To borrow from its owners’ favorite Mariachi song, the skies over Cielo Rojo’s Takoma Park are red once again. The “fine-casual” Mexican sensation opened its new light-soaked digs on Carroll Avenue this week, sending over its greatest hits from the old location alongside new items born of a collaboration with Michelin-starred Gravitas alum Rachel Bindle, now Cielo Rojo’s chef de cuisine.
Married co-owners Carolina McCandless and David Perez say the much-larger space (7211 Carroll Avenue, Takoma Park, Maryland), just a short walk from the 5-year-old original, allows Cielo Rojo to welcome more guests for lunch and dinner out of the gate. A bigger kitchen also means a boost in back-of-house operations the former space wasn’t able to accommodate.
“Originally we wanted a small space because we didn’t know if it would be successful or not,” says McCandless. Cielo quickly proved its place as one of the best Mexican restaurants in the region, and a steady spike in takeout orders helped buoy business during the dark days of COVID. “That’s when we realized that we thought we do a lot better with a larger restaurant because the food that we make is from scratch,” she says.
They converted what was once a showroom for late ’40s muscle cars into a Cielo Rojo capable of dishing out multiple kinds of mole sauces and plating the gamut of Oaxaca’s finest maíz — which, along with espiritú and amor, constitutes the restaurant’s mission statement.
Why is corn so central to Cielo Rojo? McCandless says it comes down to preserving tradition, promoting sustainability, and the fact that “there’s only a few plates that don’t have heirloom corn.”
Cielo Rojo sources its nixtamalized heirloom corn from Masienda, a masa maker that styles itself as a value-adding disruptor in a monopolistic supply chain by preserving heritage corn and providing a fair wage and income to small farmers in Mexico.
“First they started in Oaxaca,” McCandless said, “now they’re in other parts of Mexico as well because as they’ve grown, they’ve had to partner with more and more farms because it’s old-school farmers that they work with.”
Needless to say, diners dipping impossibly earthy tostadas in mint-muddled guacamole shouldn’t expect to taste the same harina twice, and that’s how McCandless and Perez like it. The couple met working at San Francisco’s organic, all-vegan Gracias Madre — whose general manager pointed a finger at City Hall before wrapping up the restaurant’s 15-year run last August — and they pepper their breakdown of the revamped Cielo Rojo menu with moments from the Mission and other touchstones in their personal geographies.
McCandless, who was born in Chile and grew up in Cabin John, sees some roots in the Pescado a la Talla. She concedes it’s a dish her husband, who lived in Mexico City up to the age of 17, can claim as well, but that it was her idea to pair Cielo Rojo’s pan-seared branzino with fries (it’s also served with guajillo and verde de perejil salsas). While most of the menu is inspired by no Mexican region in particular, Perez said that the hard boiled egg-filled meatballs doused in chile morita sauce are “pretty iconic” totems of CDMX.
These Albondigas de Mama Elena in particular are a tribute to his mom, a single mother of ten who Perez said “was a really good cook [considering] the amount of time that she had to prepare meals.”
The owners will soon double down on the neighborhood — and make use of Cielo Rojo’s old space — with the arrival of San Pancho, a new San Francisco-styled burrito and torta shop. Hiring is expected to start in two to three months.
—Tierney Plumb contributed to this report