Eating Around Town – El Chucho

3313 11th Street, NW

This edition of Eating Around Town was written by Abbey Becker. Abbey previously wrote about Cashion’s Eat Place. She lives near Eastern Market.

If you’re looking for authentic Mexican food, El Chucho (3313 11th Street NW) is not the place for you. But you’d likely know that anyway if you’ve heard anything about the Columbia Heights hangout.

When I went on a humid Monday night that was threatening rain, the upstairs patio was empty. The downstairs, however, was packed and boisterous at 8pm. (The fact that it was hora feliz–happy hour–all night certainly didn’t hurt.) If you’re looking to catch up with a friend and have a quiet meal, I’d recommend going somewhere else.

As I watched metal trays of tacos being delivered to diners around me at the bar and high-top tables, it was clear that much of what El Chucho is about is the show it puts on. Kitschy elements were sometimes understated: the frozen margarita machine behind the bar circulating not drink mix margarita syrups and ice, but house-made lime and strawberry habanero flavors, and the ceramic dolls on a top shelf by the bar, were fun touches that you might not notice if you weren’t looking. Other times, the design slapped you in the face–instead of a ladder to reach the top shelves of liquor behind the bar, bartenders had to climb knotted ropes reminiscent of elementary school gym class to hoist themselves up to grab a bottle. While this seems fun to diners, I can’t imagine that the bartenders particularly enjoy doing this all the time.

I like that El Chucho isn’t trying to be authentic or run-of-the-mill, though. The restaurant understands that real Mexican food can be found likely a few steps away in Columbia Heights, so it doesn’t try to compete. All of the staff wear plaid, and you’d be more likely to hear their soundtrack in a U Street or Columbia Heights bar than at El Rinconcito II a few blocks away.

Continues after the jump.


When it comes to the food, El Chucho sticks to its individual spin. It’s owned by Jackie Greenbaum, who is also the proprietor of Jackie’s in Silver Spring. She let Jackie’s chef, Diana Davila-Boldin, run with the menu and create her interpretation of Mexican street food. While you can order a regular margarita, you can also have one made with ginger. Want salt with that? Choose from regular or chile-lime. My margarita, the El Codo, was on tap.

Because it was happy hour, my friend and I ordered more than we normally would. The guacamole comes with chips and a bonus side of salsa. I thought the guac could have used some lime and salt, maybe a little garlic, but for $5 at happy hour, it was a good deal. The elote callejero ($2.50; $4 all other times)–grilled corn on the cob covered in brown butter aioli, cotija cheese, cilantro, and a bit of cayenne or chili powder (I couldn’t tell which)–was definitely my favorite dish. If you’ve never had elote before, definitely order it here, even if it isn’t the discounted price.

We also tried the chimichangas con chimichurri ($7), which were stuffed with mushrooms, cabbage, beans, and chihuahua cheese. Pretty bland, and I wouldn’t recommend them. The same goes for the chicken tacos. The chicken was bland and soggy, and the dominant flavor was the spicy-ish topping. The al pastor tacos are not what al pastor is meant to be, but I liked them anyway. The pork is ground up, but it’s saucy and flavorful, topped with white onion and cilantro, and served with a lime wedge. I appreciated that all tacos come two to an order and the tortillas are double-layered.

If you’re here when it’s not happy hour, well…don’t expect to get out cheap. The guacamole is usually $8 or $9, the tacos are $5-$6 for two, and the tortas, though large, range from $10-$14. While these prices aren’t expensive for DC, they’re expensive for Mexican food. And while I had a good time and left pretty full, I don’t know if it would be worth it for me to come back when it’s not happy hour and Room 11 is across the street.

43 Comment

  • I love this place – I would say they have the best margaritas in the city. The tacos are very average, but the tortas are awesome, and the kitchen has always accommodated when I asked to put a fried egg on the jamon torta. I second the recommendation for the elote – it’s awesome.

