Born in Ecuador, educated in Mexico and Canada, and a longtime resident of D.C., Rolando Frias ties together his itinerant past in a bright bow at Taqueria al Lado, a casual new Mexican restaurant in Adams Morgan that prides itself on grinding its own masa.
Frias, a Culinary School of America graduate, opened the restaurant in late January to serve neighborhood regulars in the mold of its next-door neighbor, Osteria al Volo, where he is still a chef and partner.
Living in Mexico City as a college student, Frias fell in love with the casual, straightforward cuisine he encountered at corner taco shops. After honing his Italian cooking chops at both Osteria al Volo and his other nearby restaurant, Retrobottega, Taqueria al Lado is now his tribute to Mexican street food. Customers will find familiar taqueria fare alongside triangular masa tetelas from Oaxaca, where Frias traveled for research.
Choose a taco, quesadilla, huarache, or salad ($4, $8, $8, and $12, respectively), and a protein from a list that includes al pastor, lengua, chicken tinga, and others. Vegans can find comfort in jackfruit tacos braised in an onion-tomato base.
Frias gives a friendly chide to novel-sized menus at other Mexican restaurants. “I want the menu to be as focused as possible,” he says of the concise one-pager.
Most tacos are simply dressed in traditional garb of cilantro, onion, and a razor-thin radish slice. The al pastor gets cooled down with some pineapple. Tempura-battered cod has a thicker blanket of crunchy cabbage slaw and chipotle crema. The taco stands out on a handsome blue-corn tortilla.
“I always missed the incredible nixtamal tortillas made the traditional way that are so rare stateside,” Frias says.
About those tortillas: Taqueria al Lado is one of the few restaurants in town that nixtamalizes corn masa on the premises. He orders sacks of heirloom white olotillo corn from a small farm in Oaxaca.
Each day, his staff goes through the traditional process of treating the corn with lime, boiling, drying, and grinding under volcanic stone. And unlike many traditional taquerias, al Lado uses only one tortilla — not a double stack — because the process results in “the tortillas being strong and stretchy enough to accommodate the toppings,” Frias says.
Frias also leans in to the nation-wide nation-wide birria craze, serving chuck roast braised in a crimson broth and served on a tortilla soaked in the same rich consome. Here, it also can come in quesabirria form, with the meat sprinkled with melty Oaxacan cheese. A duo of aguachiles, or “Mexican ceviche,” as Frias calls it, and passionfruit pastries round out the menu. An all-you-can-eat weekend brunch is in the works. Frias also points out that the entire menu is gluten-free.
Since the building next to Al Volo was vacant, Frias refurbished the interior and built out an open-air heated patio in the back, strung with lights and decorated with murals a friend painted. The open kitchen showcases busy staff flipping tortillas on the flattop grill and handily folding in meats and toppings.
“We don’t pretend that it was easy to open now, but luckily the concept for the restaurant was open-air and restriction-friendly,” Frias says. “The private back patio helps a lot to keep everyone safe.”
While he may have an international pedigree, Frias wants Taqueria al Lado to be cozy and unpretentious, “where people can grab lunch every day, and not a restaurant with a sommelier. You can have a good meal with a drink for $20.”
Even without a sommelier, Frias puts care into the cocktail menu and ingredients. The staff presses lemon and lime juice daily, and Frias works tamarind juice into several drinks.
Margaritas can come frozen or on the rocks, and with tequila or mezcal. Several mezcal options are from small growers that Frias wanted to spotlight.