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Bloomingdale favorite El Camino reopens under new management

SoCal taqueria is favorite of Bloomingays social group; monthly gatherings planned



El Camino, gay news, Washington Blade
Menu offerings at El Camino. (Photo by Marvin Solorzano)

A new owner, a new chef, and a stunning pink interior: Bloomingdale’s El Camino is back in action. 

El Camino (108 Rhode Island Ave., N.W.), a relaxed SoCal-Mexican cervezeria-taquería, closed in September 2018 after four years in business. A favorite of residents along a small commercial strip on Rhode Island Avenue and First Street, it left a hole for those wanting a crisp margarita, heaping late-night nachos and Bloomingdale people-watching. 

Beyond its meaty tacos, however, El Camino was also a meeting spot: it coordinated closely with Bloomingays, an area social group.

When the original El Camino closed, current owner Marvin Solorzano, who is straight, seized an opportunity. An industry vet, he moved to the area in 2012 and became a fan of El Camino. When he learned the news of the closing, he bought the restaurant, reopening it with a relaxed refresh in line with its atmosphere.

Solorzano, hailing from El Salvador, is no stranger to Tex-Mex cuisine or being around LGBT people. Solorzano worked at Alero for several years when he first arrived in Washington. He then spent almost two decades in front of house positions at Dupont Italian Kitchen, the gay mainstay on 17th Street with a festive patio.

At Dupont Italian Kitchen, he also oversaw operations on the second-floor bar. 

“I became friends with many of the patrons,” he says, “and met so many regulars. It’s with them that we shared stories about our lives. This was really impactful for me, because I saw how open Washington, D.C. was.”

His work at Dupont Italian Kitchen led him to create the same kind of space at El Camino. 

“Now as owner, I can treat all my customers as friends,” he says. “This is why I’m excited to welcome back Bloomingays to El Camino, because the community and neighborhood is so important.”

Solorzano drafted Angel Zavala as bar manager, who has been at Provision 14 and Alero for several years. Not only did Zavela craft a new bar menu, he also ensured that Bloomingays had a home at the new El Camino. 

After the margs, he says, “the number one point is connecting with our neighbors.”

In an effort to streamline and brighten the space, Solorzano dispensed with the heavy curtains and dark lighting. 

“I made it more open, lively and light. The previous colors made it seem dark and crowded,” he says. 

He shrunk the bar to allow for efficient movement of people from the front to back dining area and splashed new paint: pink in the front, yellow opposite the bar. 

To kick up the menu, chef Rodolfo Martinez is helming the kitchen. He’s been cooking at Tex-Mex spots since he, too, arrived from El Salvador.

It was on trips to the Cali-Mexican border region that Solorzano found menu inspo. He fell in love with street tacos he encountered in Tijuana that now live on at El Camino, thanks to Martinez. Taco options include carne asada, mahi, chorizo, and rajas (cactus). 

Martinez slow-roasts the meat in a proprietary mix of spices and herbs that include clove, bay leaf, oregano, cumin, cilantro, garlic and celery.

Later, in L.A., Solorzano was enchanted by a black bean-pinto bean mashup taco that’s now one of his favorites.

Entrees include Puebla-style mole chicken and the Camino Steak, a 12-ounce New York strip topped with shrimp. Of course, there’s also guac, queso and nachos. For those who enjoy the wee hours, Solorzano oversees a late-night menu of tacos and burritos until 12:30 a.m. on weekends and 11:30 p.m. on weeknights; happy hour is on not only from 5-7 p.m., but also 10 p.m.-close Tuesday-Friday. 

The tacos, bar manager Zavala says, work well with his best-selling frozen mango margarita. Each day, Zavala blends fresh mangoes with a housemade habanero-infused syrup. He also serves mojitos and a mule made with mezcal.

“I like to go out to bars and taste plenty of drinks. Then I make mine as fresh, interesting and authentic as possible,” he says.

Zavala coordinates directly with Bloomingays, which just held its first event back at El Camino in September. Bloomingays plans to host its event monthly on every third Thursday.

“I’m always involved with the people I serve drinks,” Zavala says, “and we’re excited to become friends with the neighborhood.”

