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.”
Seven new restaurants to try this fall
D.C. restaurant scene thriving again after rough year
The fall dining scene is as hot as ever. Here are some of the top tickets to look out for:
RAMMYs: Sept. 19 marks the annual D.C.-area restaurant industry awards, the RAMMYs. Many of the categories this year are unique to the challenges restaurants faced in 2020. Held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the awards “created timely categories that speak to all the ways the region’s uniquely met those challenges,” according to the RAMMYs. Such categories include “most innovative to-go packaging”, “outstanding COVID-safe redesign,” and “most impressive pivot to provision or market.”
Jane Jane (1705 14th St. NW):
Highly anticipated retro-chic cocktail bar Jane Jane quietly opened after more than two years in the making. Co-owned by gay men Drew Porterfield, his partner Ralph Brabham, and friend JP Sabatier, Jane Jane’s mid-century-style throwback offers classic cocktails and upgraded bar snacks. It’s located in the new Liz development on 14th Street.
Thirsty Crow (3400 11th St. NW):
Part sports bar, part cocktail bar, Thirsty Crow opened just last week in Columbia Heights. It sits in the subterranean level of Michelin Bib Gourmand-winning Makan, serving cocktails and bites inspired by Malaysian flavors, like its sister restaurant on the ground level. Chef James Wozniuk of Makan is overseeing the menu of snacks like shrimp chips and larger plates like spicy fried chicken with sambal.
No Goodbyes (1770 Euclid St. NW):
The Line Hotel previously played host to a suite of restaurants: A Rake’s Progress, Brothers and Sisters, and Spoke English. When these restaurants left this Adams Morgan hotel, the spaces sat mostly vacant until No Goodbyes slid into the ground floor. An all-day dining place that “taps the farmers, fishers, and small-time ranchers in DC’s own backyard,” according to its website, the menu sits squarely on a Chesapeake Bay foundation. Mid-Atlantic dishes, from fish to fowl, play large on the menu.
Bread Alley (1250 5th St NE):
The intoxicating tower of carbs that greets diners when they walk into buzzy Le Diplomate is getting its very own dedicated space, aptly named Bread Alley. A tiny location in the Union Market area, the shop just launched selling only the three types of bread that arrive complimentary at the start of any Le Dip meal: thick-crusted classic baguette, multigrain boules, and cranberry-walnut boules. It will eventually also sell pastries, jams, butter, honey, and other accouterments. Bakers begin their craft at 3:30 a.m. and offer their wares starting at 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. or sold out, whichever arrives earlier.
Bistro Du Jour (99 District Square SW)
Bistro Du Jour will be gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design’s third waterfront venue at the Wharf. A café in the Parisian style, it will lean heavily on croissants and cappuccinos during the day, moving to Champagne and larger savory dishes by night. The bistro will sell current partner Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery’s fresh baked goods and pastries, and will showcase traditional fare like coq au vin, French onion soup, steak frites, and foie gras for lunch and dinner. The bistro will display an extensive bubbly section, as well as a chic espresso bar and an outdoor patio. Brunch is in the works.
SUCCOTASH Prime (915 F St., NW)
After a yearlong hiatus, SUCCOTASH Prime recently reopened at the end of August. SUCCOTASH Prime, also run by gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design, is an updated version of the restaurant, still with Chef Edward Lee at the helm. The refreshed SUCCOTASH opened as a southern steakhouse with an Asian twist, featuring smoked steaks, fried oysters, collard greens, ham, and kimchi side dish. Live music is also planned.
Via Roma (4531 Telfair Blvd #110, Camp Springs, Md.)
Via Roma is a restaurant where you can enjoy the pies, you just can’t call it “pizza.” Just opened a few weeks ago, the restaurant serves pinsas, a pizza-like dish using dough made from a heady mixture of wheat, soy, and rice flours, and then proofed for more than a day. The spot calls itself the first Pinsa-certified restaurant in Maryland, and aims to reflect the laid-back, Mediterranean atmosphere of Naples (the owner also runs an Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana-certified restaurant in Maryland). Beyond Pinsa, it also serves Maryland crab tater tots, panini, pasta, salad, and Aperol spritzes.
D.C. Restaurant Week returns
Celebrating a revitalized dining scene after COVID closures
After being confined to a to-go program for the last two iterations, Washington, D.C.’s Restaurant Week is back this summer to celebrate the revitalized dining scene in the city. Summer Restaurant Week 2021, run by Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), is scheduled to kick off Monday, Aug. 9, and last through Sunday, Aug. 15.
