Tequila, tacos and tamales!

Mexicali Blues
2933 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA
If there is one word for this restaurant, it is authentic. From its rope door handle to its authentic Mexican, Salvadoran and Central American food, this Arlington restaurant offers the best of everything. The food, atmosphere, service and Washington Post’s “2002 Best Bargain” award prove this restaurant is not too good to be true.

Patrons are welcomed by the bright splash of colors painted on the walls. Green, pink, yellow, orange and blue are all over this restaurant. The tables, chairs, walls, the bar – everything screams with color. You can sit inside, outside along Wilson Boulevard for a breeze or at the bar.

The restaurant is small, so come early to avoid a long wait. That means you can’t hop on the orange line and Metro out to Clarendon at 10:30 p.m. and hope to get a table on Friday. Still, you can probably squeeze your way into a spot at the small bar. Get a shot of tequila, “the only true Mexican appetizer,” or a fresh lime margarita. But any wait here is worth it. During the summer, get a table outside – the sun will be low – and have a nice dinner in this trendy Clarendon neighborhood.

With a cold Dos Equis from the bar, start your meal off with the complimentary chips and salsa. It’s easy to fill up on these because the chips are served warm and the salsa is freshly made. Make this your appetizer by adding some guacamole. But this isn’t the dip you buy at Provisions – Mexicali makes an extra spicy mix of this green avocado goodness.

Come hungry and start off with the Yuca con Chicharron. Yuca is a root used as the base of tapioca. But that’s not the Mexicali way. Here it is either boiled or fried (and, as usual, the fried is better) and served with fried pork, marinated cabbage and salsa. It might sound weird, but this appetizer is delicious.

Now for the Salvadoran specialties – the pupusas, the tamales and the tamal de elote. The fluffy pupusas are handmade and heavenly. They come with your choice of stuffing – pork and cheese, beans and cheese or plain cheese. Order two because one won’t be enough. And definitely have a tamal de elote. This sweetened yellow corn isn’t quite like corn pudding and it’s not quite corn mush. The corn is fluffy, sweet, wrapped in a husk and served warm with sour cream. The corn is perfectly complemented by the sour cream, making it a favorite of the restaurant and one of, if not the best, Mexicali dishes.

If you want a Mexican specialty, get some tacos. Fillings include your choice of grilled steak, seasoned pork, sausage, beans and cheese and, for the brave, lengua – tongue. At a price of three for $6.95, no one can resist. Other Mexican dishes include the traditional enchiladas and sopes. Try a flauta – a corn tortilla filled with beef, pork, chicken or cheese, rolled up and then fried.

Any combination of Salvadoran and Mexican specialties is a good choice, and your wallet will thank you – the Salvadoran dishes range from $1.50 to $2.25 and the Mexican specialties are $6.75-$7.25. But why not have four or five? Get the El Garcia entree and you can choose any combination of these specialties, plus a side of rice and refried beans for $10.95. Other entrees include carne asada (thinly sliced, marinated steak) and puerco al speton (marinated pork), but the best choice is the El Garcia because you get a taste of everything.

Vegetarians, have no fear, you can easily find a full meal here. Every dish has a vegetarian option of just being stuffed with beans and cheese (sorry, vegans). Don’t worry about the beans; they aren’t made with bacon flavoring but still are delicious.

The one bad thing about this restaurant is the bathroom. There’s only one and it’s smack-dab in the middle of the restaurant. While this isn’t that bad, think twice if you are modest. The door is made of textured glass so, while you can’t see clearly through it, you can definitely see that a little something-something is going on in there. If you aren’t a true exhibitionist or brave enough to take this facility on, skip the water, get a margarita and don’t break the seal.

You’re not finished until you cleanse your pallet with something sweet. While you could order some home-made flan, instead pay your Mexicali check and head two doors down to Lazy Sundae, an ice cream store run by the same owners.

The Mexicali way is in full effect at Lazy Sundae, too – all ice cream is made from scratch at the store. The traditional chocolate is very good, but be adventurous and try one of their unusual flavors, like maple and Grapenuts, honeycomb or ginger spice.

So get your senses ready for the color, the music, the taste and the crowd. Mexicali Blues is the place to go if you’re in a happy mood and don’t want it to end. Grab some friends, some comfortable clothes and get ready for the best Mexican this side of the Beltway.

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