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a&e features

As You Are Bar offers a place to belong

Bar-coffeeshop-danceboutique to open brick-and-mortar soon



AYA, gay news, Washington Blade

Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel are the bar industry veterans behind As You Are Bar. (Photo courtesy Pike and McDaniel)

Vodka soda, pinot grigio, light beer, ginger ale, or all of the above: whatever your tribe, As You Are Bar recognizes your flavor.

Currently virtual and soon physical, As You Are (AYA) Bar is the new joint venture from bar industry veterans Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike, partners and both queer women.

Launched earlier this year, AYA is “a virtual queer space with a priority of safety and inclusion,” says McDaniel.

McDaniel, who has been recognized by the Washington Blade in the past for her cocktail crafting skills, began her career at now-closed gay bar Apex, and later as a bartender at Phase 1, Phase 1 Dupont, Freddie’s Beach Bar, and Cobalt.

McDaniel went on to open and then manage A League of Her Own (ALOHO), located aside Pitcher’s in Adams Morgan. For her part, Pike started in the industry in security at Nellie’s, and was also on hand to open ALOHO. She moved up to lead security and bartender at ALOHO.

At ALOHO, the duo teamed up to make it “as safe a space as possible,” says McDaniel. But, as for the entire industry, the pandemic threw a wrench in their in-person abilities to do so.

When the pandemic hit, “we realized it was time to do more,” she says. “Humans are made to connect, and we couldn’t support them well at a brick-and-mortar-space. Thus, AYA bar was born.”

Having left ALOHO to expand their dream bar model, AYA allowed them to entirely rethink the bar space. At times, they admit, “the 21-35 crowd can dominate nightlife. The goal is to pull away from that,” McDaniel says. In addition, Pike notes that “pandemic, and the time off, opened many people’s eyes to so many injustices, inequities and racism in our world.” They want to address those concerns at AYA by accepting every part of the queer rainbow.

Right now, AYA is creating that welcoming space virtually. One popular event on the AYA website is Click in with Coach, a Zoom-based happy hour hangout. It’s a place to have bar talk without the physical bar. McDaniel hosts Hey Jo, an Instagram live interview show where McDaniel speaks with a guest from the community to discuss queer spaces, ways to support community causes, and lessons over the years and from this time in a pandemic. Other events include a YouTube virtual dance party hosted by DJ MIM (a popular queer DJ) and Our Side of the Bar, at which McDaniel and Rach take the hot seat and dish what life is like on the other side of the bar.

Regardless of location, McDaniel stresses that the team wants “to expand our reach and center marginalized communities within this larger community: Black, brown, and indigenous people of color (BBIPoC), queer youth, and queer elders.”

The two are actively searching for a physical location, and hope to have more news on its opening by the summer.

Their goal is to make AYA a daytime-to-nighttime café-cum-danceboutique. In the morning and afternoons, it will serve as a coffeeshop for families and youth, and welcome after-schoolers. In the evening, a part of the space will dim the lights and turn up the tunes, allowing the bar to transform into an accessible, everyone-welcome bar. They hope to include the 18+ crowd on certain nights, too. The café section will likely stay open for those looking for a quieter nook at night.

“Because we identify under the queer umbrella,” says McDaniel, “our passion to provide safety to this community courses through us in everything we do. Because we’re white, we believe we have a responsibility to BBIPoC to center the needs and voices of marginalized people. We were both also young queer people at one point looking for a place to belong, come as we were, and feel safe. Everyone deserves a space that is theirs. A space they can be who they are and know they will be respected, protected, and nurtured. As You Are is for anyone that couldn’t find that place elsewhere.”

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Gin & Tonic Festival to benefit restaurants, workers

ThinkFoodGroup celebrates Spain’s favorite cocktail



José Andrés (Photo by Blair Getz Mezibov)

José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup celebrates Spain’s favorite cocktail with its annual Gin & Tonic Festival April 9-29 at all Jaleo restaurant locations in the D.C. area.

The Botanist Gin will donate $5 of every Botanist Gin and Tonic sold during the festival to the Independent Restaurant Coalition. Donations will be doubled to $10 on International Gin and Tonic Day on April 9.

The Independent Restaurant Coalition is a grassroots movement formed by chefs and independent restaurant owners across the country to protect the independent restaurants and their workers impacted by the ongoing pandemic.

For more information, visit ThinkFoodGroup on Facebook.

