DOWN MEXICO WAY
Lauriol Plaza
[from December 1999 issue]


If you are new to the Washington scene, you probably won't know much about the history of some of the local restaurants. Not surprisingly, several old-timers have become immensely popular, have prospered, and then flushed with success, have moved on to bigger, if not better, quarters.

One of these success stories is Lauriol Plaza, which has re-emerged in much larger digs up the block on 18th Street. It's got great Spanish food, people have often remarked, and that appeals to the Latino heart in us all.

Actually, what this new Lauriol Plaza has (and the old one may have had as well), is a concentration of Tex-Mex grub: all Tex-Mex food on the left side of this menu, as the waiter said. Actually, the whole menu is a Latino mix: some Caribbean (read "Cuban" mostly), some Tex-Mex, and two (maybe three) classic Spanish entrées (a paella and a zarzuela). The only exception is the Sunday brunch--which people have also said is Lauriol Plaza's best meal of the Week--for during a few fleeting hours, you'll find some standard Western breakfast fare (Eggs Benedict and Eggs Florentine, for example), plus seven Latino dishes, starring huevos rancheros (that home-on-the-range dish of eggs fried/poached in salsa) and chorizo con huevos (Mexican sausage with eggs).

Frankly curious about this venerable institution, I went to the new place with high expectations and a very big appetite, anticipating colorful Spanish decor and luscious Spanish food--lobster in green sauce, roast lamb, grilled baby pig and new potatoes, wonderful squid, sopa de ajo.

Surprise: The restaurant (in a new building on the site of a one-time liquor store and parking lot) has the antiseptic look of a well-scrubbed elementary school building without any flamenco flash. True, there's a mural entitled "Feria de Sevillia" (sic) at one end of the main floor and a tortilla-making machine at the other. But if you are looking for atmosphere, head to their sister restaurant, Cactus Cantina, which fairly throbs with a Tex-Mex beat.

In fact, for much livelier food in more generous servings, Cactus Cantina is a better bet. For example, Lauriol Plaza's tortilla soup comes as an unmemorable broth littered with shreds of beet-colored and blue-corn tortillas, bits of red pepper and tomato quarters, a dollop of melted cheese, and a wedge of corn on the cob. Maybe the Peruvian-style ceviche, the Caribbean tostones, or even the clichéd quesadilla or nachos would make a bigger and better impression.

To paella or not to paella? Well, not this lunch, and a good thing, too: The simple order of a la carte chicken tacos and a single chile relleno with a side of frijoles took about half an hour to get served. But the beans saved the day: At perfection, they were smooth, rich, and sprinkled with just a pinch or two of cumin or coriander. Lauriol's chile relleno also rates a few hearty "olés" for its melty cheese filling and properly crisp coating.

Hmmm . . . and then dessert. With more time and energy, one might think of ordering their cajeta (a caramelized milk "pudding") to see if it's the real thing, one of Mexico's culinary treasures. But in DC, time flies, and I couldn't wait to find out

Lauriol Plaza, 1835 18th St.; 387-0035. Mon.-Thu., 11:30am-11pm.; Fri. & Sat., 11:30am-midnight; Sun., 11:30am-11pm. Price: entrées $6.95 to a combo dish at $37.95 for two. Major credit cards accepted




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