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Tame Tacos

Fuego Cocina is a solid choice for Mexican done simply.

By Stefanie Gans / Photos by Jonathan Timmes

Salty, greasy crumbles of chorizo fit snugly in house-made corn tortillas and tart pineapple dominates roasted pork in a mix-and-match, two-for-$7 taco order.

People always try to get the fancy taco,” says my dining companion. “But chorizo’s always the best. Because it’s sausage.”

Fuego Cocina y Tequileria swells with Arlington’s going-out crowd—and the food matches; it’s a place for an easy dinner, with solid, uncomplicated food. Dishes do not obey trend lists. There are no kale salads or pig’s ears. There are tacos and no need to get fancy. Keep it sausage, stupid.

The huge space, taken over in October of last year by one of the area’s established restaurant groups (owning Passionfish in Reston and others in D.C.), replaced the short-lived, unnecessarily expensive steakhouse Market Tavern.

It’s refreshing to see Fuego’s mid-range price point in Arlington’s dining epicenter, a nod to a market in need of something familiar and something affordable. The nine tacos—from beef tongue to roasted goat prove the point at two-for-$7.

The tomato-based tortilla soup is creamy, but bright. Add-ons fan the plate, with poached (bland) shredded chicken, fried tortilla strips and avocado offered for chunking-up the soup. The build-your-own format is the way this type of soup is served in Mexico City, says native son and chef Alfredo Solis. A light meal on its own, the warm liquid satisfies, but doesn’t invoke soul-warming.

DIY-It: Wrap spicy carnitas in corn tortillas.

The large space contributes to the lack of heart, with shimmery white, overlapping tiles breathing corporate-cool. Red tiles offer a hint of spunk with light walls and bare, wood tables.

After 10-plus years with the chef Jeff Tunks team, Solis, 33, runs the kitchen. Simple treats exist in blistered, salty, messy fun in the form of melted cheese: queso fundido.

The spicy carnitas succeed, developing tangy depth from hours simmering with milk and oranges.

An enormous slab of bone-in chicken, dark and white meat, remains juicy after a quick sear, and served with, wishfully more, of the green mole thickened with iceberg lettuce. Green onions are another ingredient in this mole, a departure from Solis’ mother’s recipe.

When developing Fuego’s menu, he often called her at home in Mexico to double check his memory of her dishes. He adds scallions in this case to up the grassy hue.

The red snapper sat sadly on the plate by itself, lost in a thin, acidic shrimp and tomato sauce, dotted with jalapeños, olives and capers. Solis isn’t sure why, but people “don’t go to a Mexican restaurant to eat fish,” and he is likely removing it, replacing with a daily special. “That’s the only dish not really selling right now,” says Solis.

Like the New York Yankees, the seafood enchilada stacked with shrimp, crab and lobster failed to live up to the hyped roster.

Entree sides are listed separately, a task seemingly with a nod to the guest, but really a burden. How to know if the yuka fries (creamy on the inside, crisp on the outside and totally awesome), pinto beans with beer and bacon (obviously awesome) or mushrooms (dud) match what entree?

Tomato soup finds a new match: a tequila flight.

The same lack of storytelling limits the rewards from the tequila menu. The page-long list simply names the tequila’s brand, the type and the price. If one knows nothing about tequilas, the menu keeps it that way. Craft beer lists, long with tasting notes and intricate groupings, spoil drinkers with rich descriptions. A tip our table received from the server on how to pick liquor for a flight: choose the most expensive.

Service redeemed itself with guidance toward torejas, a French toast-like bread-pastry pressed and fried, wearing crumbled corn flakes toasted with sugar and butter.

It is simple and it is good and it is certainly not fancy.

Dessert, a moist tres leches treading in its milks, rapidly arrives two minutes after the order. Do we blame the busy Friday night? Or the magnetic pull of the merengue?

 

Notes

Fuego Cocina y Tequileria

Cuisine
Mexican

Scoop
Stick to the pig: slow cooked carnitas and chorizo taco.

Dishes
Starters and tacos: $7-13.
Entrees: $15-24. 

Open
Dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.

2800 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, fuegova.com

 

(March 2013)

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