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Paraiso Taqueria is a riotous rainbow of a restaurant

‘A vibrant atmosphere where all your senses get stimulated’



Paradiso, gay news, Washington Blade
Scenes from the new Paraiso Taqueria in Capitol Hill. (Photos by Evan Caplan)

Green tortillas, pink mole, and blood-orange margaritas: the new Paraiso Taqueria in Capitol Hill is a riotous rainbow of a restaurant.

Launched last December, Paraiso Taqueria is just coming into its stride, as the city government relaxes dining restrictions, chef Geovany Beltran expands the menu, and the restaurant debuts a funky coffeeshop.

Beltran, a native of Mexico, has seized the opportunity in his first starring chef role at a restaurant, having previously worked at Jinya Ramen Bar, among other area eateries.

“Growing up in a mezcalero family in Guerrero, Mexico and being a D.C. local for many years, my dream has been to share those recipes and memories here in Capitol Hill,” he says. 

Unlike other recent taqueria openings, this one takes inspiration from both street food and home kitchens, as well as international influences. But Mexico is front and center. According to the restaurant’s Brand Director Tahmina Ghaffer, “we source our heirloom masa [corn flour] from Oaxaca, Mexico. This flour used for tortillas has been nixtamalized, or treated with slaked lime to remove the hulls, soften it, and improve the digestibility of its nutrients,” she says.

About those tortillas: Beltran livens up the Insta factor by mixing batches of masa with beet or cilantro, resulting in brilliant pink or green colors, in addition to the traditional yellow. Siting on those tortillas are a bevy of taco options, from traditional al pastor (with braised pork, pineapple, and cilantro) to a creative salmon crudo (with chamoy honey sauce, pickled onions, and mango). There is also an eggplant taco with tomatillo jam for vegetarians. All salsas that accompany the tacos are made in-house.

For bigger plates, look to the adobo lamb, served aside red and green salsas, escabeche, and tricolor tortillas, as a kind of DIY table side taco party. Another creative dish is an elegant cauliflower burrito, painted with a pink mole fragrant with beets, thyme, pine nuts, almonds, and pink peppercorns, and then elegantly drizzled with in a white chocolate sauce.

Beltran also takes cues from the sea, serving ceviche and coconut-curried mussels that would be right at home in an Indian restaurant.

On the sweet side, pastry chef Blenda Navarette crafts desserts like a tres leches topped by mango gelee and a chocolate flan; a pan dulce is in the works. 

The drink list, Ghaffer notes, is heavily focused on an extensive collection of mezcal and tequila. Bar manager Jose Diaz aims to “tell the myths, legends, and stories of Mexico through drinks.” 

The Oaxacan Old Fashioned is inspired by the classic cocktail, but Diaz uses mezcal and agave. The El Chamongo marries tequila with mango, lime, chamoy, and the popular Tajin spice mix for a spicy-salty kick.

Paraiso takes over the space formerly occupied by Emilie’s, where star chef Kevin Tien helmed the kitchen. When Tien left, owners Sam Shoja and Johann Moonesinghe revamped the space and handed the reins to Beltran (Shoja also owns several Jinya Ramen franchises). Beltran and his chef team are also partners in this operation.

“This team have been the true heroes of the restaurant industry and we want to give them a space where they can be celebrated and have ownership,” says Ghaffer.

The industrial-chic design with a 360-degree open kitchen (seats at the kitchen bar are not being used during pandemic restrictions) is brightened by prints from a family favorite Mexican illustrator, Ana Leovy. “She celebrates diversity through her work, weaving stories through shapes and colors, inspired by feelings, dreams and everyday life,” says Ghaffer. Neon lights and lots of greenery round out the space. 

Paraiso’s aim is to create “a vibrant atmosphere where all your senses get stimulated,” she says. 

An immigrant herself, Ghaffer (who hails from Afghanistan) notes that “being a minority has shaped our work, and we are here to set an example. As immigrants and people of color, we had to break barriers and now we want to help others do that. We want to let people know that anyone who puts in the hard work will achieve their dreams.”

Moving forward, Paraiso will soon house an all-day café-bookshop, decorated with photography from Mexican women, selling fresh coffee, packaged treats, goodies, and bottled drinks. The restaurant also has plans to set up a “mezcaleria” bar area, expand its outdoor patio, launch a monthly wine club series, and host specials for Cinco de Mayo.

(Photo by Evan Caplan)
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