El Centro DF – Mexican Excellence on 14th St
Note: The first installment in We Ball Harder’s recommendations of commercial establishments. Unless otherwise specified, anywhere mentioned on WBH comes highly recommended, because why would we waste your time with mediocre places?
Quick: who has the best rooftop in DC, the best late night food, awesome drinks, and sweet music all in one venue?
The answer: El Centro DF, Richard Sandoval’s (Zengo, Masa 14, La Sandia) newest venue, located right next to Black Cat. You walk in on the ground floor to what looks at first like a spruced-up Chipotle, with a bare concrete floor, wooden bar tables, stools, and other wooden accents, a counter for salsa, and indeed a a menu hanging down from the ceiling over the cashier advertising tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and the like. In the very back are stairs going downstairs, leading to the basement restaurant and tequileria, where they serve more formal sit-down food and a staggering array of agave and maguey distillates. More on that below.
However, visible as soon as you walk in is a bouncer and a staircase leading up, and go up I suggest you do. What you get is the best rooftop bar in DC, with wooden decking and lots of timber construction, now with a partially retracted cover over it to protect against rain and the looming cold weather (early this summer, upon opening, there was no roof and it was completely open air). It’s a fairly long space, with one level raised a few steps above the other, with a bar on each level – opt for the bar on the lower level since it’s bigger, has more bartenders, and more places to sit. One of the striking things about the roof is, while busy, how not-packed it is, unlike, say, Marvin or Eighteenth Street Lounge. It seems they limit the number of people on the roof to prevent overcrowding. A nice touch. Another nice touch, lacking in many venues, is that if sat the the bar, they provide hooks under the bar to hang your jacket, umbrella, or bag.
Even at 10:30, grabbing a seat at the bar is easy, and what a bar. A standard good assortment of vodka, whisky, and the like, they have a pretty good, if not great, rum selection (Black Seal, Pyrat, Zacapa on offer among others), but an IMMENSE mezcal and tequila selection – dozens on the rooftop, somewhere around 200 in the basement tequileria. The bartenders are very nice, and they know their way around a drink – but also give you a drinks list to guide you. I strongly recommend their tequila or mezcal-based cocktails, especially the Lavanda, with white tequila, St. Germain, and lavender, or the Red & Smoky, made from mezcal, chile-ginger syrup, and agua de jamaica (hibiscus tea). They also make a good “Mexican mojito,” with tequila and the aforementioned chile-ginger syrup. This the only place you can get such drinks in DC without specifically telling a bartender elsewhere to make it, and they alone are worth coming for. Prices run from $9 to 12, which is on par with properly made cocktails elsewhere in DC, although El Centro serves big glasses, so you’re actually getting a very good value. A decent selection of Mexican beers is on hand for $6 as well, as is “Margarita in a Can”- however the bartenders didn’t recommend it. We appreciate their honesty.
Music-wise, on weekend nights the tequilera has a DJ spinning in it, and the music is broadcast on all three levels of El Centro, meaning while you enjoy your Red & Smoky, you can also dance (and people do) to quality Spanish-language pop (reggaeton, salsa, Shakira, “Danza Kuduro”), house music, and occasional classic tracks from Madonna and others. It’s actually fairly balanced, without any ADD mixing, but without lingering on one style of music the whole night.
When you get hungry (and after several strong drinks you probably will), head back to the ground floor taqueria and grab a taco ($4 each) or quesadilla ($9), available in numerous filling, such as carnitas, steak, beef tongue, shrimp, etc. The tacos are very good for DC, properly done on corn tortillas, with the filling of your choice, plus interesting salsas and sparse toppings as is done in Mexico. At the DIY salsa counter, they have a red salsa (moderately hot), green one (not hot at all) and a sort of yellow-ish one, made of habeneros, and is hands down the hottest sauce I’ve had at a DC restaurant. Good stuff. They also have Mexican-style grilled corn, covered with cream, grated cheese, and chile powder, which not many other places offer. While all the food options are good, I think the tacos are the best value, especially the taco platter, giving you two tacos plus rice and beans for 9 bucks. To make it even better, the ground floor taqueria even has a full bar. Beats jumbo slice any day. Limited food can also be ordered on the rooftop, and of course downstairs is a full menu.
Overall, it’s rare for a place not have a single fault, but it’s hard to find one here. This may be the coolest place in DC right now. Awash in a sea of snotty DC nightlife, El Centro stands out for the aforementioned reasons as well as its laid back nature. T-shirts and sandals are as common as K-street clubwear, and nobody seems to have any of the pretensions that so frequently plague nightlife destinations in the city. While they seem to be getting ready for colder weather, go now while it’s still decent outside and enjoy the roof before the heaters have to be switched on.
El Centro DF
1819 14th St NW