The signature summer dining event returns to a one-week promotion this year, though restaurants have the option of extending their promotions. Diners can enjoy three-course menus at a range of indoor/outdoor comfort levels at more than 200 restaurants, ranging from fast-casual eateries to fine-dining destinations. In addition, the to-go family-style options that were introduced last year are not gone, however, as many restaurants will also offer this off-premise option. Of course, many spots plan to include a cocktail pairing as well.
Dinner is the main event for participating restaurants, with the classic three-course dinner priced at $35 per person. Several restaurants with higher overall price points are also offering an elevated $55 dinner with exclusive items. Three-course lunches run $22, and weekend brunch is also $22.
Finally, many restaurants will also offer “RW-To-Go” dinner meals, available at two price points: $60 or $120 for two people and $100 or $200 for four people.
These RW-To-Go dinner meal packages are available for takeout or delivery, and diners can order RW-To-Go either directly from the participating restaurant or check their delivery app for the offer.
D.C. restaurants remain open at 100 percent capacity, but Mayor Bowser last week reinstated mask mandates for indoor spaces.
New restaurants participating in Summer Restaurant Week include Angolo, ANXO, Flower Child, Le Sel, GATSBY, Glover Park Grill, Gypsy Kitchen, and Truluck’s in D.C.; and Spice Kraft Indian Bistro in Virginia.
“This year’s Summer Restaurant Week is not only providing diners with great options at great prices for dining out, but is also the first time all restaurants across our region are able to accommodate diners at full capacity both indoors and outdoors,” says Kathy Hollinger, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. “Being fully open is a step toward recovery for the industry and also toward a return to our dynamic local restaurants in their spaces which help to elevate the dining experience.”
RAMW is the regional association representing restaurants and the foodservice industry in the D.C. Metropolitan Area. RAWM also runs the RAMMYs, the awards for the food and beverage industry.
Restaurant operators themselves reinforced how important the promotion is to them. “Restaurant Week is an opportunity for us to showcase our resilience and commitment to serving our staff and community,” says Salwa Laaraichi of Station 4.
For Eric Heidenberger, a partner at The DC Restaurant Group, which owns spots like Shaw’s Tavern and 801 Restaurant, the past year has been a challenge. But RAMW, he says, “has been very supportive to the D.C. restaurant community and a key a resource in helping us navigate the challenges of the pandemic. We’re excited to participate in the first “normal” restaurant week in almost a year and a half. Restaurant week is a great opportunity for us reach new diners and showcase new dishes to our regular/repeat customers.”
All of gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design’s locations are participating in Restaurant Week. Co-owners Jason Berry said that he hopes that Restaurant Week “offers a way for diners to begin dipping their toe by taking advantage of these well-priced promotions. Restaurant Week brings a much-needed lift to August revenue and is especially meaningful this year as so many restaurants have been hurting these last 16 months.”
As for what’s going to be offered at his restaurants, which include Gatsby, The Grill, Mi Casa, Mi Vida, and Succotash, most of which debuted just this year, “each of our restaurants takes a unique approach to offering seasonal additions, fun new items and crowd pleasers so that all guests have something for them during Restaurant Week.”
D.C.’s restaurant scene bustling again
Western Market, range of new eateries arrive as COVID wanes
From pandemic slumber to summer awakening: the D.C. dining scene is wasting no time in opening back up after restrictions were lifted in June. Make the best of eating and drinking inside or outside with a full plate of what’s to come in summer 2021. Check out all the openings and happenings in this list:
To take in the entire dining scene, take part in Metropolitan Washington Summer Restaurant Week, running Aug. 9-15. Unlike the previous restaurant week, this will return to a focus on on-premises dining, but keep the family-to-go dinner meals and cocktail pairings for those who still want the takeout or at-home experience.
In Barracks Row, Crazy Aunt Helen’s is a new spot from a veteran in the D.C. food industry. The all-day casual comfort food and diner-style spot is run by first-time owner and former marketing director of lesbian-owned Hank’s Oyster Bar, Shayne Mason. Images of icons like Jackie Kennedy line the wall, with dishes like fried chicken, house-cured pastrami Reubens, and mushroom “crab” cakes.
The Line Hotel closed two of its restaurants during the pandemic, but is now set to open No Goodbyes. It will serve Chesapeake-based dishes, with crab cakes as the star. Fried chicken and catfish will also be on the menu.
Replacing the B Too spot in the heart of 14th Street will be Maiz 64, an upscale Mexican spot to highlight small-batch mezcal. It is a “modern homage to authentic Mexican cuisine,” that uses local ingredients. Check out the ceviche raw bar, as well as the creative taco bar with creative options like charred broccoli mole and suckling pig with pork rinds and avocado.
