I care deeply about Mexican food. I can eat it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I make it at home, at friends houses, for my parents. Back where I grew up in Texas, I even enjoyed it from a few 24-hour drive throughs. Most of all, I love it well-prepared from a wonderful restaurant.
I've had some decent Mexican meals in DC, but they have often been few and far between. Before we get to Andale, you should know that my personal checklist for a good Mexican restaurant is pretty simple:
1. Chips that are warm, fresh, not greasy, and not terribly thick.
2. Salsa that is flavorful with a good balance of those flavors. Hints of cliantro and cumin are preferred along with a heat that begs you to eat more. Salsa that is too tomato-sweet is a no-no.
3. A set of reliable staple dishes that refuse to rely on a suffocating amount of cheese. Oh, a generous amount of cheese is just fine, but some places seem to try to hide the food under more cheese than an 80s teen comedy. The cheese has a role, but doesn't need to be in every scene.
4. A smooth margarita made with fresh lime juice without an overwhelming tequila taste. Oh how I love the margarita.
Given all that, I was happy when some close friends (MS and SR) invited us to have dinner at Andale on Friday night. I've read and heard some nice things so I looked forward to it. So here we go . . .
The Chips and Salsa Test: I'm astounded by the number of Mexican restaurants that will serve you a basket of grease-soaked chips. Don't get me wrong, seeing a slight glisten or shine from their fry bath is not the problem. When your chips are translucent from the grease soaking, when it makes them chewy rather than crisp, I just wonder if anyone really can enjoy them?
The standard bearer for me has been Monica's Aca y Alla a jazz-hot restaurant in Dallas, Texas featuring affordable and remarkable dishes based on cuisine from Mexico City. The tri-color chips there are served warm and plentiful and there is rarely much grease.
Andale's robust basket of chips and three salsas were not free. Holy crap, that's sacrilege where I come from. For $5.00 we had chips and three salsas: Salsa Verde, Salsa Fresca,and Salsa Picante de Chile Chipotle y Tomate. The salsa verde was tasty, a bit sweeter than I expected but with a nice flavor depth. The Salsa Fresca was exactly that, a tingly cold balance of jalapeno, tomato, onion and cilantro. The Salsa Picante was tasty as well. All three were quite enjoyable though I would not say that I would crave more of the same.
But I was not disappointed, the accompanying chips were total winners. Definitely the best I have had in DC. I can think of a few places that might want to visit Andale and learn a bit about delivering a basket that doesn't need a drip pan.
The Food: The four of us deliberated quite a bit after jumping onto a quick appetizer order. We ended up with the Queso Fundido con Chorizo. Melted Chihuahua cheese, roasted poblanos, onions, and chorizo sausage arrived in hot ceramic containers accompanied by some fresh warm flour tortillas. By the way we scooped, sopped, and scraped, it was clear that this was a table favorite. The saltiness of the cheese and the perfect flavor of the chorizo were truly delicious. I'm eager to go back and try more of what sounded like very interesting appetizers.
The group spent a considerable amount of time planning our entree orders. Each of us, at one time or another, considered the chicken mole. I think there is a dearth of mole options in the area so getting a mole fix was on most of our minds. T ended up with the mole while M ordered the lamb and S ordered the pork chop. I ended up ordering the Enchiladas Verdes.
Of all the options, the Enchiladas Verdes may seem to be the least exciting. Oh my how this is wrong. My hunch, that a more simple dish done right would show off Chef Allison Swope's skills turned out to be a good one. These are absolutely superb enchiladas. Corn tortillas with a tomatillo sauce stuffed with shredded chicken and topped with queso fresco. See, it doesn't sound particularly impressive. It is. The soft corn tortillas have taken in just enough of the piquant tomatillo sauce and just the right amount of heat to be fork tender. The delicious corn taste anchored the more explosive sauce. The chicken was so tender and seemed almost more minced then shredded. Ever have thready shredded chicken enchiladas? Not here. Delicious I'm telling you. And the side of black beans were perfect. Cooked until tender and simply dead on. I will go back for this dish.
The tastes I had of the other dishes were good, although I definitely liked mine best. Each of my dining companions liked their food although it seemed everyone might have enjoyed some tweaks to their meal.
So that takes care of food. What about the drinks? I suppose you can tell by the title that I liked the Margaritas. That is the understatement of the year. Seriously, if you, like me, have ever bemoaned the lack of great margaritas in the area, this is the place to go.
My rocks with salt was served nice and cold and was so clearly not made from a mix. Limes people limes! This is a margarita you want to savor, to nurture over a good talk. One I kept revisiting to find its flaw -- could I really like it this much? Yes, it was just that good. So goodI had to go thank the bartender. Talent people, I'm telling you.
So holler if you know a great margarita or another Mexican place. I'll be heading back to Andale soon!