Sunday, April 12, 2015

El Centro D.F. Brunch Review

Mexican “Benedict”

Once upon a time, Georgetown was the (perhaps only) place to brunch... years decades before Penn Quarter, Shaw and the U Street Corridor arrived on the scene (in culinary earnest.) But I'm an old soul; and I like to give credit, where credit is due... so off to Georgetown I went, in search of a classic, hopefully perfect brunch. First stop? El Centro D.F., for brunch with a Mexican flair. Give Richard Sandoval and his team their due: They've certainly done Georgetown proud.

It's not easy replacing a legend (The Third Edition, circa 1969) but El Centro D.F. has done wonders in its first year & a half. For starters, it feels like it's been here a long time: This, despite some marked improvements in design (love the new floors, and the wall of unassuming blue lights on the main level.) It seats 200+ (including the outdoor patio upstairs) but maintains the coziness of its longtime predecessor. Plenty of dark woods and comfy booth backs/chairs; although it's not easy to squeeze through, when it's busy (which is pretty much all the time.)

Chips & Salsa

El Centro D.F. still has that post-graduate student vibe, and appears to cater to that demographic with its music (All-American Rejects, Blink 182.) Looking around the room, I couldn't help but feel every one of my 46 years. Before you say, "Aw, poor Peter," allow me to clarify. The energy here (and there's lots of it) is more conducive to parties of six, eight and more... versus little 'ol me or a couple of lovebirds in the corner. Thankfully, the attentive staff takes a laid back approach with service, which matches the atmosphere perfectly (without skipping a beat.)

Picadillo Empanada

That beat begins with a superb pairing of complimentary Chips & Salsa. The chips are crunchy and more substantial than most other places; and the salsa, hearty & rustic. Tasty as they are, be careful not to eat too many... especially before a Bottomless Brunch ($35 with endless drinks too!) There's a two-hour limit; but that's more than enough time to try half the menu, if you're so inclined. And why not, with such a wide & varied selection?

Tacos! Carnitas, Egg & Chorizo, Barbacoa & Steak (l to r)

I started with Mexican "Benedict," a creative ensemble of poached egg, pork carnitas, and a blanket of glorious green salsa verde... atop a bed of silky smooth black bean purée. For a first dish, it's literally perfection on a plate. In fact, despite the kitchen's best efforts, nothing else could surpass it for pure tastiness. The verde was fresh & incredible, and the addition of pickled onions - "icing on the cake." It's also beautiful to behold... with the less-exciting colors brown (carnitas) and black (beans) hidden underneath. Kudos for serving the beans as a purée, as the overall texture is best described as creamy throughout. A+, and that's just the beginning.

Shrimp Ceviche

Up next, Picadillo Empanada, a combo of ground beef, carrots, peas and potatoes tucked inside a boat-like shell, dressed to the nines. The filling was sensational; but I found the exterior a tad too doughy, in place of a thinner, crispier crust that I prefer. It's also bigger and more filling than most empanadas, so be warned.


Speaking of filling, be on the lookout for not one, not two, not even three but four assorted tacos. Carnitas (cilantro, habanero salsa & pickled onions) was wonderful, but lacked punch. Almost instinctively, my friendly server Lou brought over a trio of dipping sauces. He passed along a friendly reminder that habanero was H-O-T; but I laughed him off, saying, "That's my favorite." It turned my Steak taco into a thing of beauty; although the heat took a few seconds to grab my attention. Impatient to a fault, I double-dipped, only to pay the price with a full glass of ice water minutes later. Word to the wise: If your server tells you it's hot, believe him.

Lesson learned, I passed on dipping my Egg & Chorizo taco into anything, allowing the chorizo, eggs and onions to do all the talking. Perhaps my taste buds were still on fire, but I didn't detect much natural heat from the chorizo. It's still a great breakfast taco; and odds are, I really couldn't taste anything straight away (I eat tacos pretty fast.) Regardless of perceived heat, it has great texture. Last but not least, Barbacoa (Lou's hearty recommendation) featuring Angus roast beef & pico de gallo, bathed in crema fresca. It's the messiest of the four by far; but the beef is amazing, and the flavor profile... literally off the charts. Once again, no sauce necessary.

After all that heat, it was time for something cold, but no less delicious. Time for El Centro's Shrimp Ceviche. Sporting no less than 10 chilled shrimp, it qualifies as the most generous ceviche in town; and the burst of citrus in every bite, places it on par with Oyamel for best tasting. Second word to the wise: Shrimp are deceivingly filling.

Cue dessert, which presents seven (mostly savory) choices conundrums. Since this was my first time here, I simply had to select Churros. You get three on a plate, served with both caramel and chocolate sauces. Any good? I've never had churros this light and crispy before. I'm used to denser versions; but churros are pastries, after all... so if anything, El Centro's are more authentic. The caramel sauce is gorgeous; but the last churro and a half disappeared all-by-their-lonesome. Evidently, lighter churros devour faster than their bulkier counterparts.

The final piece to this near-perfect puzzle is service, which started off slow, but avalanched to terrific in a hurry. Leo is one of those rare people whose excitement over food is infectious. I overheard him encouraging a table of six twenty-somethings to try every item on the menu. Perhaps one man's suicide is another's nirvana? Either way, it's nice to know you can, if you want to. Leo's advice was dead-on, and his timing... perfect. He was also incredibly nice. Many thanks. Also worth noting, manager Brendan, who stopped by on a couple of occasions to talk Caps hockey and local music with the sole patron dining alone (me.) That's the kind of extra attention that turns a good brunch into something special. El Centro D.F. definitely qualifies as the latter.