Glutie Foodie

Adventures of a Gluten-Free Gal Dining Out


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Mexican Dating Game

El Centro D.F.     Spoons_THREE_76x25

Growing up, taco night was my favorite night. Ma and Pa Glutie Foodie would have to cut me off after a messy 5 or 6 Old El Paso shells filled with ground beef or beans and cheese. Mexican cuisine is still one of my most beloved. Give me spicy salsa, fresh avocado, and crispy tortillas and I’m a happy glutie. There are plenty of mediocre Mexican offerings in the DC area; but following a trip to Richard Sandoval’s El Centro D.F., I thought I had met my Mexican soulmate.

El Centro and I met a few years back, when my good friend Lox (of Bagel and Lox) and I stopped in for nourishment after an evening of art reception hopping. We sat on two stools in the casual taqueria’s open seating area and were helped by a jovial server who informed me that the menu is nearly completely gluten-free. We gulped down house margaritas made with fresh lime and agave nectar (as apposed to sugar filled, artificially flavored and potentially gluten-containing mix), and I enjoyed every bite of my Chipotle Shrimp, served with black bean puree, market vegetables and white rice. El Centro offers delicious corn based, authentic Mexican comfort food in a hip, upscale environment, at more reasonable prices than many of its 14th street neighbors. I enthusiastically introduced El Centro to Mr. Green Bean. And Mr. GB and I returned with Sister Seitan, The Muffins, Souper Girl, Irish Coffee, Breakfast Blend… We met friends for frozen drinks on the lively rooftop bar and for more formal dining in the dark and sexy basement tequileria. It was a blissful time.

Guacamole prepared tableside

Guacamole prepared tableside

Then came the visit that left me wary. Miss Zin and I were excited to gorge on guacamole mashed table-side and perfectly salted tortilla chips fried in gluten-free oil. I began to explain my gluten “allergy” to the server as I always do, and instead of the usual rap, “just avoid the empanadas and dessert”, he started to scrunch his nose, wrinkle his forehead and pierce his lips. “Hmmmm, you can not eat anything”, was more or less his unapologetic response. He had to be kidding. You mean, the Mushroom Huarache (flatbread) I ordered last time has flour in the dough they swore was gluten-free? And the soft taco tortillas I’ve now eaten on multiple occasions are not 100% corn? He double checked with the kitchen and returned with more bad news. I could eat the ceviche. That was it. Feeling nauseous just thinking about all the gluten I had consumed over the past months, raw fish in an acid bath was the last thing I wanted. Miss Zin felt terrible and I was embarrassed. Was it possible my Mexican crush was breaking up with me?

But alas, on this very evening, the manager was making the rounds and stopped by our table to ask how everything (my ceviche) was. “Actually…”, and I told her my tale. Shocked, she apologized and rescinded the server’s misinformation. El Centro’s menu has always been nearly 80% gluten-free. So why the server’s certainty of quite the opposite? Was it a language barrier? This is not the first time I have had major confusion in a Mexican restaurant. But I never expected it from mi amore. The manager treated me to the Grilled Skirt Steak Huaraches I would have ordered had this alarming experience not occurred, and I ate it tentatively. We exchanged few words with our server after that.

I have since returned to El Centro and learned how to trust again. Just last week Miss Lox and I shared another indulgent dinner after burning all our energy at a schmoozy networking reception. After we were seated, I glanced at the menu, slightly modified since my last visit, and quizzed a clearly new employee, waiting for another alarming incident to begin. But to my relief, he understood my food restriction and was confident that the crispy shrimp tacos were safe for me to eat. Lightly fried baby shrimps are stuffed into three soft, 100% corn shells and served with aji amarillo aioli, pickled jalapeño, roasted corn and mexican rice. My usual favorite, the baja fish tacos, now have major competition.

Crispy Shrimp tacos with aji amarillo aioli, pickled jalapeno, roasted corn, and mexican rice

Crispy Shrimp tacos with aji amarillo aioli, pickled jalapeño, roasted corn, and mexican rice

Baja tacos with grilled market fish, Mexican slaw, tomato, corn, avocado and chipotle aioli

Baja tacos with grilled market fish, Mexican slaw, tomato, corn, avocado and chipotle aioli

Despite it’s imperfections, El Centro has a magnetic pull. And with his new location in Georgetown, it will be even more difficult to stay away. Though I try to play hard to get, he remains a strong favorite in my restaurant rotation. Oh, El Centro, cómo te quiero.

Chips, salsa and guacamole

Chips, salsa and guacamole

El Centro D.F., 1819 14th Street NW, Washington DC
El Centro D.F. Georgetown, 1218 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington DC

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Masa Misses?

