Chef Jose Andres' DC restaurant empire focuses on small plates with big flavors. His restaurants (Jaleo (x2), Zaytinya, Cafe Atlantico, MiniBar, Oyamel) each fill a unique niche in DC's dining scene. One of our favorites is Oyamel, a fun Mexican-focused restaurant with an extensive array of Antojitos (tapas). The dining room (located on bustling 7th Street in Penn Quarter) looks a bit like a modern, upscale Spanish classroom with its bright colors and Dia de los Muertos-style decorations. If my Spanish classroom served food and drinks like this, I would never have graduated high school...
Oyamel has a full menu of traditional refrescos from aguas frescas (fresh fruit, water, sugar) to horchata. On this visit we sampled the pomegranate and regular margaritas. They have this magical warm and salty foam on top ( in lieu of salt on the glass) which looks like soap bubbles and sounds weird, but makes for a great sensation as you sip the cool drink.
Since it is a tapas-style menu and we ordered lots of dishes, I will just let the photos (and brief descriptions) do the talking.
Chips and zesty salsa.
Guacamole made at your table.
The aforementioned guacamole served in a lava stone molcajete.
Papas al mole (José Andrés’ favorite fried potatoes in a mole poblano sauce of almonds, chile, and a touch of chocolate, topped with Mexican cream and aged cotija cheese).
Arrachera con salsa molcajeta y nopales escabeche (Grilled skirt steak in a sauce of grilled tomatoes, tomatillos, green onions, cilantro, and green chile, garnished with pickled cactus paddle).
Caldo Tlalpeño (Traditional chicken soup with shredded chicken, peas, carrots, avocado, rice and a spoonful of smoky chipotle sauce).
Camarones Especial (shrimp from the daily special menu).
Tamal Especial (tamale from the daily special menu).
Tamal Verde (Tamale with green sauce of tomatillo, shredded chicken breast, chile, garlic, and cilantro).
Elote con calabazitas (Sauteed sweet corn, baby zucchini, and serrano peppers with Mexican cream, queso fresco, and chile pequin).
Left: Taco Especial (steak street taco from the daily special menu).
Right: Chapulines (The legendary Oaxacan speciality of sautéed grasshoppers, served with shallots, garlic and tequila). Yes, you read that right. Grasshoppers! They are crunchy and salty and . . . well . . . different.
Oyamel's diverse menu (where else can you get grasshopper tacos?), friendly service, and central location makes it a great pick for a pre-Verizon Center meal or night out with friends. Sit back, grab a margarita, and let the bubbles tickle your nose and take your cares away. Just watch out for that guacamole . . . it can be terribly addicting.
Second Thoughts from B
The great thing about tapas is that you get to enjoy a few bites of many different dishes, each with unique flavors and textures. This makes tapas dining great for adventurous eaters and especially for large groups. So that's the argument for tapas, but why Oyamel?
Each of Jose Andres' establishments are certainly worth a try and in my opinion, other than the extraordinary experience found at Minibar (see our review here), the "best" is a matter of personal preference. Rest assured, wherever you go, you won't be hurting for flavor. But for our taste, the Mexican inspired Oyamel is our favorite. Maybe it is the familiar flavor profile that makes these Southern Californians feel at home, but from the beginning to the end of the meal, you'll hear nothing but satisfied mmm's from our table.
Of particular note are the more unusual items on the menu. Whether it is cactus or salty foam or even grasshoppers, Oyamel ensures that you're rewarded for being a little daring when ordering. There is clearly a method to the madness behind the addition of atypical ingredients as each are included based on taste and texture rather than shock value. It is no wonder Chef Andres' "cuisine reigned supreme" after his foray into Kitchen Stadium.