On the wharf, the enormous Ilili brings elegant Mediterranean-Levantine cuisine to D.C. “with a New York attitude” as it is the second spot outside of its first Manhattan location. The chef tops labneh yogurt with Petrossian roe, and stuffs kibbeh with steak tartare.
Just north of U Street, taking over the vacant former Quarter & Glory space, will be St. James. The owner and chef is Peter Prime, who currently runs Cane on H Street, N.E. (Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant). He is now overseeing this sister project with a much larger footprint. Named for a city in his home country of Trinidad, the restaurant brings flavors from across the Caribbean through Prime’s modern lens.
In Adams Morgan, a pop-up brings Bolivian cocktails and street food courtesy of Carla Sanchez and her brother. Called Casa Kantuta, the pop-up runs until Aug. 8 in the bottom level of the Spacycloud restaurant-shop. Bartender Luis Aliaga slings drinks using Andean ingredients and inspiration with fun names like the Angry Llama.
Just north in Adams Morgan is Shabu Plus. In the same building as Death Punch Bar and Shibuya, the same owners (Chef Darren Norris and wife Candice) bring a Japanese hot pot experience. Diners start with a choice of one of three broths, plus vegetables, and the order meats like wagyu and lobster tail by the ounce.
Over in Shaw, the former Bistro Bohem space is set to be refreshed as Quattro Osteria. The owners, originally from Naples, bring an Italian flair, with well-known and modern dishes and drinks.
In Foggy Bottom, a huge new marketplace called Western Market will open later in the fall. The 12,300-square-foot space will transform a historic market, originally built in 1802, into a hall with more than a dozen food and beverage vendors. Taste everything from lobster rolls to sushi to arepas, and even sub sandwiches from Shaw’s Capo Deli.
Chef Alfredo Solis already has three Mexican restaurants (Anafre, El Sol, Mezcalero). His next venture travels farther afield in the form of Mariscos 1133 on 11th Street. Mariscos 1133 celebrates the coastal cuisine of the entire continent of communities, with inspiration from California, Pero, Mexico, and beyond. Diners can expect dishes like Brazilian moqueca (fish stew), ceviches, and with a nod to the local, a spin on crab cakes.
Gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design’s latest opening is Mi Casa in Dupont Circle. Inspired by Chef Roberto Santibañez’s years living in Texas and his Mexican heritage, Mi Casa’s “border cuisine” concept aims to marry Mexican, TexMex, and the American Southwest.
Hungry now? Get a taste of restaurants that opened during the spring:
Las Gemelas Cocina. This dual-concept restaurant in La Cosecha brings a casual taco bar as well as an upscale sit-down Mexican menu. It comes from the operators of Espita in Shaw.
The Point. This enormous seafood restaurant anchors new development in Buzzard Point, near Audi Field. Crab doughnuts are the star, plus lots of fish and lobster rolls. It’s run by the owners of Ivy City Smokehouse and Tony & Joe’s.
Dauphine’s. This elegant homage to cuisine from New Orleans brings not only a raw bar (for seafood) but a boucherie, a whole-pig butcher style of service popular in Cajun cooking. Casual dishes like po’ boys are offered next to headcheese and caviar.
La Famosa. This Navy Yard spot channels Puerto Rico through a relaxed, waterside vibe and lots of fried plantains and rum.
Makan. This Malaysian restaurant in Columbia Heights narrows Southeast Asian dishes to hone in on this particular country. Taste the unripe mango salad, as well as the pandan leaf that appears in both drinks and dishes.
Caruso’s Grocery. This homey Italian spot by Matt Adler (from Osteria Morini) is set near the Potomac Avenue Metro. A deep wine list accompanies dishes like burrata, shrimp scampi, and chicken Parm.
Chicatana. This Mexican restaurant lands in an area of 14th Street of Columbia Heights with several other Mexican eateries nearby – but has a twist. It’s named for a type of ant used in traditional Oaxacan cuisine, tossing a couple tiny crunchy ants (similar to chapulines, or grasshopper) on anything from ceviche to cocktails. The menu, instead of focusing on tacos, offers a broad and modern take on Mexican food.
Lupo Pizzeria. This 14th Street location comes from the same group as Lupo Verde. Lupo Pizzeria offers a menu of elevated Italian street food, Italian cocktails, and lots of bubbly. The signature from the chef is pizza made with handmade black squid-ink dough.
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