- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

You might have heard complaints about not getting good Mexican food in Washington. That’s not true, for Oyamel — Jose Andres’ Cocina Mexicana — in Penn Quarter does that.

Oyamel opened in the Crystal City area of Arlington, but has moved to the District. Oyamel is no ordinary South-of-the-border joint though. The fare is more varied than most and it goes miles beyond burritos, tacos, huevos rancheros — what defines Mexican food for most Americans. Each dish, most of them in the small-plates concept, gets lots of attention in terms of preparation and presentation.

When ordering guacamole, for example, it is not a bowl of mashed avocado prepared-hours-earlier. It is all at-the-table-preparation — fresh as can be. It’s served with green tomatillo, serrano chili and crumbled queso fresco and is such a popular choice that the restaurant uses at least 500 avocados a week.

The gazpacho, too, delightfully goes beyond the predictable. It’s neither red nor finely blended nor tomato. Mr. Andres’ version uses chopped jicama root, mango, cucumbers, jalapenos and Mexican sour orange. The flavors and textures complement each other perfectly — the mild cucumber, the acidic orange, the spicy jalapenos and the sweet mango and jicama — as do the colors.

Speaking of colors. The restaurant interior includes warm orange and red fabrics, dark hard-wood tables and chairs as well as colorful and often humorous folk art. The walls are decorated with traditional Mexican masks and in every nook and cranny seems to be home for a Day of the Dead skeleton figures doing funny things like smoking a stogie or pushing an ice-cream cart.

Above our heads bobbed several butterfly mobiles (the restaurant’s namesake — oyamel — is a fir tree in the volcanic highlands of central Mexico where millions of monarch butterflies take shelter while migrating south in the fall) and in the restroom, an impressive Frida Kahlo shrine, complete with skeletons, adorns one wall.

The space seats about 120 (Crystal City was larger and seated twice as many) and was packed on a recent Tuesday night. The crowd seems to get younger as the evening gets older, and the bar area is up to date in the noise factor.

Another young-crowd pleaser includes a large screen above the tortilla bar — they are made fresh, to order — which shows a continuous loop of street scenes from Mexico City.

The made-to-order corn tortillas should not be missed. We ordered several types of the $3-each tacos. A favorite was the braised oxtail with tomatoes and peppers, served with pineapple, onions and cilantro. The meat is super tender and nicely seasoned. We ended up ordering an additional two.

Other nice taco choices include the taco with stewed chicken, potatoes, chorizo and chipotle, topped with red onion; and the taco with confit of baby pig, green tomatillo sauce, pork rinds, onion and cilantro.

As with all of Mr. Andres’ creations, even the tacos are presented stylishly. They arrive in a little stainless steel taco stand and the garnishes — from the chopped onion to the cilantro — are pleasing to the eye.

Among the fish offerings, we loved the red snapper ceviche. It’s super fresh and served with sliced avocado, tomato salsa, sweet onion, cilantro and lime juice. The seared salmon with a mole verde sauce of pumpkin seeds, green tomatillo, lettuce, chilies and cilantro is another good-looking, good-tasting seafood choice.

The soft-shell crab tostada — a special that day — also was great and delightfully unpredictable. The beer-battered soft shell crab was served atop crispy house-made tortillas and accompanied with a mango, roasted corn salsa and avocado. We almost ordered another, but did want desserts, which we’d heard good things about.

The clear winner in this category was the pastel de tres leches, a rum-soaked cake with a rum and milk foam, fresh pineapple gelatin, a pineapple salsa and a scoop of dark caramel ice cream. It’s refreshing and not overly sweet. Perfect for summer.

The warm chocolate cake, which sits in a cream of mole poblano and a froth of spiced Mexican hot chocolate, was rather choco-heavy, but probably a good choice for chocoholics.

The goat-milk cajeta with crumbled Mexican shortbread, fresh mango, caramelized cinnamon and lime zest was another nice, refreshing dessert choice. The flavors and textures — smooth and crunchy — meshed well. It was served with delicious, also-perfect-for-warm-weather passion fruit and coconut sorbets.

Oyamel has a full bar with an emphasis on the tequilas and cocktails, but also a nice, but limited, selection of beers and wines.

The service was initially slow — but always (sometimes almost overly) friendly — but picked up and became smooth and seamless as the evening wore on.

It seems the recent move from Crystal City to Penn Quarter, too, can be described as smooth and seamless. In its current incarnation, Oyamel looks and feels great and is crowded. With good reason: Mr. Andres and his team continue to dish out varied small-plate dishes from a large menu with high-quality ingredients, unexpected combinations and delightful artistic presentations.

RESTAURANT: Oyamel, 401 Seventh St. NW; 202/628-1005

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 11:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

PRICES: Small plates $3 to $13; main course $19 to $25; dessert $6 to $7

CREDIT CARDS: Major cards accepted

PARKING: Limited metered street parking; $11 valet parking in the evening; various pay-parking garages

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Archives on Green and Yellow lines or Gallery Place (Arena exit) on Red Line

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