Mexican restaurants in D.C. have served their share of grasshopper tacos and worm salt-rimmed cocktails over the years, but there’s a new edible insect in town. Chicatana, which opened north of Columbia Heights in April, takes its name from a flying ant indigenous to the Mexican state of Oaxaca. At the new restaurant on 14th Street NW, chef Marcelino Zamudio roasts the ants whole before placing them atop gorditas, sprinkled over ceviche, perched on cocktails, or burrowed into bunuelo doughnuts for dessert.
Chicatana majority owner Emily Vasquez says the ants are a pre-Hispanic food and have traditionally been prepared in home kitchens in Mexico. More recently, renowned Mexico City restaurant Pujol has used the bugs as a topping for a play on elote, or street corn. Masienda, a purveyor that has helped make Mexican heirloom corn widely available in the U.S., sells the ants online in 4-ounce or one pound bags. The ants spend most of their lives underground, leaving their nests once a year during a period of heavy rainfall. Once they’re harvested, they’re typically used for everything from salsa to mole, tacos, and cocktail accoutrements.
Vasquez, a D.C.-area native and the daughter of two chefs, wanted to open a restaurant that served traditional street tacos in a fine-dining setting. Zamudio, who hails from Mexico and has worked at local Latin American restaurants like Michael Schlow’s Tico and José Andrés’s Oyamel, insisted on serving ants at Chicatana.
In addition to the ants, Zamudio and Vasquez added another important import: a custom-built trompo, or vertical spit, for roasting layers of spiced pork and pineapple that go into al pastor tacos. Customers can also tuck into chicken splashed in an earthy mole that folds in guajillo and ancho chiles along with chocolate, tortillas, and other ingredients. Finger-sized molotes, made from fried sweet plantains, arrive in a cobalt-black ceramic bowl and disappear in two bites. The molotes sit in a chichilo mole, one of the seven moles of Oaxaca. Zamudio’s version is acidic and less heavily spiced than his base mole, giving it a lighter flavor. Mexican cheese crumbles and bright microgreens finish the dish.
Beverage director Hector Flora, another Tico alum and a partner in the operation, calls Guerrero, Mexico, home. He makes his own syrups for a pomegranate margarita and a tamarind-forward Chicatana sour (mezcal, chocolate bitters, egg white, lime) garnished with a whole ant. The restaurant also pours Mexican Coke and Topo Chico.
Chicatana initially aimed to open in early 2020, but the owners delayed for more than a year because of the pandemic. With a tight space that fits only a few two-tops next to the bar and open kitchen, the restaurant stuck to outdoor dining and to-go service until restaurants could fully reopen indoor dining, in late May.
The restaurant recently launched a brunch menu that features micheladas in tamarind or expected tomato flavors, chilaquiles, and a dry beef machaca with salsa macha, eggs, and beans. A weekday happy hour (Monday through Friday, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.) features $8 molotes, tacos from $2.50 to $4, $4 beers, and $8 margaritas.
Chicatana (3917 14th Street NW) adds to a neighborhood that already boasts an impressive concentration of traditional Mexican restaurants, including fellow newcomer DC Corazon across the street, and Taqueria Habanero, Mezcalero, and Anafre a few blocks away.