A casual Mexican restaurant with a sprinkling of Asian ingredients like “K-pop” salsa and dashi verde “fairydust” opens in Shirlington today, making its debut just in time for Cinco de Mayo.
Taco and Piña (4041 Campbell Avenue) is the first solo venture for chef Graham Bartlett, who honed his taco chops working as regional executive chef for Mexican-born restaurateur Richard Sandoval (El Centro D.F.), and, more recently, at Buena Vida Silver Spring. Billing itself as “fine-casual,” the restaurant fills a void for a fun, tropical place created last year when Hawaiian poke bar Hula Girl closed across the street.
“It was kind of a running joke couple months ago, that it was our destiny to open on Cinco de Mayo,” Bartlett says, recalling a passing thought during the construction process. “We were literally ready to open when everything happened. We decided to take a step back.”
After spending two years trying to open the 65-seat space, Bartlett will have to wait to welcome his first dine-in customers. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced Monday night that the the state’s first phase of reopening could start May 15. That would mean restaurants could start welcoming back customers with social distancing restrictions in place.
For now, Taco and Piña will focus on to-go orders. Taco fillings include fried chicken, chile relleno, or baja bahia (Chesapeake catfish) on corn tortillas. Tender ribeye asada is thinly sliced by design: “When you order tacos on the street in Mexico, beef is finely chopped,” Bartlett says.
Enchiladas are packed with garlic sambal chicken or roasted mushroom and cheese. Nachos feature “playful” twists, with crab chilaquiles dressed with dashi verde; shrimp and chorizo; and “hot mess” fries with queso and pork belly carnitas.
For opening day, Taco and Piña’s “backyard party” package ($55 for four to six people) is packed with chips and salsa, guacamole, potato and cheese flautas, orange Fanta pork carnitas, guajillo-tamari roasted mushroom; fried chicken with “K-pop” salsa, and 24 corn tortillas.
Orders of guacamole, chips and salsa, or roasted poblano queso can all be upgraded to family-style portions for six to eight people.
“It’s not a quantity thing, it’s more quality. We stuck with what I think are our greatest hits and will add to the menu eventually,” he says, summing up offerings as “causal and approachable. Not too stuffy.”
Takeout and delivery hours are 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Drink options include frozen margaritas, wines, Mexican beers, and local craft beers in bottles or cans. A roasted pineapple margarita is inspired by a recipe from a pastry chef that used to work alongside Bartlett.
“It’s a tropical punch flavor but not overwhelmingly sweet,” he says. The key is it stays frozen from door to door.
Bartlett, a home brewer, is selling a tough-to-find Mexican lager from Cerveceria Colimata, a new brewery in the town of El Trapiche in the state of Colima.
Bartlett had an idea to install an ice well — a popular grab-and-go feature at taquerias in Mexico — but that will have to wait.
He says the circumstances surrounding opening could have been worse. If he had opened before the pandemic hit, he says, he would have had to deal with staffing cutbacks.
He says the “biggest letdown” is not being able to let customers enjoy the space just yet; right now they can “look, not touch,” while picking up to-go orders. He plans to set the mood with a contemporary Mexican playlist.
“We put so much thought into it. It’s an emotional investment — when it’s all ready to unwrap we have to wait a while. It is what it is. Some you things can and can’t control,” he says.