    I don’t get the “I don’t know if it would be worth it for me to come back when it’s not happy hour and Room 11 is across the street.” Room 11 is great, and is something COMPLETELY different than El Chucho. I also will run up a bill a lot faster at Room 11.

    I personally enjoy having another quality option along this part of 11th.

    • When I mentioned Room 11, I just meant that the food is overall better there (in my opinion). If I was to clarify, I’d say that if I was in the neighborhood and wanted to go to dinner, I’d often choose Room 11 over El Chucho. I’m less bothered by the prices at Room 11 because the food, cocktails, and service are so excellent.

      • Thanks for clarifying – and I agree with you completely. Room 11 is pretty excellent!

        I love Monday’s at El Chucho – half off tacos and $3 Tecate tall boys. Last time I was there I had dinner and a beer for $12. Hard to beat that.

  • I know I’m splitting hairs and it’s immaterial to the overall review, but I was there at the exact same time as you (the weather you describe was this part Monday). Yes, the downstairs was packed, but the patio was far from empty. The entire time I was there — probably 7:30-9:00 — all but one or two small tables were full.

    • Fair enough. It LOOKED empty from the street…clearly, my reporting could use a little follow-through! How’s the patio? Is it quieter than the downstairs?

      • Yeah, I know what you mean — it looked quiet from the street, or at least quiet relative to the downstairs (which definitely was packed). The patio was nice — it’s covered, and even though we were seated closest to the street at the edge of where the roof stopped, we didn’t get any rain drips or anything. There’s some nice, funky decor. It seems to only be seated, so you don’t have lots of people standing around like you did downstairs that night.

      • Hi Abby, yeah the patio was really nice — lively but we could have a conversation in normal voices and enjoy the view and cool muggy weather as well (I was with Drew). In fact we had been thinking of leaving before we got a seat on the patio.

        As far as your overall review, I pretty much agree with you — come for the elotes and the happy hours. The chimichanga I’ve had before and you’re right, it’s pretty bland, as well as some of the other burrito type stuff. I liked the chicken taco more than you and Drew but it’s nothing amazing. I really liked the calabacita taco.

        Since I’m in the area, I’ll happily stop by for an elote and $3 Tecate, but maybe not a full meal.

  • Authentic or not, I think it’s the best Mexican food in DC.

  • Please tell me where I can find “real” Mexican food in Columbia Heights. (I’m not talking about Salvadoran interpretations of Mexican food.) I think El Chucho is more authentic than most.

    • I’ve heard Taqueria Distrito Federal is decent. And Taqueria Juquilita is thoroughly Mexican! I guess Mama Chuy DC would qualify as Mexican food, and it’s close-ish to Columbia Heights.

      • Sure, if you want all your food prepped over their 3 compartment dish sink. Place is disgusting and I don’t care how nice their owner is. Won’t ever go back.

    • For authentic — Taqueria Distrito Federal on 14th and Oak. No liquor, though.

      • +1 to Taqueria DF… very good example of a Mexico City-style taqueria. One of the things I like best about El Chucho is that it’s got it’s own unique thing going.

    • on 14th St. just a few blocks south from Distrito Federal there’s a parking lot with two tents set up, one with a Mexican Flag and the other a Salvadorian flag. There’s a lady under the Mexican tent making tacos and tortas and such. I grew up on the TX/Mexico border and have had plenty of Mexican street food: it wasn’t quite that good, but still in the same general calibre, complete with the cabbage, radishes, green salsa, etc… That’s the best Mexican food I’ve found in DC so far.

    • pablo .raw

      Authentic… hmm. I ate in the streets of Mexico DF and other cities. Not CoHi, but I think the American Indian Museum has very good Mexican food but expensive.

  • Really enjoyed El Chucho, but hope they’ll take foie gras off their menu.

  • El Chucho is fantastic. Great frozen drinks, great tacos and great corn on the cob…chips and salsa are great too. Hands down my favorite go-to spot on 11th Street….outside of the Pint, of course. The staff is great every time I come in.

