Were we in El Salvador, Honduras or perhaps Oaxaca in Southern Mexico? We could have been in another country, but no, this was Benito’s Place, 1437 11th St. NW (no website). It’s easy to miss this postage-stamp sized Shaw eatery. The façade is unremarkable, and the cramped interior contains only about a dozen tables. Brick-lined walls are enhanced with tropical artwork depicting Central American scenes, while the TV airs soccer games in Spanish. When Peter and I visited for a mid-week lunch, the place was hopping, mainly with Latino patrons. In spite of the autumn chill, the outdoor tables were occupied.
Benito’s cooking is mainly Central American. Owners Maynor and Telma Majano come from Honduras and Guatemala, respectively. Neighboring nation El Salvador is well represented with wonderful, cheese-filled pupusas. I ordered two, using my broken Spanish. The pair of pancakes (just $3 each) arrived with crunchy, Latin-style slaw. Beware the accompanying sauces: they pack a wallop. A table might also order a plate of loaded nachos—heaped with steak or grilled chicken, beans, jalapeños, guacamole, pico de gallo and sour cream. Benito’s sopa (soup) lineup encompasses sopa de gallina (chicken), res (beef), mondongo (tripe) and mariscos (seafood). Welcoming on a cold, late fall day.
The menu also lists tortas (sandwiches), including Mexican-style ham-and-cheese and even a sub heaped with pan-fried chicken (or beef), lettuce, tomato and avocado. From the extensive entrée list, Peter chose mole poblano. The dark, rich concoction contains multiple ingredients, usually onion, garlic, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, assorted peppers, peppercorns, sesame seeds, cinnamon, raisins and more. Whew! The inky hue comes from dark Mexican chocolate. Draped over a chicken drumstick and thigh, the mole was the best we’ve tasted since visiting Oaxaca years ago. Among other main dishes are shrimp fajitas, carne asada (beef), chuleta (pork chop) with sautéed onions, and pollo a la plancha (grilled chicken breast). Most entrees arrive with rice, beans and a green salad.
Our lunch—with my glass of wine and Peter’s Corona beer–came to a mere $36.27 before tip. Service was thoughtful and competent, if leisurely. No problem. As we sipped our drinks, we were soaking up the homespun atmosphere. Our server, Maidu, had patiently replaced my red wine—which unfortunately had turned—with a pleasant Apothic red (California) blend. (Benito’s has a full bar.)
“I love it when we discover a downhome, good-value hole-in-the-wall serving interesting ethnic cuisine,” raved Peter. Benito’s Place is open daily for lunch and dinner. For more information, call 202-299-0977. There is no website.
Day of the Dead Ritual and Cuisine
You still have time (if last minute) to celebrate Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—at dLeña, 476 K St. NW, in Mount Vernon Triangle. Through November 6, guests may experience the (mainly Mexican) holiday’s rituals right there. (dLena is part of Richard Sandoval Hospitality, a leading culinary group with 60 restaurants scattered around the globe.)
Traditionally observed on November 1, Día de Los Muertos honors departed family and friends while bringing their stories and memories back to life through their favorite foods, libations and stories.
Chef Sandoval’s special menus evoke this celebration while utilizing the four elements found in a traditional ofrenda (an altar, often constructed on the deceased gravesite): earth, water, air, and fire. Dishes include mole coloradito enchiladas (chorizo, cotija cheese and mole) and palo santo pan (bread) de muerto with smoked palo santo butter and marigold-infused sugar. Sandoval developed this innovative recipe with New York chef Fany Gerson.
Among festive potent potables are passion fruit and aloe santo with Patrón Silver tequila, Chareau Aloe Liqueur, absinthe, lime, and passionfruit syrup. All this is finished with palo santo smoke. Meaning “holy wood,” palo santo smoke supposedly comes from a “magical” tree that grows in Latin America.
For hours and more information on dLeña’s Día de los Muertos celebration or to make reservations, visit dlenadc.com.
Rebel Taco, 1214 U St., has reopened after a covid hiatus. For now, service is takeout only. But the good news (at least for night owls) is that a brand-new takeout window stays open until 4 a.m. Heading the menu are cornflake-battered “Shrimp Gone Wild” tacos; sharable Macho Nachos; carne asada (grilled steak); carnitas (pork shoulder) and, naturally, oceans of guacamole. For updates, hours and more information, visit www.rebeltaco.com. You’ll find another Rebel Taco at 508 K St. NW, in Mount Vernon Triangle.
Middle Eastern Charm
Peter and I enjoyed a pleasant lunch recently at Sospeso, the six-year-old Middle Eastern/Mediterranean charmer at 1344 H St. NE. (Sospeso was one of the few Atlas District restaurants we found who were serving midweek lunch.) We perched at the comfy bar and chowed down on co-owner/chef Michael Rosato’s grilled octopus with a roasted red pepper sofrito. Merguez kofte is traditionally made with lamb but vegans can opt for the lentil-and-bulgur version. There’s also hummus and house-baked focaccia. Other tempting choices are baba ghanoush, mezze platters, lamb chops, chicken, daily pasta dishes and whole branzino. Heading the brief dessert menu is olive oil cake. Saturday and Sunday brunch showcases lamb hash and a Turkish breakfast with soft-boiled egg, kofte, hummus, baba ghanoush, feta, olives, the works.
Sospeso makes its own lemonade, vermouth and limoncello. From the comprehensive wine list, I sipped a pleasant pinot grigio. Sospeso also operates a kiosk in Union Market, 1309 Fifth St. NE. By the way, the word sospeso—literally “suspended coffee”—comes from the charming practice of buying a coffee for the customer behind you. For hours and more information, visit www.sospesodc.com.
Watch this Space
At 1245 H St. NE, look for Bronze, tucked inside the former Smith Commons space. Highlighting the African diaspora, the 150-seat future restaurant is being created by Keem Hughley. Hughley is also a partner in nearby Maketto. Stay tuned.