Located on U Street since early last year, El Rey, a taqueria and Mexican beer garden, aptly fits into this increasingly gentrified and trendy setting. The building itself is constructed almost entirely of tin shipping containers, adding a colorful and unique touch to the architectural design.
The front of the restaurant features an indoor area, which is dimly lit with a bar and contains just a few tables. Behind that, in an outdoor courtyard with a roof around the edges, El Rey has another bar and several more tables. On a warm Tuesday evening, this was the place where most people were sitting, taking advantage of the emerging spring weather.
The area had a “seat yourself” sign and a free water pitcher, so my friend and I got ourselves some plastic cups of water and sat down at one of the tables under the overhanging roof in the courtyard, which still allowed for the setting sun to reach us for a time. About 15 minutes after we arrived we started to feel chilly as the sun set. The managers were quick to react, conveniently closing the retractable courtyard roof and turning the heating system on.
The restaurant wasn’t very crowded, and a waitress promptly came over with menus and offered to get us started with something to eat or drink, suggesting guacamole. Always one of my favorite dishes at Mexican restaurants, we ordered chips ($3) with guacamole (+$3) right away.
The starter came quickly, and the chips were somewhat greasy, crispy and clearly homemade. They were slightly warm and had just been baked. Some were covered in salt while others weren’t. The guacamole was very good — smooth, with a nice lime and cilantro flavor. Unfortunately, even with fairly small helpings on each chip, we finished the small plastic container of guacamole very quickly, which left us with over half the plate of chips still left. We therefore ordered another container of guacamole for something to eat the chips with.
Next we got a tamale, which was Mexican chorizo ($5) flavored at the suggestion of our waitress. The tamale also came quickly, hot and wrapped in the corn husk, which our waitress helpfully told us how to remove. The mashed corn was deliciously smooth and moist. The chorizo was spicy, though not overwhelmingly so. However, the meat was simply clumps of ground beef that tasted more like dog food than a thoughtfully seasoned Mexican classic.
Next, we each ordered a taco. I got the de pescado ($4), which is a fish taco with carrot slaw, tomatillo, avocado and chipotle aioli. He got the al pastor ($3), again at the recommendation of our waitress, which is a roasted pork shoulder taco with pineapple, pickled onions and chipotle aioli.
My fish taco was satisfactory. The fish was white and not very flavorful, but it was a good amount for the small taco. The dish had too much sauce, which mostly overpowered the other flavors with its mayonnaise-saturated chipotle taste. The highlight of the taco was the shell, which was a chewy soft corn shell, which was also clearly homemade and very fresh.
My friend enjoyed his taco too, saying that the pork was bland flavor-wise but nice and tender. He also enjoyed the chipotle sauce, but it was the taco’s predominant flavor, which took away from the potentially unique taste of the pineapples. He disagreed with my impressions on the taco shell, saying that it should have been crispier.
By the time we finished eating the tacos, El Rey had gotten pretty crowded as people came after work. Most people there were fairly young and I would assume enjoying a relaxing happy hour. Not being old enough to drink and needing to get back to our homework, my friend and I decided to leave after our tacos even though the atmosphere was enjoyable and we weren’t really full yet.
Overall, the food was enjoyable and freshly made but without anything particularly unique. The main purpose of El Rey is clearly the drinks, as they advertise margarita pitchers as well as several beers and cocktails. Once I am 21, I would gladly return to El Rey for drinks, as my friend and I both agreed that the restaurant’s vibe was very enjoyable with the younger crowd, friendly staff and unique tin walls and the prices are friendly to a college student’s budget. The food itself complements the drinks well, but ultimately takes a bit of a backseat.