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Photos By Sarah Gerrity, Words By Logan Hollers

El Centro D.F., one of Georgetown’s few truly affordable, everyday options, is adding some new menu items based on the staff’s recent trip to Guadalajara, Mexico. Having never been to Mexico, I have no idea if these dishes are truly authentic. Having been to El Centro D.F., I am certain that these dishes are delicious.

Twice per year, Richard Sandoval sends his chefs to a different region in Mexico to explore the area’s culinary and cultural heritage; the most recent trip was the impetus for the new “Destination Guadalajara” menu, highlighting dishes that show the story and experience of the Guadalajara region. Each new plate was influenced by something the El Centro chefs saw, ate, or experienced while on their trip.

Before you dive into the new menu, get in the spirit with one of El Centro’s featured cocktails; skip the Watermelon-Infused Margarita (a little too sweet), and head instead for the Spiña, a great combination of sweet and spice that combines pineapple and serrano chili-infused tequila, agave nectar, and fresh lime juice. The housemade chili-ginger mix coating the rim works perfectly when stirred into the drink itself.

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New appetizers include braised beef taquitos and El Centro’s take on a shrimp cocktail. The taquitos, the chefs’ take on a traditional Mexican flauta they encountered their first night on the trip, are stuffed with beef cheek (brined then braised, so it stays ropy and tender) and set on a creamy, surprisingly spicy black bean puree. A corn salsa fresca balances the fried-ness with a little brightness and acid.

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Better still is the shrimp cocktail, based on a bagged snack from a street vendor in Guadalajara. Perfectly poached shrimp (Seriously. Perfectly poached. Rubbery, overdone shrimp is haggard.) are tossed with cucumbers, sliced red onion, and avocado in a tart and spicy homemade cocktail sauce. This was the dish of the meal for me. Simple, elegant, awesome.

Empanadas de platano, basically a fried plantain turnover, are the most labor-intensive of the new dishes – each empanada is made to order. Stuffed with sweet, ripe plantains that battle for first billing, the star of this dish is actually the plum mole resting underneath; deeeeep, rich flavors of chocolate, dried chili peppers, nuts, and dark bread…stuff’s legit.

Too much out of the deep-fryer? Snag an order of the heirloom tomato salad with pickled corn salsa, inspired by the chefs’ trips to the local markets in Guadalajara, where they were super impressed with the amount and variety of the fresh produce on display. Listen, I get it – it’s tomatoes, cut up and plated. Sounds simple, right? Two things, however, set El Centro’s dish apart: goat cheese croutons (as good as they sound) and a charred tomato vinaigrette. The former are balls of goat cheese rolled in panko and fried just, *just* to the point of almost melting the cheese; the latter involves blackening tomatoes in the oven, adding them to Mexican olive oil and some spices, and blending it all together. Definitely stealing this idea, as I was basically licking the plate to get at the rest of that vinaigrette. Outstanding dish.

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Appetizers are great and all, but any Mexican joint worth its chilis is made or broken on the tacos, right? Three new versions grace the Destination Guadalajara menu, each worthy of your time.
First among equals is the pork chicharron with guacamole and pickled onion; pork shoulder that’s marinated, then boiled, then fried, then tossed with lime and salt. Time consuming? Sure. Delicious? Oh yeah. Salty, crunchy, fatty, porky…kind of all my favorite things wrapped in a corn tortilla.

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The other meat option, listed as “Lamb Skirt Steak”, is actually lamb belly (shhh, the chefs renamed it so us gringos wouldn’t be scared off). The belly is confited (cooked low and slow in fat), then crisped up on the plancha for each order. Just as rich and fatty (in a good way) as the pork, these are a bit more restrained in flavor, bringing just enough lamb-y goodness to the forefront to keep the bite interesting and offering the traditional cilantro and diced onion on top to cut through the grease. As if we hadn’t had enough lamb lately.

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Finally, for non-carnivores, the chefs wanted to offer a dish that still brought those deep, satisfying umami flavors – enter the vegetarian tacos, a mix of roasted mushrooms and zucchini squash. According to the chef, this dish was based on the confluence of street markets with tons of fresh produce and late-night taquerias (which, as they tell it, were the site of numerous 4 a.m., tequila-fueled menu planning sessions). Adding to the earthy vegetables is a crispy cheese “pancake” (ish) inside the taco and chopped grilled scallions on top. Great vegetarian option.

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There was a chocolate cigar dessert with espresso gelato, too, but chocolate’s gross and coffee’s gross and the dessert itself was undeniably phallic. I did, however, respect the technique; as the chefs told us, “People in the U.S. need to realize that Mexican food is more than just sloppy tacos – there’s actually some very polished, refined techniques in the Mexican culinary scene.”

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Everyone else raved about it, so maybe don’t listen to me and give it a shot – coconut cake wrapped in chocolate and dusted with chocolate powder, cocoa nibs for crunch, and (local!) Dolcezza gelato that my dining companions said was a great pair with the chocolate itself. Like I’d know.

Trips to Mexico sound rad, and if it keeps the El Centro D.F. crew making dishes like those on the new Destination Guadalajara menu, everyone wins. I’ll see you there, Spiña in hand.

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