentic. Stick with the Salvadorian sections of the menu, with traditional papusas stuffed with cheese and pork, and a shredded flank steak dish mixed with scrambled egg and served with avocado and a square of queso duro (crumble the salty stuff over your rice and beans).

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10. Rumba Café 2443 18th St NW, Washington DC, 20009 (Adams Morgan)

Art is jam-packed into this vibrant Latin food hub in the Adams Morgan hood: walls filled with intricately carved African and Central American masks, patterned tapestries, doors painted in Picasso’s style. A rainbow of stringed picado flags draw the eye to a clearing under a disco ball where live music serenades diners: bongos and guitars and trumpets blare out tango, salsa, bossa nova, cambia and salsa. The dishes take influence from as broad a gambit of Latin nations as the music heard: Arepas are stuffed with garlic-parsley calamari and sprinkled with paprika; Brazilian cuts of steak are served with sauteed ramps and taro root pure; Peruvian yellow pepper sauce is drizzled over salmon before being topped with habanero and cilantro. The brick-floored front patio makes an ideal spot for caipirinhas and mojitos. It’s a lot to take in, and with no-cover live music during the evenings Thurs-Sun, Rumba Cafe is practically giving it away.

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11. Tacos El Chilango 1119 V St NW, Washington, 20001 (U Street)

Early humans made the transition from a nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one, and so did food-truck-turned-storefront El Chilango. Revered by residents of Radnor-Fort Myer Heights when it was mobile, the taco team is now set up below a row home on a small street off the U Street Corridor. It’s no-frills, and the menu is limited mostly to tacos, but that’s because it’s what they know: double corn tortillas topped with carne asada, beef tongue, chorizo, al pastor, chicken or mixto (beef and chorizo). A sprinkle of chopped onions, some sprigs of cilantro, a squirt of lime and a side of sliced radish and cucumber complete the flavor experience, immaculate in its simplicity. They’re good enough that it doesn’t matter that you’re eating on a paper plate.

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12. Taqueria Habanero 3710 14th St. NW, Washington, 20010 (Columbia Heights)

It’s not about innovative menus or fushion nonsense at Mexican Taqueria Habanero, shelling out Puebla-style eats just outside of Columbia Heights. It’s about authenticity, manifesting itself most notably in the restaurants insistence on making their tortillas on-the-spot daily. Corn masa is churned and molded into discs before being rendered edible on the hot griddle. And the house-made thing extends to just about everything: huaraches, salsas and quesadilla shells. Yeah, authentic. Fill your corn base with ten options: steak, chicken, tinga poblano (shredded chicken sausage), barbacoa, al pastor, carnitas, shrimp, tilapia, mushroom or cactus. The tortas are notably huge. Grab a margarita or Corona and take comfort in knowing you’re about to eat the real thing.

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