Kathryn Baker is a Hoya Staff Writer.
Spike Mendelsohn, best known for finishing in fifth place on season four of “Top Chef,” first made his mark on the Georgetown community with his wittily named fresh burgers at Good Stuff Eatery on M Street. Now, Mendelsohn hopes to impress again with his latest D.C. dining endeavor: Santa Rosa Taqueria.
Located a 30-minute drive from campus, the fast casual taco venue provides a splash of color to the marble buildings of Capitol Hill. Adorned in hues of orange, blue and lime green and decorated with quirky graphics and flashy signage, the restaurant has a spirited, upbeat atmosphere that invites diners to kick back with friends after a long day. The restaurant also features limited outdoor seating for those who prefer to enjoy the summer air and take in the sights of the city. Filled with friendly staffers who seem passionate about the food they provide, Santa Rosa Taqueria’s environment beckons guests to sit down and stay for a while, whether they are eating a full meal or simply dropping by for cocktail hour.
Unfortunately, despite Santa Rosa Taqueria’s unique setup, its menu lacks creativity — especially given Mendelsohn’s credentials as a “Top Chef” alumnus. The establishment lists queso and chips ($6) as one of its signature specialties, despite the dish being readily available at other generic Mexican eateries. The “Sloppy José” Nachos ($10), also listed as a specialty, in reality, are just plain tortilla chips topped with typical ingredients like chopped tomatoes, jalapenos, sour cream and guacamole.
Also available for $10 are casa bowls, which are merely imitations of Chipotle’s burrito bowl, although they are made with yellow instead of white rice. The bowls are topped with black beans, pico de gallo, roasted corn, cabbage slaw and a choice of protein. One of the members of my party chose to order the chicken casa bowl, which came with each ingredient isolated in its own section of the bowl, leaving the diner to mix it up. Furthermore, the bowl lacked a base — the rice was more of an afterthought than a key component of the dish — and the vegetables, though eatable, did not taste the freshest.
The restaurant brands itself as a go-to for tacos, so it makes sense that the most variety would come in the form of its taco selections. At $3.50 for each taco, and $10 for three tacos, guests can choose between corn and flour tortillas and a variety of protein and vegetable combinations. The favorite of my party was the carne asada taco, which was filled with beautifully cooked, juicy steak, pico de gallo, queso and sour cream. The pollo grillado taco, consisting of lime mojo — a spicy sauce typically made from olive oil, salt water, garlic, paprika and other spices — pico de gallo, queso, and sour cream was also a success. The smokiness of the chicken differentiated the dish from versions found at other establishments.
Not all the tacos, however, were of this caliber. The fried shrimp in the spicy fried shrimp taco, although delicious on its own, created a weird consistency when combined with the flour tortilla and guacamole — which also was not fresh in flavor.
Those looking for a healthier option can pick from two salad options: the “Santa Caesar” ($7), which is made with kale, cotija cheese and classic Caesar dressing, or the “La Fuerte” Salad ($7), which features power greens and a yellow and serrano pepper vinaigrette. Both have the option of adding chicken or shrimp for an additional $3.
Refreshments at the restaurant include typical fountain drinks, seasonal aguas frescas ($3) — drinks made with fruits, seeds, flowers and sugar water — draft beers ($5) and margaritas ($6).
Santa Rosa Taqueria is a great, quick fix for those craving Mexican food in the District. It features a fun atmosphere and friendly service, but it fails to meet the same taste standards as Mendelsohn’s numerous other establishments. Diners will be better served at veteran establishments like District Taco or Los Cuates. In the future, Mendelsohn should stick to flipping burgers and leave the tacos to the experts.
Santa Rosa Taqueria is located at 315 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Washington D.C., 20003.