If you are shopping in Georgetown, planning to meet friends, or going to the movies, El Centro is a first rate, inexpensive restaurant for enjoying a Mexican meal.
El Centro (1218 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-333-4100) has been open since last fall. It’s one of Chef Richard Sandoval’s restaurants (along with El Centro on 14th Street, NW and Zengo in Chinatown) and it reflects his original take on classic dishes. Take, for example, the cilantro rice, served with a shrimp and crab enchilada. The enchilada is excellent, but the side of pale green rice that looks like guacamole but isn’t, turns the dish into something extra special. The rice is infused with the delicate flavor and aroma of cilantro. Unusual and delicious, it’s a perfect accompaniment to the enchilada.
The lunch menu, served from Monday to Friday, includes tortilla soup, salads, tortas (sandwiches), enchiladas, tacos, quesadillas and a few chef specials. Some of the dishes come with fried plantains, which are superb. Others come with white rice, Mexican rice, or that creamy cilantro rice. Refried beans are pureed and lightly spiced.
The chef’s specials include a fine grilled chicken thigh and a dish of grilled pork, served with pickled onion, guacamole and salsa along with small corn tortillas so diners can make their own tacos.
The dinner menu is more extensive. Four kinds of guacamole are prepared tableside; the traditional version is creamy, lightly spiced and irresistible. Shrimp ceviche and empanadas of cheese, beef and vegetables are some of the appetizers. Mexican corn flatbreads - huaraches - are available both at lunch and dinner, as are enchiladas and tacos, the latter more varied in the evenings. Beef tongue, Korean barbecue, grilled nopal cactus, duck and mahi mahi tacos are some of the more unusual preparations.
Chef’s specials are also more extensive in the evening, and include such dishes as steak or shrimp fajitas, achiote salmon, beef shortribs, and chile relleno.
A not to be missed dessert is a “cigar” of frozen dark chocolate mousse accompanied by coffee ice dream. Prices at lunch range from $8 to $16, with desserts $6. Dinner prices are slightly higher.
The restaurant itself is on two floors with a large open patio on the ground floor. Upstairs resembles a Mexican cantina with skylights, a tequila bar and attractive “distressed’ wooden walls. The selection of tequilas and mezcals is extensive with over 100 tequilas on the menu and a dozen fruit or vegetable house-infused versions. Non-alcoholic choices include fruit aqua frescas - sparkling water with fresh fruit infusions.