John Fulchino was running dishes from the kitchen across a buzzing, full house while simultaneously greeting longtime customers with gleeful elbow-bumps on the first night of service at Los Compañeros, the new Mexican spot he and longtime friend and business partner Ann Cashion debuted in Adams Morgan at the end of October.
It’s no surprise the restaurant was packed on the first night, technically a soft opening only announced on Fulchino’s private Facebook page. Together he and Cashion have opened 11 restaurants in the D.C. area and three in this exact spot. The diners that night were celebrating their return after beloved seafood institution Johnny’s Half Shell closed last year in the same location.
“We want it to be a fun restaurant, different than Johnny’s to attract a mix of regulars and new diners,” says Fulchino.
Los Compañeros, which is Spanish for “friends” or “companions,” opens its doors in a neighborhood already featuring several Mexican restaurants. It’s the sense of community and neighborhood that is being served though, Fulchino notes, whether at Cashion’s, Johnny’s, or here.
The dishes at Los Compañeros draw from a variety of sources: Cashion’s Texan upbringing, their time working at (now-closed) Austin’s Grill in Glover Park, and their experience running Taqueria Nacional, which is still open in Mt. Pleasant. Cashion also developed the Mexican food menu at H Street Country Club. She was meticulous in drawing up the offerings at Los Compañeros.
The menu is compact in quantity of dishes, but diverse in offerings. Starters and sides are standard fare: Salsa, guacamole, and queso are offered, alongside rice, beans, and a green salad.
Mains, meanwhile, are meant to be shared. Cashion splits them into two categories: “tortilla based” and “not tortilla based.” In the former there are a variety of tacos, quesadillas, and enchiladas with plenty of veggie options for non-meat eaters.
Fulchino is quick to point out that the restaurant is not a taqueria; proof is in the “not tortilla based” category. This group features two nostalgic dishes as a taste for long-time regulars of their former restaurants: a Mexican seafood soup and crab cakes Veracruz.
The seafood soup is a take on the gumbo at Johnny’s Half Shell, which was “off the charts,” says Fulchino. “It was one of our most talked-about dishes.” Unlike the gumbo, the soup includes sauteed green chiles and sits under a generous helping of fresh cilantro.
As for the crab cake, it had legions of dedicated crustacean fans from the original version at Cashion’s Eat Place. And while other restaurants have removed crab from menus due to skyrocketing crab prices (“Crab is frightfully expensive,” notes Cashion), the two cite their longtime sourcing and dedication to the popular dish in letting it remain. Just don’t expect this version to have Old Bay seasoning. This time, it’s served on a chunky Veracruz-style sauce made with fresh tomatoes, garnished “with a condiment that is more tapenade than tartar,” she says, containing capers, pickled jalapeños, and olives.
At the bar, they’ve retained Kevin Tierney, who oversaw drinks at Johnny’s Half Shell. Tierney has revamped the menu to include more tequila, but he also offers classic cocktails sans tequila. Fulchino notes that the margarita is his own recipe, one that he perfected in the late 1980s at Austin’s Grill.
Fulchino and Cashion, who have been working together for three decades, have continuously operated restaurants in this very same address on Columbia Road since 1995. They opened Cashion’s Eat Place there that year, and then replaced it with Johnny’s Half Shell in 2016.
Another pandemic victim, Johnny’s Half Shell shuttered after the two realized keeping it open wouldn’t be unsustainable in the pandemic context. Seafood doesn’t travel well for take-out, says Fulchino.
Fulchino attributed being able to open Los Compañeros, however, to “grit, sacrifice, and genuine love that was given to us by our staff and friends,” he says.
Using ingredients popular in Mexican dishes, they were able to leverage a supply chain already set up via their Taqueria Nacional restaurant, reducing reliability and affordability pain points in sourcing. Fulchino says that these types of dishes also tend to stand up to delivery better than others.
Their longevity in the restaurant industry makes sourcing high-quality products easier for the new restaurant. “The pork for our carnitas and tamales is from EcoFriendly Foods in Virginia,” notes Cashion. “The same place for 25 years.”
Los Compañeros is currently open Wednesday to Saturday, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., with 54 seats inside and more than 20 on a seasonal patio. Fulchino and Cashion hope to launch Sunday daytime service soon.