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Union Market’s Mexican Stalwart Destino Enters a ‘Fun’ Era Under a New Chef

Chef Vincent Badiee, a farmer with Michelin credentials, embraces experimentation across a playful new menu

Caviar blankets a beef-and-mango taco at Destino.

The newly named executive chef at Destino says most of his dishes started as a joke.

“I was like, ‘What if I put beef and mangos together?’” chef Vincent Badiee tells Eater.

Destino’s new chef Vincent Badiee.

After some trial and error, which initially included combining the two in a salad, he discovered a hard taco is where the ingredients belong. Beef tartare is covered in both unripe and ripe mango salsa with mezcal, then topped oodles of chives and white sturgeon caviar for a simultaneously salty, sweet, and hearty bite. “It’s as delicious and beautiful as it is ridiculous,” says Destino co-founder Joshua Phillips.

Experimentation isn’t anything new for Badiee, who took over the kitchen last month at the nearly 3-year-old modern Mexican standby inside La Cosecha food hall (1280 4th Street NE). His storied career includes stints at Michelin-rated places in D.C. (Gravitas, Cranes, Fiola), New York (three-starred Eleven Madison Park), and most recently, the dedicated farmer and chef at the acclaimed Restaurant at Patowmack Farm out in rural Virginia. Now he’s working with Phillips, who happens to be his best friend.

Josh and Kelly Phillips’s Destination Unknown Restaurants umbrella also includes Taqueria Las Gemelas, which also sits in the Latin food hall, and Ghostburger in Shaw. Badiee’s first order of business with the hospitality group was getting the burger bar’s first-ever (and faraway) expansion off the ground in Dubai.

Back in D.C. in the Union Market district, he’s focusing on creating a fun and collaborative atmosphere in Destino’s kitchen. Badiee keeps saying “fun” because he means it. In the restaurant’s open kitchen, he bounces ideas off of the Destino team, twisting classic dishes to craft a menu with no wrong answers. Destino itself evolved out of experimentation in 2022, replacing its original identity as seafood-centric Las Gemelas Cocina Mexicana under opening chef Rob Aikens.

Squash soup with almond and sesame.
A unexpected spin on classic cod involves mole sauce and miso.

Destino splits its reinvented menu into three sections: “plantas, carnes, and dulces.”

The “carnes” side hosts deconstructed “grandma’s dishes” like chicken and rice, served stew-style with a ramen-like broth poured over the ingredients. Tuna ceviche is covered in an aguachile sauce and paired with the fall flavors of apples, pecans, and squash for a seasonal twist.

Pork with pici noodles and mushrooms.

As a farmer himself, Badiee maintains connections with local purveyors to emphasize where the food is coming from. Despite the menu subtitle “carnes,” the vegetables are the star of every main dish.

“Meat is a supporting actor,” Badiee says. “To me, the vegetables and spices are going to tell you the story.”

The “plantas” side of the menu offers deconstructed guacamole; a salsa trio featuring serrano, sesame, and coconut; multi-colored carrots over beans, tostada-style; an ensalada featuring beets, avocados, and ricotta; and enchiladas perfected by executive sous-chef Mari Garcia-Moreno, who was involved in the interactive menu makeover.

“This is a fun eating experience, you’re involved and doing stuff,” Badiee says. “You’re more in the present. You’ve got to fight for some carrot if you want some carrot—you have to put your phone down.”

Carrot tlayuda presents carrots in five ways (puree, matcha-roasted, pickled, agrodolce, and salsa), topped with queso and herbs.

The “dulces” part of the menu offers just two choices, but they are not to be missed. The rice pudding is layered with banana and mango, and the chocolate flan, dubbed “chocoflan,” is an upscale frozen sweet treat with layers of custard and cake covered in chocolate and served with grapes.

Cocktails lean into Mexican flavors like hibiscus, mezcal, and pineapple. A classic Old Fashioned get a twist with bourbon, mezcal, piloncillo syrup, and mole bitters.

In the spirit of fun, Badiee and his team are constantly creating. The menu might change here and there, the chefs adjusting as they go whenever the mood strikes. A new tasting menu will arrive before 2024, building upon the kitchen’s no-rules mantra of using some of the weirdest epiphanies as starting points. “It’s approachable luxury,” Badiee says.

Rice pudding layered with coconut, banana, and mango.