Masa 14     

I understand that fusion food is trendy. But mole and soy are two sauces I’d rather not mix. In my opinion sake and Tequila belong at very different meals. Chef and restauranteur Richard Sandoval disagrees and tries to prove me wrong at his Latin-Asian creation, Masa 14. Sandoval blends his Mexican roots with international flavor in 26 restaurants throughout the US, Dubai and Qatar. Melding such diverse and broad cultures as Latin and Asian into one cohesive dining concept is not an easy task, and I’m not an easy judge. So on a recent first-time visit to Masa 14 with our friends Bagel and Lox, this Logan Circle staple had a challenge on their hands.

Masa 14 plays the atmosphere just right, mixing minimalist feng shui and bamboo surfaces with tequileria red lighting and exposed brick. We arrived without a reservation knowing full well that would mean a long wait. Squeezing out a space along the bar, we settled in and studied the drink list. Whiskey, rum, tequila and sake are all players on this list of inventive concoctions. I opted for a glass of red sangria with bourbon, citrus, brown sugar and cinnamon, a safe and rather delicious way to loosen up my judgmental spirits.

Forty-five minutes later Mr. Green Bean, Bagel, Lox, and I were escorted to a cozy booth, and I was promptly handed the gluten-free menu. This was one of those rare times I found myself relieved by the pared down list of small plates after glancing at the jumble of words on the full menu. Lucky for me, the gluten-free options include some table pleasers, putting me in the game for sharing. We started with the spicy edamame for munching and a carafe of sake for sipping.

Spicy Edamame

After placing our order, the plates arrived at a leisurely pace, starting with Lox’s top choice, Salmon Tartar (of course), with roasted red pepper and green mango chimichurri. The dish was beautifully presented, with a molded heap of pink salmon and a swipe of green chimichurri on the side. Both elements had a mild flavor, appropriate for the raw fish, but unexpected and disappointing for the chimichurri.

Salmon Tartar with roasted pepper and green mango chimichurri

Next came the Crunchy Shrimp, sprinkled with sesame, scallions, masago, and a drizzle of chipotle aioli (teriyaki sauce omitted to make it g-free version). The restaurant claims to use a separate fryer to make this plate safe as can be. The dish won Mr. Green Bean over (he still talks about it today). Admittedly, anything with tempura has an unfair advantage. But the rich chipotle aioli adds flare to the perfectly battered shrimps. I did miss the sweet touch that teriyaki sauce would offer, but Crunchy Shrimp is still an unusual treat for those of us who have been deprived of tempura for years.

Crunchy Shrimp with chipotle aioli, sesame, scallions, and masago

Not worth the buck is the Roasted Beet Salad, with arugula, curried goat cheese, taro straws and oil and vinegar substituted for the soy-citrus vinaigrette. I’m going to guess it’s the dressing that makes this salad, because without it, it was uninspired. What did charm me were the Wok Stir-Fried Mussels with aji amarillo cream sauce, chorizo, cotija cheese and scallions. I had to keep from spooning the spicy broth for fear of nose-dripping, mouth-burning torture. While the flavor of the mussels was completely overwhelmed by the sauce, only a few shells remained closed, an indication of a fresh batch.

Wok Stir-Fried Mussels with aji amarillo cream sauce, chorizo, cotija and scallion

The manly Boneless Beef Shortrib that appeared next was selected by Mr. Green Bean and Bagel. Surprisingly g-free, I gave it a try. The meat was decent, yet covered with a heavy hand of something far too brown and flavorless to be peanut cocunut-milk sauce. While arriving too late to act as the accompaniment it is, the Fried Rice with kimchi, chile, poached egg, corn, and cilantro was a fresh take on the traditional grain, with Korean spices dominating.

Boneless Beef Shortrib with peanut coconut-milk sauce, and baby bok choy

We certainly could have stopped there but were collectively tempted by the Salted Caramel Chocolate Flan on the dessert menu. Thrilled to learn it is gluten-free without the crispy wafer (which tastes like paper anyway, so we were told by our server), we had to try it. The flan was perfectly creamy with mild chocolate and caramel flavor, but proved more American pudding than Spanish custard. The marshmallow blob on top and the pool of blood orange reduction on the bottom were unavoidable, rendering the dish too sweet to finish, even four ways.

Salted Caramel Chocolate Flan with housemade s’mores (minus the wafer) and blood orange reduction

Overall, Sandoval impresses with his colorful and unique menu, while some execution may be lacking, leaving my taste-buds slightly confused. The designated gluten-free menu enables a stress-free dining experience, which makes up for some disappointing dishes. I may be persuaded to return, but likely will stick to edamame and drinks on the establishments best feature, it’s rooftop.

Masa 14, 1825 14th Street NW, Washington DC