  • Jackie is great! Super friendly during the rennovations when I’d bike by and ask how much longer and even nicer during opening week. It’s no my regular circuit of casual favorite restaurants. The tortas are great as are the margaritas. The elote is out of this world.
    One complaint is that I wish more chips came with the order of chips/salsa. The more chips I eat the more margaritas I drink – so more profit for Jackie.

    A great addition to DC – thanks El Chucho!

    • I’ve had a similar chips/guac ratio mismatch at El Chucho in the past. But last time I was there, our server brought us more chips without even being asked. Definitely support this new initiative!

    • hispanicandproud

      I agree with andy2. They are pretty cheap with the chips.

  • The chicken tacos are definitely bland and not that great. The al pastor tacos is not what pastor is meant to be? How so?

  • This place is horrible. The worst service ever. When I went with 3 buddies we waited an hour and were offered either a table for 3 or another hour wait. We took the table and when a table for 4 opened they wouldn’t let us move even though we hadn’t ordered yet. Food was crap.

  • Please tell me you’re not comparing El Chucho to the area’s Salvadoran restaurants to judge the authenticity of their Mexican food? And please also don’t tell me that it has to be cheap and divey to be “authentic” Mexican?

    • Hey Abbey,

      That was a good review. Respectful, well written and to the point.

      Don’t worry about responding to the peanut gallery. You can’t please everyone as a critic, especially the PoP commentariat.

      Keep up the good work.

  • sunsquashed

    The drinks at El Chucho are excellent, but the food is lackluster. I would love it if someone could combine the drinks at El Chucho with the food at Mama Chuy’s (which has probably the worst margarita in town).

  • Umm, the chimichangas are probably the best thing on the menu. I could bathe in that sauce.
    The guac, yeah, it’s under seasoned the couple times we’ve had it. I do love their salsa though. Perfect amount of heat and depth.

  • I liked the food, but it isn’t necessarily worth waiting for if there’s a line. It was also on the expensive side for what you get.

    While Rinconcito isn’t exactly comparable, it is also a better value for food that is in the same culinary ballpark.

  • I found El Chucho to be par for the course for DC Mexican – forgettable.

  • I love both El Chucho and El Rinconcito II, but I don’t think they are comparable. El Chucho is great for drinks and small snacks (not a full meal–too expensive) on a weeknight, and El Rinconcito II is great for a giant plate of “Mexican” food (I mean, their Salvadorian food is what is authentic there, right?) on a Saturday evening when you realize you accidentally didn’t eat for 8 hours and are starving. I am happy to have both in the neighborhood and frequently them often!

  • Many hits and a few misses. Most of the food and drinks I had were quite good. The atmosphere was fun. Overall, I totally love this place but it’s so damn crowded (haven’t been back since the deck opened) that it’s hard to get in.

  • Pretty much nailed it. This place is great but only at happy hour prices, in my opinion.

  • I think it’s really funny that the review says El Chucho is definitely not authentic Mexican food but there are lots of places in Columbia Heights that have it. Rinconcito is great and so is D.F. and other places- but most of those places menus feature tex-mex or Salvadorian food with a Mexican label. The elote, tacos, and flautas at Chucho are WAY more authentic than those place, given that you could actually find meals prepared that way IN Mexico! Nothing is more authentic then Juquilita, but Chucho is a pretty good try.

  • My family and I adore this El Chucho. Because we have to pay to feed four of us, we aim for the happy hour, and order one of everything on the happy hour menu plus two of a few things. Every single employee has ALWAYS treated us perfectly, and they routinely cover each others’ backs. They consistently smile, and they accommodate our special requests for the 4 and 6 year olds (like the corn without too many of the fixings). We find it homey and warm. But I do, so much, miss that hotdog. Our 4 year old broke into tears when we couldn’t get a table because he likes it so much.

  • not happy about them cutting the weekend happy hour

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